They just wanted to find out what people thought. But two major campaigns and tens of thousands of signatures later, the Scottish government’s consultation on the question of legalising same-sex marriage has triggered a response beyond expectations.
The consultation ends today, and is the first in the UK to consider same-sex marriage. It proposes that same-sex marriage should be introduced where religious groups are happy to perform the ceremony. The Scottish government will use the results as a guide for whether to forge ahead with legislation.
Should this happen, it would be hard for Westminster to ignore. The UK government is floating similar plans for England and Wales. In the meantime, same sex couples in these countries may be tempted to travel north to get married – think Gretna Green 2.0.
Heading the campaign for legalisation is the Campaign for Equal Marriage, which has been pushing for equal rights to civil partnerships and marriage since 2009. Opposing them is Scotland For Marriage, an umbrella group which includes the Catholic Bishops’ Conference and the Evangelical Alliance.
As the consultation period draws to a close, both sides are pushing their message as hard as they can. But their methods have been very different.
Scotland For Marriage has harnessed traditional techniques to get its message across. Although it recently set up a website, much of the activism has been carried out by its constituent groups in congregations.
Paul Kearney, a spokesman for the Bishops’ Conference, emphasised the success of a postcard campaign, where hundreds of thousands of cards were handed out to parishioners. Similar campaigns were carried out by other faith groups.
According to Kearney, traditional methods are still the most meaningful. “I would say the most effective way, even in this electronic age, is to get out a bit of paper whether it is a leaflet or a postcard into someone’s hand. I would argue that 28,000 people signing and returning postcards shows a level of commitment that 28,000 emails doesn’t.”
By contrast, the Campaign for Equal Marriage has embraced digital media. While the organisation has won the backing of prominent trade unions, student LGBT campaigners and the Scottish youth parliament, its main mode of communication is the internet.
Visitors to the website are encouraged to fill in an online consultation form. The organisers then email them regular updates, urging them to spread the message among family and friends.
The project co-ordinator, Tom French, says that this last part of the strategy is the most effective. “You just have got to get the issue out on the social networks. These things can go viral.”
French denies that a postcard petition is more significant than an online consultation. “They’re literally pushing these postcards around the pews. That puts people under a lot of pressure.”
He insists that the Scottish Government will draw its conclusions primarily from the consultation responses, not the prewritten postcards. Equal Marriage, he says, has already received 18,000 mostly positive responses and hopes to have over 20,000 by the end of today.
Then there is the question of the press. Thanks to the speeches of high profile supporters such as Cardinal O’Brien, Scotland For Marriage has managed to make headlines on several occasions. A protest outside Holyrood gained media attention.
But although some supporters did show up for a counter-protest, French is sceptical about the benefits of press coverage. “The focus of the media has been very much the likes of Catholic Bishops who have said something negative. So you have the same sort of story repeated about a hundred times.”
On the other hand, coverage of the opposition can sometimes help the campaign. “Every time the opposition say something extreme, that’s a real incentive for people to respond.”
Once the consultation has closed, the government is likely to draft a bill proposing at least some of the changes it initially outlined.
But all this activism threatens to disguise the fact that for the majority of Scots, the question of same-sex marriage is not a particularly divisive issue at all. According to a recent Social Attitudes Survey, 60 per cent support it, while only 19 per cent are definitely against it.
And all the main parties voiced support for changing the law before the 2010 election. In October first minister Alex Salmond showed no signs of backing down, saying: “We want LGBT people in this country to be more visible and proud of who they are.” Holyrood will have the final say on this, however passionate outside pressure may be.