It’s been almost 13 years since the first ever by-election to our new Scottish parliament was held in March 2000. Ayr was a safe Tory seat for many years with popular local windbag MP Phil Gallie promising everything from free university education to a cull of those bloody seagulls who dared to venture into the centre of our seaside town. Amid the Blair haze of 1997 the Tories lost the Westminster constituency to Labour and in the 1999 Scottish parliamentary elections Labour won the seat by a mere 25 votes. A mid term by-election where the sitting Labour candidate has just resigned saying he can’t be arsed was unlikely to favour Labour. To add insult to injury he denounced his colleagues as “politicians who promise everything and deliver nothing.” It could and should have been a particularly boring by-election. Sadly it wasn’t. For 6 weeks of my youth my town was turned into a political circus based on a single issue which from analysing the votes of people of Ayr before and since that day doesn’t seem to have made much difference to the outcome either way.
The main party candidates were the usual uninspiring bunch. Tory (farmer), Labour (teacher), Lib Dem (student), SNP (businessman). Aside from the SSP and the Greens (who both did fairly well) there were the usual plethora of absolute raving fannies. One candidate stood solely on the basis of opposing human cloning (something which I never remember much appetite for at Holyrood although looking at the grey men on the Labour front bench at the time it‘s hard to be 100% certain). UKIP, a newish party, fielded their Scottish organiser Alistair McConnachie. McConnachie graced the televised hustings complete with tailcoat and bow-tie announcing his main policy of standing for the Scottish Parliament in order to abolish it because it was a waste of time and money. As political statements go this is relatively tame for McConnachie who, after being kicked out of UKIP for denying the holocaust ,would form his own political party complete with glossy magazine and bonkers website. He would later stand under the banner “Independent Green Voice” in the Glasgow Kelvin constituency in various elections in the hope of confusing old ladies in Kelvindale by making himself sound like an even more wooly version of the Green Party. I last spotted him writing the only letter to the Herald supporting the imprisonment of children in Dungavel detention centre. What a charming man. But in this election he saved his hatred for Europe, the Scottish parliament and the gays. The Scottish Pro Life Alliance fielded a candidate who seemed to hate gay rights even more than women’s’ rights. And then there was Mr. William Clifton Botcherby . I probably don’t need to say much about an independent candidate in a local by-election called William Clifton Botcherby but his unique appeal seemed to lay solely in his dual status as both a homophobe and a vet. If you’re sensing a theme here that’s because there is one. Because there was an 11th candidate in the ring. Someone who wasn’t on the ballot paper but who was throwing all their time and even more of their ill earned cash into this fight – Brian Souter.
Despite massive anger at the decision of the Labour council to close a day centre used by 1700 of the town’s older residents and worries of Labour led privatisation of air traffic control and job losses at Prestwick Airport, Souter decided that Ayr should be all about one central question, “Does mentioning gay people make everyone gay?!?!” Section 28, a Thatcherite piece of legislation which banned “promotion” of homosexuality and “the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship” in schools was slated to be abolished by the Labour/Lib-Dem coalition.
Souter went on the war path plastering the whole of Scotland (but very specifically Ayr) with a bullying campaign to convince politicians that hating gay people was definitely what people cared most about. The normally pro-Labour Daily Record joined the fray with “Labour to teach your toddlers bumming” style headlines and throwing itself behind the campaign to make sure no-one ever told anyone gay people existed. A position it chose to illustrate by emblazoning its front pages with pictures of almost unfathomable gaiety on a daily basis. This same flawless logic saw Souter, the Record et al. declare the by-election “a referendum on Section 28.” They later tried to have another referendum on Section 28 where Brian Souter paid to send some people ballot papers which they either binned or burned.
Labour should have been fighting to defend their seat (and maybe even their own policies) but they weren’t. The Labour candidate supported repealing section 28 because Labour supported that just like she supported closing the day centre because Labour supported that. She also forgot her lines in the TV debate and just sat in a chair with a spotlight on her for 20 seconds giggling. Britain’s new messiah, Tony Blair, came within inches of the constituency but he and his team body swerved it in what was seen as a blatant snub. Truth was that Blair knew Ayr was a lost cause and didn’t want to be associated with losers.
This left only the SNP in the fight with the Tories. Obviously, there were far more important things going on in Ayr than Section 28 but when the national press has declared this a “referendum” on a particular issue and you are a candidate for a major political party you should maybe have an opinion. Not so our man from the SNP, Jim Mather. He managed to get through the entire campaign without saying anything much either way. Souter had already declared his support for the SNP although he was clearly getting squarely in to bed with the Tories in the context of Ayr which is not famous for its desire to smash the vestiges of Unionism. There is more than a suggestion than the tail was wagging the dog and the SNP were so gutless than they just abandoned any support for human rights so as not to upset the bus bandit.
Suffice to say the Tories won and the SNP beat Labour into third place. Brian Souter and the Daily Record got to claim a great victory for the no homo brigade. But is that really what happened? At the time it certainly felt like it. I remember walking home on a dark night and seeing a Keep the Clause billboard with the words “Don’t bow down to poofs” spray painted underneath. An orchestrated campaign by the forces of darkness was inciting homophobia on our streets and that terrified me. In reality though, the Tories won a by-election they were always going to win and that was pretty much that.
In retrospect there is no doubt that whilst the vast resources poured at the campaign had an effect on attitudes for a short while, they did not achieve what they set out to. By the 2003 Scottish Parliamentary elections, the issue wasn‘t even on the political radar despite all the dildo-shaped warnings emanating from the tabloid press but a few years earlier. Homophobia and homophobic violence may still be a massive issue but the influence of attitudes to sexuality on voting behaviour is minimal – then as now. Tabloids hoped that a “wedge issue” like gay rights could help punt their papers and give our new breed of Holyrood journos something to pontificate about but it didn‘t pan out that way. In time they learned that no-one really cares enough to buy papers or vote purely out of hatred for gay people (when there are such an array of other people to hate).
But some people just won’t learn. It’s not just UKIP who have triumphantly returned to the political scene of late, still complete with the Alistair McConnachies of this world (if not the man himself). Just a matter of months ago, another UKIP candidate was suspended, this time for advocating compulsory abortion of Down’s syndrome foetuses and free euthanasia for the over 80s, whom he described as “extremely costly.” He went on to describe gay people as “abhorrent.” Of course, he wasn’t suspended for the homophobia as it’s still UKIP policy to be queer bashers. Brian Souter has also re-emerged of late like a snake from his cave to put forward his vision of a low tax, low wage, independent Scotland where he gets to steal all our other services the way he stole our buses. It’s important to note that as well as a token commitment to gay rights, the SNP used to support a publicly owned transport system. Mr. Souter doesn’t like either of those things, so now they are gone.
His influence both on Yes Scotland and the SNP should be opposed by anyone who supports a fairer, just Scotland. Allowing people like Souter to set the tone of the independence debate is a tactical disaster as well. I simply don’t believe there are thousands of people who won’t vote for independence incase it’s really, really gay. All of Scotland should be concerned that millionaires like Souter (and indeed Donald Trump in the pre windfarm days) have such an influence over our government. The Nats still haven’t quite made up their minds about whether LGBT people count as people yet. Souter and his chequebook still loom large. There’s a connection there.
It’s unlikely the SNP would seek to purge the party of its many famous homophobes 18 months before the biggest fight in its history. But 13 years on from the Ayr by-election fiasco those of us who support independence should be clear that human rights cannot be bought and sold in our new Scotland. Souter is welcome to be a citizen like everyone else in a newly independent nation but his money must not be able to buy government policy. If he doesn’t like that he can get in his horse and carriage and bugger off. I just hope he watches out for our veterinary homophobe, Mr William Clifton Botcherby, last spotted down the court receiving a 2 year driving ban and a £450 fine for being completely steaming behind the wheel.