Marriage and Civil Partnership (Scotland) Bill: Stage 1

Part of the debate – in the Scottish Parliament on 20th November 2013.

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Photo of Alex Johnstone Alex Johnstone Conservative

I have heard many of my colleagues who are in the chamber today being asked why they got involved in politics. The most common answer is that they got involved in politics because they wanted to change the world. My most usual answer is that I got involved in politics because I thought that the world was changing too fast and I wanted to slow it down a bit. Perhaps that is the definition of conservative with a small c.

When I look at the proposals contained in the bill I see some specific issues that I hope to have time to address later, but I also see a general principle, which is to change the way in which we view marriage and to extend that to a greater, more complete range of people in our society. That is a principle that, at heart, I believe to be sound. My problem, however, is with the effect on the overall balance of our views on marriage and with why we have chosen to act in this way at this time to the exclusion of other possibilities.

I view marriage as an important cornerstone of our families and our society as a whole. During my lifetime, I have seen society begin to fall apart. I have seen families in instability, and I have seen individual children raised in difficult circumstances as a result. That is why I would argue that one of the priorities of the Parliament should be to strengthen families, to find ways to reinforce marriage and to reverse the trends of half a century and more in order to gain that stability. That is why I worry that we are making this policy a wrong priority at the wrong time.

During the conduct of its inquiry, the Equal Opportunities Committee, its members and all those who came before it treated the whole issue with a very high degree of mutual respect and maturity. The evidence that was given and the debate that took place were of the highest standard, and I commend the report that the committee produced. However, during its preparation and while we were taking evidence, I found that I had to dispute one or two issues.

Professor Curtice spoke about the level of public support. True enough—opinion polls indicate that support for the change is growing rapidly in society. I believe that similar polls also indicate that that is largely because people no longer have the care to commit to a particular policy. It may not be that people care more; it may be that people actually care less.

We have spoken about the redefinition of marriage. Other members have mentioned traditional marriage as a key element of what we have discussed. I believe that traditional marriage can be undermined by the proposed change. As a result, I ask the minister to say something either during the debate or before stage 2 about the other proposals that he has brought forward, such as the forthcoming review of same-sex civil partnerships. Is there any way that, during that process, he can consider how we might lend a hand to those people within families who require support to enjoy greater stability?

Elaine Smith raised the issue of tolerance. She was concerned that, once she had made her opinion public, she had suffered as a result. I have found that there is an extent, within the broader argument, to which that can happen—I have had some interesting emails—but that is just a measure of the passion that people hold within the debate. We need to promote tolerance through the debate, and we must ensure that it does not become a one-way street. It is important that that tolerance continues.

There is a requirement to protect the freedom of those who disagree with the change in legislation, whether they be religious bodies or staff in our public bodies, particularly teachers in our schools. I am worried that if we get this wrong we will create a situation that has certain parallels with the debate on section 28, which resulted in teachers, parents and pupils facing some very difficult circumstances.