Tom Gordon, in the Sunday Herald, reported that Scottish Liberal Democrat leader Willie Rennie “is receiving personal support from an evangelical Christian group which is opposed to...gay marriage”.
The first thing to point out is that the Sunday Herald does not seem to appreciate that using terms such as “gay marriage” is itself unhelpful and contributing to the polarisation of the debate on marriage equality. Like the many bishops who are keen to express their intolerance towards “gay marriage”, I too am happy to put on record my opposition to the term, although not for the same short-sighted reasons. I’m not asking for something different for gay people, but the basic equality for people of all orientations to be allowed to marry. Marriage is marriage is marriage – gay, bisexual, heterosexual – it’s all the same to me and the vast majority Scots seem to agree. What we want is marriage equality. Got it, Mr Gordon?
Mr Gordon’s piece revealed that Willie Rennie receives “help” from an organisation known as CARE (Christian Action,Research & Education). This “help” takes the form of Mr Rennie being provided with one of CARE’s interns who works in his office on a full-time basis. CARE effectively sponsor Mr Rennie, who has to declare his “benefit” in the Register of Interests.
What do we know about CARE? Unfortunately, quite a lot. CARE has a colourful if somewhat unenviable history. It was actively supportive of Brian Souter’s “Keep the Clause” campaign, when it targeted many pro-change campaigners. It remains, predictably, completely unrepentant of its role in the Section 28 debate and continues not only to oppose marriage equality but homosexuality itself. CARE is also opposed to the woman’s right to choose and, I’m led to believe, has been associated with groups who aim to “cure” gay people of their homosexuality. Particularly unhelpfully during the current debate and consultation on equal marriage, CARE have already made statements that government proposals are “deeply flawed and socially corrosive”.
CARE has a history of sponsoring MPs by providing them with interns and researchers. The Independent, in 2008, noted that 12 MPs received “help” from CARE – most of these MPs were known to have strong religious views. As another Independent article explains, CARE aren’t offering “help” to parliamentarians out of the goodness of their heart. “The intern programme isn't only about rewarding friendly Christian parliamentarians, it's part of a plan to build a new generation of committed Christian politicians. The idea is that the interns will go on to become MPs furthering the Christian agenda ."
Curiously, CARE withdrew support for gay Christian Labour MP Ben Bradshaw when they discovered his sexuality. So, all in all, quite an unusual group for the Liberal Democrats to be associated with. Which makes me all the more concerned with Willie Rennie’s apparent willingness to be associated with them.
My friend, Caron, has blogged about this herself – in which she takes a different view, interpreting the Herald article as an attempt to suggest we should discriminate against people on the basis of their religion. Rennie’s willingness to accept support from CARE is, in her view, evidence of “the sort of openness and tolerance he talks about”. You can't have proper tolerance if you don't properly engage with people you disagree with”, she rightly adds
But it’s not engagement I have a problem with. I have no issue with Willie Rennie opening up dialogue with those who are diametrically opposed to our values and politics. As a pluralist, I welcome open debate and discussion. I’m not suggesting that we shouldn’t talk to CARE – just that we shouldn’t allow ourselves to be associated with them. Why any MSP – let alone the leader of a liberal party – would wish to be perceived as being supported by a fundamentalist religious group I honestly have no idea. Given Rennie’s conference speech in which he turned on the spiritual forces of reaction and intolerance, declaring the Catholic Church’s “threaten[ing] to invoke some sort of block vote” as “an affront to liberal democracy and one that we must challenge”, the revelation that he is being sponsored by CARE makes him look inconsistent, even hypocritical.
It’s hard enough to accept that CARE’s Scottish spokesman, Gordon MacDonald (a former Lib Dem parliamentary candidate, no less) believes that “marriage is a relationship between a man and a woman, not two people of the same sex” and that “the Scottish Government is making a grave mistake by seeking to redefine marriage”. That this kind of organisation is providing staff to our party’s leader undermines our firm commitment to marriage equality and is even tougher to accept.
As for the argument that this association is evidence of Rennie’s openness and tolerance, this doesn’t really ring true. I don’t doubt that Willie Rennie is indeed and incredibly tolerant person. But would we be making the same argument if, for example, overtly pro-life groups were providing interns to politicians? Or groups opposed to racial equality or women’s rights? I mean, would anyone seriously argue that an MP was simply embracing diversity by allowing the English Defence League to provide them with an intern? The association would be at the very least embarrassing, which is precisely how I view our leader's links with CARE.
My problem isn’t with who Willie Rennie’s intern is. He’s entitled to employ who he likes, even if their views might not be those of the party as a whole. My issue is with CARE as an organisation, our leader’s political naivety and poor judgement in associating himself with them and the damage this could cause during the current political discussion on marriage equality - which is already being dominated by a fundamentalist lobby that compensates for its lack of arguments with its disproportionately loud voice. Accepting an intern is hardly a tacit acknowledgement of support for CARE, but it could be interpreted as such. The benefits Mr Rennie receives are far outweighed by the political risks of association with religious fundamentalism.
I have written to Mr Rennie on account of my concerns. I know he is a passionate advocate of LGBT rights and equal marriage. He could never be described as homophobic. But by accepting the intern he has opened himself up to the charge that he is either naive, hypocritical or both – a misunderstanding that could have been so easily avoided. The unfortunate truth is that this one decision could undermine a lot of the good work that he and the party have done on this issue
What I can’t quite understand is why Mr Rennie felt the need to accept an intern from any kind of organisation – religious or otherwise. I would imagine there would be a string of talented, suitably experienced people more than happy to work for the leader of the Liberal Democrats?