Marriage, union and divorce: let’s cut the fear factor

Father Ted and Dougal protesting outside The Passion of St Tibulus
Nothing compares to a well-reasoned ecclesiastical protest.

There’s been an awful lot of talk about marriage lately. First came Cardinal Keith O’Brien in the Daily Telegraph with his thundering tirade against gay people who had the temerity not only to be gay, but to commit to being gay. Then, on Sunday, came the news that the robustly heterosexual Bill Walker, septuagenerian Nationalist member of the Scottish Parliament, had beaten and abused three of his wives. And finally – the following day as fate would have it – Walker’s former colleague (Walker and the SNP having agreed a trial separation) Joan McAlpine sparked outrage by comparing the relationship between Scotland and England to an abusive marriage.

To the last matter first. Some commentators immediately called for McAlpine to apologise or resign for her comments. This kind of over-reaction is fast becoming wearisome. It was sheer happenstance that her column appeared the day after the news about Walker broke in the Sunday Herald – ordinarily a Monday column would be commissioned, and possibly produced, on the Friday beforehand. In the event of an emergency it can be changed, but the news about Walker wasn’t of that order. It was an embarrassing revelation about his past which the SNP wasted no time in dealing with: more interestingly, it marked the first time the Nationalist government has had to deal with this kind of personal scandal coming out of the woodwork. Fortunately for them the casualty was not a high-ranking party member, but it’s a mark of the SNP’s maturity that the Walker issue was dealt with swiftly and decisively.

What, then, of McAlpine, who is rated somewhat more highly? Her column was not a resignation matter. It is not offensive to the English – the complaint is directed at the system of government, not England’s inhabitants. At its heart, however, was a ham-fisted and cliched attempt to equate the current situation of Scotland with a battered wife. It’s not a good analogy – how many abused women enjoy any kind of ‘devolved’ existence, never mind an independent one? – and McAlpine more or less acknowledged this in her explanation. It was not about abusive relationships, but about unequal ones, was the defence. Entertainingly, she went on to deploy the old politician’s canard about being ‘quoted out of context’. Once upon a time McAlpine was the kind of journalist who would have poured a bucketload of scorn over that kind of weaselly language before setting fire to it.

When politicians want to revise their words, they usually do one of two things. If they are caught out on the general impression of what they said, they instruct you to examine the detail. If they are found out on the detail, they implore you to look at what Blair once memorably called ‘the totality’ of their utterances. Sadly, neither the detail nor the totality come to McAlpine’s aid here. The language attributed to the imaginary husband is plainly that of the bully – ‘how selfish and greedy she is to even suggest keeping it [the money] to herself!’ And her conclusion is that the relationship is an ‘abuse of power’. This is not, as McAlpine’s defenders protest, something different from an abusive relationship: it is the very mechanism which underpins all forms of marital abuse. The ‘domineering’ husband (and please do look that word up) beats, rapes and humiliates his wife as a way of asserting his total control over her. So the distinction fails.

When couples split up, as Scotland and England surely will eventually, it is customary for them to emphasise their differences while burying all the things that brought them together in the first place. The added complication in the union of the kingdoms is that it was never a love match, but a marriage of convenience. And for about 200 years, between the second Jacobite rebellion and the end of World War II, it was a highly convenient arrangement for both parties. But those days are not these. The empire, thankfully, is gone. The Clyde shipyards, the crucible of innovation during the Industrial Revolution, have been sacrificed. And the squandering of the first shot of oil wealth confirmed the suspicions that the ‘husband’ these days is more concerned with keeping up appearances at the golf club than attending to the strained relationship with his ‘wife’.

‘The forces that bind us together are stronger than those that would tear us apart,’ said Ed Miliband recently, though he neglected to elucidate what those forces were. To me it made the countries sound more like two hostages tied to a radiator than a couple in the full flush of marital bliss. The ‘stronger together’ cliche disintegrates as soon as it is exposed to the oxygen of reason.

And so we come, finally and grotesquely, to Cardinal Keith O’Brien, who seems determined to tear apart the bonds between members of his flock whose only desire is to make honest men of each other. (OK, it’s not their only desire, but for the cardinal’s sake let us pretend that it is.) Yes, there are lines in the Bible condemning homosexuality, just as there are decrees against wearing mixed fibres, trimming the corners of your beard, eating bats and eagles, and sitting on chairs vacated by menstruating women. But though my faith lapsed some decades ago, I clearly remember being told during my Anglican RE lessons that a cornerstone of Christian belief is that ‘God is love’, and that Jesus used the example of rescuing a donkey from a ditch on the Sabbath to illustrate that this core message trumped any individual edict or proscription. That’s the totality: for the detail, I shall take as my text the latest King James revision of 1 Corinthians: ‘Love suffers long, and is kind; love envies not; love vaunts not itself, is not puffed up.’ I hope the cardinal remembers St Paul the next time he feels like vaunting himself all over the columns of the Daily Telegraph. (Incidentally, I sat with a married lesbian couple at a wedding in the Netherlands recently, and I am sorry to report to Cardinal O’Brien that nothing immoral or degenerate happened at all).

One heartening thing about the gay marriage row was to see how the instinctive fear has evaporated from the issue over the last decade, allowing most people to discuss it rationally. It is tempting to suppose that the same process may be under way in the independence debate. It’s a simple matter when you boil it down. People who are in love should be free to get married. People whose marriages have broken down should be free to divorce. And two nations that were never in love exactly, but nevertheless enjoyed a couple of centuries of fruitful cohabitation in a common cause, ought to be grown-up enough to acknowledge that the marriage of convenience has passed its sell-by date. Let us dispense with the hollow, adversarial, amnesiac rhetoric, because what Scotland and England really need is the same thing that divorcing couples need: an agreement that liberates both parties.


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