Ruth Davidson MSP – Equal Marriage: From Scotland With Love

Ruth Davidson MSP fiving Amnesty NI annual Belfast Pride lecture 2016Ruth Davidson MSP, leader of the Scottish Conservative Party, delivered Amnesty NI’s annual Belfast Pride lecture this evening in The MAC. After a day of meeting LGBT groups, Rev David McIlveen and local politicians, she took to the stage to speak for twenty minutes before taking questions from the audience.

You can read her prepared remarks below and listen back or watch the livestream of the event.

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The debate on Equal marriage is not easy. It was never going to be. Where areas of love meet the law, where belief, commitment and faith collide with legislation, the waters will always be difficult to navigate.

But I believe in marriage. I believe that marriage is a good thing. I saw the evidence of that every day growing up in a house full of love. And while my own family had all of the stresses and strains common to all, there was never any doubt or question or fear in my mind that our togetherness was insecure.

And the bedrock of that stability and security was my parents’ marriage. And that stability helped me and my sister to flourish and have confidence that we be whoever we wanted to be. More than 40 years married and my parents still love each other – and I look at what they have and I want that too and I want it to be recognised in the same way.

And that recognition matters.

That’s a couple of paragraphs from the start of a speech I made in Holyrood at the first reading of the Equal Marriage bill nearly three years ago.

I like to imagine that I have a flair for the dramatic…

It was the first time I’d really spoken out loud about why equal marriage was important. Why the apartheid message of ‘same but different’; why the facsimile of civil partnership wouldn’t do.

How we – as a country – needed to wipe away the last legal barrier that said gay people were lesser than their peers.

I’ll be honest; I was absolutely bricking it.

In Scotland we’d had much of the same debate as I’ve seen in other countries. The same fears to overcome, the same religious elements to opposition. Issues within my own party between those who were supportive and those who opposed.

I had an inbox that was groaning under the weight of emails for one side or the other, running from polite requests for my position to screams of betrayal and eternal damnation. Made worse after one of the opposition campaigning organisations – without either my knowledge or consent – sent thousands of flyers through letterboxes in Glasgow with a picture of my face on them and the details of my constituency office telling people opposed to make their position known to me. My constituency assistant was shouted at and threatened.

So you can understand why I was a bit nervous before getting up to speak.

Add in to that a family situation which had taken some time to get to the stage of acceptance and support we’re at now, a personal position where my long term partner who I’d discussed marriage and children with – and put off a civil partnership until we could get the real thing with – had dumped me a year before so I was alone and lonely and thinking that as head of the Tories in Scotland I’d stay that way forever – ‘cos y’know, you can’t go on match dot com unless you want it to hit the papers.

Take in all of that and it was a pretty hard speech to make. If you look it up on YouTube, you can actually see me physically shaking at the start of it.

But it’s a speech I wanted to make. It’s one I felt I needed to. Because the points I wanted to discuss were important ones.

And they boiled down to this – Yes, equal marriage is important for those couples who want to be able to have their commitment realised in this way right now.

But passing this legislation is every bit as important – and more – for those young gay people who will walk into the school playground tomorrow, knowing that the parliament of their country has stood up for them and said that they are no different from their classmates and they deserve the same rights as everybody else.

And that’s why this legislation matters – because right now, we tell our young people you are good enough to serve in our armed forces; you are good enough to care in our hospitals; you are good enough to teach in our schools. But you are not good enough to marry the person you love and who loves you in return.

That relationship – your relationship – is something different; it is something less; your commitment is denied.

And it’s that idea of difference; of alien; of other that is at the root of all bullying including homophobic bullying.

It is at the root of all the fear and shame and despair our LGBT young people are made to feel. It is damaging to them; it is damaging to our communities and it is damaging to the type of country we want to be.

Don’t get me wrong. Change has happened. I’m 37. When I was born, homosexuality was still a crime in Scotland. People could be prosecuted and punished for being in a loving same-sex relationship.

Now, those same couples can now be recognised in marriage.

But, just because things are easier, it doesn’t make them easy.

Right now in Northern Ireland more than 90% of young LGBT people say they face homophobic language in their school.

According to the Rainbow project, in Northern Ireland, 65% of young gay men say they’ve been subjected to abuse.

Nearly two-fifths become homeless at some point.

17% of those bullied received death threats.

Over 1 in 3 attempted suicide.

These are our sons and daughters, our brothers and sisters – and they are made to feel so much fear and guilt and shame.

And we can make things better for them.

Equal marriage won’t fix everything by itself; it won’t stop the workplace bully; it won’t change the unaccepting parent but it will make a difference. It will make every couple in this country equal in the eyes of the law.

It will allow every child to grow up knowing that no matter where they live and no matter who they love there is nothing they can’t do.

And it will accelerate the coming together and healing that has happened in so many ways across so many communities in the last few years.

Equal marriage is part of being a modern country.

It’s not just about looking across the water or gazing south of the border.

This is a movement across the free world.

And it’s one that has inspired joy and celebration; it has led to a lightening of the national mood, to an exhalation of a tension that people hadn’t even realised was there; It is a statement of intent that where you have been excluded you are now embraced.

In New Zealand, it sparked a spontaneous and beautiful chorus of an old Maori love song breaking out in parliament.

In Ireland it inspired thousands to board planes and boats to go home to vote. To take to social media and tell the world who they were voting for. Their cousin. Their friend. The country they wanted their home to be.

In Iceland, the Prime Minister waiting not a minute more than necessary and marrying her partner the very same day equal marriage became law.

Spain, Portugal, the Netherlands, Belgium, America, France, Finland, Scotland, England, Wales and more – in each of these countries, not only have we seen public opinion swing firmly behind equal marriage.

We’ve seen the same moment in each country’s history. A moment of release, of liberation, where life-long couples can finally marry, where people are told that all are equal under the law, where the cause of freedom is advanced and lives made better, where tears of frustration and hurt turn to tears of joy, where years of man-made inequality are stripped away until all that’s left is the love between two people.

It is an amazing moment.

And to me it speaks not just of personal identity but of national identity too.

Increasingly, equal marriage is simply an accepted part of being a mature democracy.

It’s become part of the fabric of liberal, western states, that eventually will mean that whether you grew up in Belfast or Broughty Ferry – or in Omagh or Orlando – you have the same rights.

It’s every bit as important – and normal – as every other aspect of individual liberty in a free society.

We don’t have to look far around the world to see threats to those values. But I think we’re also starting to see a more muscular defence of those values from previously surprising quarters.

More and more companies are making a point of siting themselves not just where it suits their business – but where it suits their staff.

There is, of course, one industry in Northern Ireland that benefits from Northern Ireland’s position on equal marriage.

Travel agents.

But for a foot-loose employer who can contribute to a local economy, why would you base yourself some of your employees can’t be married? If you’re a global business, deploying people around the world, why would you send them to a place if some of them aren’t equal?

It’s also about where you find the smart, young, mobile, educated workforce.

How many people have got on a boat or a plane to go to college or uni or start work away from here because it’s easier to be your whole self somewhere else?

How many of Northern Ireland’s daughters and her sons have chosen to build a life in friendlier climes?

Surely the leaders of this land, from whatever community they hail, should wish to send out the message that you are welcome here. This is your home. You are valued. You are safe. You are respected. And you are loved.

But it’s not just the case that equal marriage is a good thing.

It also need cause no fear.

In countries all round the world, after the passage of equal marriage, after that initial explosion of joy, it very quickly feels normal – like equal marriage should always have been there.

In most countries, support for equal marriage continued to rise after it became law – as people looked on it and saw it was good.

To talk of Scotland again, when we passed equal marriage for some people we changed their whole world. But for those worried that they were losing the world they knew, their fears didn’t materialise.

The sky didn’t fall in, the world still turned, the sea remained blue – and Scotland still lost at football.

But that doesn’t mean their fears weren’t sincerely held.

And we owe to those who take an opposing view to engage and explain. To discuss and persuade.

You don’t affect change by shouting down your opponents whose votes you need.

You affect change by stating your truth quietly and clearly; by challenging prejudice; by being open and welcoming and honest. And by tackling those arguments against, head on.

And in this debate, no matter the country in which it’s been held, the first two arguments are the same.

One – that by extending marriage to same-sex unions, the very concept is diluted.

And the second challenge is that we’re the authoritarians. That we are imposing our vision on someone else. That people with deeply-held convictions will be forced to take part in ceremonies which with they disagree. That institutions will be forced to act against their collective conscience. That people will have their faces rubbed in it by a shrill and illiberal gay lobby.

These two arguments are worth spending some time on Because they go to the heart of what it means to be a modern country, balancing rights and representation.

And because respectfully – I don’t think they stand up.

LGBT people arguing for marriage aren’t diminishing it as an institution. It is precisely because we value it that we want it open to all.

And extending marriage to same sex couples does nothing to diminish those unions that already exist.

A couple celebrating their golden wedding in Scotland feel no less married today than they did 3 years ago before equal marriage was introduced.

And a couple walking down the aisle in Broughty Ferry feel no less married than a similar couple in Belfast because Scotland has equal marriage and Northern Ireland doesn’t.

Marriage loses meaning not when it is offered to all, but when it is denied to some.

And on the second point of authoritarianism and imposition.

I am a practising Christian.

I care deeply about the role of the church in the public realm. I believe passionately it is a force for good. I don’t think we should drum religious views out of public debates. I might not always agree with every intervention churches make in politics, but I defend their right to do so.

Six weeks ago, I got engaged. I would love it if my church – the Church of Scotland – allowed me to get married in my own church and before the sight of God.

But I recognise that decision is not in my gift. It is entirely up to churches themselves to decide for whom they wish to conduct ceremonies to offer sacraments. And rightly so.

And equal marriage is no threat to freedom of religion, or the role of churches in society.

In Scotland, as in other countries, we made sure that as we passed equal marriage, we also protected the rights of religious groups.

That debate in Holyrood was so mature precisely because it recognised those rights.

The campaign in Northern Ireland calls for similar protections. It is specifically equal civil marriage that Amnesty and others have been calling for.

So there will be no churches forced to carry out same-sex services.

There will be no elders forced to go back on deeply-held beliefs.

Equality means just that – it does not mean one group imposing on another.

Now I would love, of course, more congregations and churches to recognise same-sex marriage.

But I recognise that it is the subject of theological debate and discussion.

That is good and healthy and natural. We’re sitting in a city that took generations of division and found a way to make electoral politics work, however much time and energy it takes.

So we can surely find a way to let people hold their deepest social convictions – and still open up our oldest social institution to all.

The simple truth is, freedom of conscience and the institution of marriage are not undermined by equal marriage.

By handing rights to one group denied them, you are taking no rights away from those who already enjoy the same.

Just as we can tackle these arguments against equal marriage, so we have to think about the manner and mechanism of a parliamentary debate.

Of course, in Northern Ireland, there is not just overwhelming public support, but also a parliamentary majority. This talk would be quite different – equal marriage would already have passed – were it not for the petition of concern.

Never has the phrase ‘we would win on a straight vote’ felt so ironic.

It’s not my place to comment on the parliamentary mechanisms, but I would say two things.

First of all, I’m not an elected representative in Northern Ireland. No-one’s voted for me. I can’t speak on any voters’ behalf.

But I am practicing Christian. I am a protestant. I am a Unionist. I am Scottish and British.

I am engaged to a Catholic Irishwoman from county Wexford who was educated by nuns.

For me, equal marriage isn’t about one religion or county or community.

It is about the people of Northern Ireland being afforded the same rights as everybody else.

And speaking as a protestant, a Presbyterian and a Unionist

I think Unionists and Presbyterians should feel they have moral permission to back equal marriage.

Not just because it’s no threat to traditional marriage or freedom of religion – but also because we know that it has backing from all parts of society: men, women, Catholic, Protestant, old, young, urban, rural, and we know that in the Assembly, members from across the parties support it.

So this isn’t a community issue.

I don’t come here as an MSP to tell MLAs how to do their job in Stormont – that would be an impertinence and discourtesy I wouldn’t much thank you for in reverse – but I do think it odd – at best – that the Assembly allows itself to fall further out of sync with cross-community opinion.

And as an outside observer, I admire the politicians of Northern Ireland for their ability to seek out the common ground, to reach out across the divide, to both take majority democratic decisions and to protect the rights of minorities – and I find it sad that an issue about recognising a minority and providing equal rights under the law isn’t seen for what it is.

And the second point is something that is best illustrated by one MLA, Trevor Lunn.

He opposed equal marriage when it first came to the Assembly.

But at the last vote in Stormont, he did what elected representatives are supposed to do: he represented. He listened to his constituents, to the voices and stories of the people who voted for him.

He listened to what it meant to grow up gay and realise that you could never marry, that his constituents were told that dream, that gold standard – that does not apply to you; you don’t get to have that. And Trevor Lunn changed his mind.

There is no shame in this: there should be only pride. History will give credit not just to those who campaigned for years for change, but also to those who in the event, made it happen.

It’s perhaps a different sort of courage – but courage it is, and we should recognise that.

I hope that many more MLAs may find themselves open to such a journey.

And I would say this to any who are wavering: add your voice, and it will be counted. Your vote will be tallied, and your name entered in the honour roll.

I don’t see why, in years from now, we shouldn’t tell our grandchildren about the part that all parties – every party, from both communities – played in making a better Northern Ireland.

And I believe that time is coming. And soon. With public support and parliamentary majority the waters are building and the dam will burst.

In Scotland, our Equal marriage bill took several months from first reading to the final vote. The day it passed, I had a Burns supper later that evening I was due to speak at.

And I read an extract from a letter Burns wrote to a friend the night before his 30th birthday. It said

“I myself can confirm, both from bachelor and wedlock experience, that Love is the Alpha and the Omega of human enjoyment. – All the pleasures, all the happiness of my humble Compeers, flow immediately and directly from this delicious source. – It is the spark of celestial fire which lights up the wintry hut of Poverty, and makes the cheerless mansion, warm, comfortable and gay.”

And while Burns might be suitable for talking of equal marriage in Scotland, I fear only Heaney will do here in Belfast.

“History says, Don’t hope
On this side of the grave,
But then, once in a lifetime
The longed-for tidal wave
Of justice can rise up,
And hope and history rhyme”

I truly believe that tidal wave is set to overflow and that you will, in short order, change history.

Thank you.

Alan Meban. Normally to be found blogging over at Alan in Belfast where you’ll find an irregular set of postings, weaving an intricate pattern around a diverse set of subjects. Comment on cinema, books, technology and the occasional rant about life. On Slugger, the posts will mainly be about political events and processes. Tweets as @alaninbelfast.

  • ruhah

    The ‘gold standard’ wished for is a interesting comment, Ruth and others yearn for social integration by achieving this redefinition of marriage. However, I wonder if Northern Ireland could be the first legislature to give both equal rights and crucially equal responsibilities. Might we reject the international notion of social fidelity and define marriage for homosexual unions here in the same terms as heterosexual union- legislating to include- ‘forsaking all others’. A crucial part of the gold standard which our present law in Northern Ireland recognises is an agreement to not have sex with anyone outside the marriage. If you wish to fight to be included in society’s concept of marriage, I trust we can agree upon laws which support it.

  • Granni Trixie

    RD belief in marriage seems to be based on experience which tells her that that marriage creates stability. Yet many couples who bring up children in a secure,lovng environment and who nurture each other are unmarried.
    I support SSM because people like Ruth appear to feel less equal and fulfilled In not having access to the status of marriage. That doesn’t mean that I think marriage ought to be considered the gold standard in relationships – as easily observed – many do not live up to their obligations to be faithful and cherish each other.

    I do think that it is unfair that unmarried couples are legally disadvantaged (inheritance tax etc, as thoroughly discussed on Slugger previously).

  • Ok, I’ll play along…

    Since at least one half of many, many heterosexual married couples do not observe the “crucial part” of this “law” (which is easily observed, as the previous poster already pointed out) I don’t think your argument makes any sense.

    And since 42% of heterosexual married couples (UK) can’t even keep the marriage together and opt for divorce under the existing “responsibilities” – on which the churches are largely, comparatively silent – I really don’t think there is any moral high ground to be found in what heterosexual couples “recognise” in their marital responsibilities or in the expectation of marriage upon those partaking.

  • A good point – there can be that lazy assumption in the debate and one well worth watching out for.

  • Granni Trixie

    I think it would be illuminating to tease out the influence of traditional religious teaching as impacts on moral worldview and SSM. I think RD
    shows real leadership and courage given she claims to be part of that ‘community’.

  • notimetoshine

    You see RD is making the classic conservative argument for SSM. The stability of family, makes people more careful etc etc

    Cameron made the same argument as did many of the Tories when SSM was being considered over the water.

    If it gets them to say yes, then why not I suppose.

  • Roger

    I think it’s unfair that single people and siblings who cohabit also have to subsidise married couples. Through taxes. Money and marriage should be divorced.

  • Scots Anorak

    Many people seem to miss the point that we are only dealing with civil marriage here. Religious marriage is something separate; indeed, in some countries, you even get married twice, weeks apart. It is not a crime to have sex with anyone before, during or after one’s marriage, and therefore clearly not part of any “gold standard”, whatever the cultural accretions (which were never particularly firm, given such practices as handfasting, getting married by declaration, selling one’s wife, etc.). By the same token, it is entirely the prerogative of the state to redefine civil marriage if it wishes to do so, and it is absolutely not an attack on religious freedom. Indeed, allowing for same-sex civil marriage will be welcomed by those faiths that wish to marry same-sex couples themselves; their numbers are of course increasing.

    By the way, perhaps it’s time that there were a compulsory “fact check” each time a petition of concern is used, starting with whether a given community would actually be disadvantaged by something and whether it even has a disproportionate interest.

  • kensei

    The only thing that irks me about this debate is the idea that the status of marriage is conferred by the State. The State may confer certain rights and privileges on married people, and it is a scandal that gay people cannot avail of those rights, but the State cannot define marriage. That is between you, your partner and your God. There is no piece of paper you can sign that will make you a marriage, it can only be done through a combination of love hard work and a decent amount of shouting at each other.

    Gay people should reject the idea that the State – here manned significantly by the DUP – is responsible for determining if they are married or not and should just get married. Have a party and invite your friends. Swap rings and promises. Keep those promises for the rest of your lives. Change the terms of the debate from stopping gay marriage to one about equal rights on a legal contract – because the people are already married.

  • notimetoshine

    I can’t see how anything will change in the short term. Obviously attitudes in both communities have shifted drastically, but the DUP must always be conscious of and fighting a rearguard action at the hard right of its support. One could argue that the DUP was able to see off the TUV during the last election, but any swing on gay marriage could make them very exposed in the next. That hard right and it’s uncompromising views may not be conducive to modern government but they might not have a choice.

    Why there can’t be a straight up vote in stormont over this is bloody ridiculous though. That way at least the DUP could be against any legislation, without blocking it. But then, unfortunately, a significant portion of the DUP (both its supporters and politicians) just can’t tolerate gay people, and they must block any advancement of their political agenda, even when it affects them not one iota.

  • grumpy oul man

    The SSM i attended in London had the forsake all others bit in it, why would it not? and i believe that having a affair is also grounds for Divorce in SSM as hetero unions
    I am unsure were your getting your facts from but SSM is subject to the same laws and conditions as hetero marriages.
    Perhaps a quick check of your facts might help in the future!

  • Lex.Butler

    No reference to the support the DUP receive from the Roman Catholic Church on their stance. I’m sure this is an oversight.

  • dodrade99

    I actually think if Ashers win their appeal it would make it easier for the DUP to move on (or at least not stand in the way of) gay marriage.

  • 05OCT68

    Holy Catholic Ireland voted for it, why would Catholics in the North vote differently?

  • cu chulainn

    It is in the interest of society to create stable families where children can be reared by their parents, as this ensures the continuation of society. I am not married but see this as a proper use of my taxes. I do not see subsidising homosexual relationships as a useful use of my tax dollars. While such relationships may be of interest to the people concerned they are no fundamental value to society that warrants other people subsidising them., That it is considering doing so is an indication of how society has lost any sense of values.

  • Roger

    I agree with you to an extent.
    However if one put a price tag on what marriage tax breaks cost and determined, say, that overall they cost 1 billion per year.
    And then one asked the question, if we (gov) had a billion extra, would we spend it in the exact same way as we spend it through marriage, I very strongly suspect the answer would be no.
    Value for money in supporting families could be much better served through deciding how to spend the 1 billion not based on whether people are married or not. That could be achieved through the divorce I mentioned.

  • Colm Heaney

    The Roman Catholic church can’t launch a petition of concern in the assembly.

  • 05OCT68

    Imagine the uproar if they could.

  • notimetoshine

    The Catholic church is an irrelevance on this issue. They are no longer their own communities moral guardians never mind anyone elses. Those from Catholic backgrounds are overwhelmingly in favour of same sex marriage.

    As for their support for the DUP, it’s not electorally significant, especially in terms of the DUPs core voting base, where one would imagine it could be a liability. Let’s face it the DUP doing a volte face on same sex marriage might annoy the Catholic church but that’s about all they could do, be annoyed.

    Obviously in the context of this post the Catholic Church was irrelevant. On a broader note I find myself increasingly bored with whataboutery, especially in posts like yours. This obsession with making sure that both sides are addressed and making sure neither comes out looking too good. The Catholics weren’t relevant o this post, but you still had to bring them up. No constructive analysis, no insightful comment…must do better

  • 05OCT68


  • grumpy oul man

    But few marriages nowadays seem to be stable, and what are you saying, no tax breaks for married couples unless you have children (i might go for that) and their are more than a few gay couples out there with children and why not a loving family is a loving family regardless of the sexuality of the parents.
    May i assume that you would have no problem ” Subsidizing” a couple in a gay marriage who had children either by Birth (yes gay people can have babies) adoption or long term fostering.

  • grumpy oul man

    any extra billions we have will no doubt go on that useless piece of nonsense called trident, that is the sort of use the Tories put any extra money towards, Kids are very far down the list.

  • Roger

    I suppose any discussion on spending can be shut down with that sort of deep insight.

  • grumpy oul man

    My point (which passed over your head) was, Well if you think the conservative governent is going to spend the odd spsre billion an anything that is actally needed then you sir do not understand history.
    Bombs or tax cuts for the rich is where your spare billion would go.