The truth about social conservatives: politically they don’t matter

Left Strategy, Scottish Policy, World Policy Jul 26, 2012 Add a comment

Putting bishops on your front page and then believing they are important because they are on your front page is simple a delusion of the media. Over and over ‘culture wars’ turn out to be no such thing as Scotland adapts quickly and happily to liberal progress. Why do commentators still predict armageddon for liberal politicians?

First, three cheers for Nicola Sturgeon’s intervention on what was turning into a gay marriage fiasco. This was a simple matter of social justice and an important signifier about what kind of Scotland we want to live in. What I can’t understand is some of the analysis we’re hearing.

Let me just run through the history of ‘offending the social conservatives will doom you to hell for all eternity’. You may just remember that for a brief period it was the received wisdom of all that abolishing the ban on ‘promoting homosexuality in schools’ was a poisonous issue doing nothing but harm to all that touched it. Many commentators concluded with sage certainty that ‘many will never forget this act against them’. After all, there was the Daily Record, the fake referendum, the Catholic Church.

Today Scotland is strewn with the graves of those on either side who took to arms and fought to the death over the principle of whether ‘homosexuality’ should be ‘promoted’. Oh, actually, no it isn’t. The legislation passed, the manic hyperbole of the Catholic Church came to nothing (no ‘compulsory gay lessons’ after all) and no-one gave a monkies within the week.

Or what about civil partnerships? The furore was less but the claim remained: the social conservatives won’t stand for this. Except of course now we have the Bishops telling us this is the right solution and only ‘gay marriage’ is wrong. No culture wars, no families torn asunder. In fact not a peep. (On other ‘culture wars’ issue, the views of commentators were equally wrong – does anyone really oppose the ban on smoking in public places any more? We were told this was going to be decades of civil war.)

So why is it that now otherwise sensible opinion-formers think this time it is different, this time the damage is irreversible? There are some consistent lessons we are learning here. First and most important is that Scotland should reassess the myth of the ‘Catholic voter’. The evidence is fairly strong to suggest that the voting patters of Catholic voters relate no more to the positions of their church than do the voting patters of the Church of Scotland or others. It is simply not true that the Bishops command an obedient or acquiescent following that votes as they command. In fact, the voting patters of the catholic vote in Scotland and probably as liberal and left-of-centre as most groups.

And remember, other than obscurely-worded polls by the anti-gay lobby groups, two thirds of Scots actively back gay marriage. The assumption made by many is about strength of commitment; many believe that the ‘no’ side just care about this a lot more than the ‘yes’ side. But yet again, I have never seen any evidence for this. Of course there are a small number of highly-committed and highly-vocal opponents. But for some reason these are taken to be representative of the whole in a way that proponents aren’t. So a few hundred really angry devout Catholic pensioners are taken to be representative of the ‘no’ side where a few hundred really happy gay activists are not taken as representative of the ‘yes’ side.

Every time this happens the same thing ensues – progressive policies are passed, a few churchmen remain incandescent, the rest of us either smile contentedly and move on or shrug disappointedly and move on. But move on we do because the arguments against gay marriage are simply completely nuts. Society will not break down, men and women will not stop loving each other, children will not stop being born and God will not smite us all – at least no more than we have already suffered this ‘summer’.

On the other hand, I’ve already come across what is literally a world of positive coverage – newspapers all over the world are presenting Scotland as an open and liberal country. Remember, conservatives don’t travel all that much; the people who will flood into Edinburgh over the next month are not mainly Southern Baptists or Eastern European fundamentalists. Scotland’s interests are best served by the world seeing us as modern and liberal.

There is one last important analytical point here that it amazes me the commentators do not seem to understand. When it comes to politics, not all views are equal. This is just true and is a result of the structure of the political ecosystem. Bishops get to have a view that is newsworthy in their own right and constitute one of the few groups who can consistently command the front pages by saying the same thing over and over for five hundred years. There might be a half-hearted flutter of anti-gay banners at the SNP conference this time round. There won’t be by next year.

However, on other issues the strength of will of the opponents is real. People keep talking about Brian Souter as if he is the one-man scourge of Scotland’s gays. In fact he funded one campaign more than a decade ago and has gone out of his way to keep his head down on the issue since. Meanwhile, hundreds and hundreds of peace activists have never gone away. There will be protests at the SNP conference to put pressure on the Party over the NATO issue. But if the SNP changes its policy those protesters will be back next year, and the year after that. CND is more than a half-century old; Scotland for Marriage probably won’t last the month. And the peace movement is very well integrated into wider political life – its members cross over into most political parties, lots of social justice, environmental, human rights and other movements. The anti-gay lobby is a self-contained group of people who are often typified by their disdain for the processes of politics. Not all political views are equally; in Scotland the progressives have much more influence than the conservatives.

How does the commentator class always get this wrong? Why does it give so much emphasis to the socially conservative constituency which screams through Bishops but melts away at each defeat? Why do they give so little emphasis to the social liberals and activists who have a much greater influence on Scottish politics and who are dogged, determined and in it for the long term?

But this is for another day. The importance of messages should be lost on no-one. In Spain they are cracking down on the right to abortion which has clearly got nothing to do with economic recovery. It is the right sending a message both to its own people and collectively about the society they are trying to engender. When the left does this people think it is silly, or irrelevant or an indulgence.

It isn’t. It is a statement of who and what we are. I have been swamped with Facebook posts from friends and acquaintances from Scotland and abroad expressing their pride in Scotland for doing this. There is a mood of jubilation among the people I know and the polls suggest that there are many more people on our side of the fence than from the other side.

I have often written on why it is that politics so often catches commentators on the hop. I was one of not many people who was not surprised by the SNP victory at the last election. I read opinion piece after opinion piece about the flaws in the SNP prospectus or suggesting it was really ‘Alex versus the world’. But what I saw was the SNP position itself to suck up both the alienated votes of public sector workers who would usually be Labour voters and the disillusioned Lib Dem voters who care about civil liberties and internationalism. That was all the SNP had to add on to their existing votes to win a majority. Why people were surprised surprises me.

That is real politics. Putting bishops on your front page and then believing they are important because they are on your front page is simple a delusion of the media. As Scotland celebrates and the anti-gay lobby goes back to shouting at the moon, Scotland’s ongoing shift into the modern, liberal world continues.

Robin McAlpine

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