The cameras were on Nicola Sturgeon but it was Nick and Phil Duffy’s day. The couple sat in the public gallery of the Scottish Parliament to hear the First Minister announce her government’s Bill to pardon gay men historically prosecuted for same-sex relations. The old men, who sat holding hands, heard Sturgeon tell Holyrood that while disregards of past criminal offences were long overdue, they were not enough. A more meaningful reparation had to be made: a national apology to those whose lives were ruined and whose love was chased into the shadows. She declared:
‘Today, as First Minister, I categorically, unequivocally and whole-heartedly apologise for those laws and for the hurt and the harm that they have caused to so many people. Nothing that parliament does can erase those injustices, but I hope that this apology, alongside our new legislation, will provide some comfort to the people who have endured them. I hope that it provides evidence of this parliament’s determination to address the harm that was done, as far as we can do so.’
This was, the First Minister said, ‘an important milestone in achieving true equality’. It was a milestone in her political life too. Sturgeon was an early and enduring friend of what was then called gay rights and is now LGBTI equality. It is easy to be for equal rights in 2017 but she was for them before it was easy, in a party not known for its metropolitanism, and in a country where homosexual acts remained a criminal offence until 1980.
Nothing about the changes Scotland has undergone in the last 40 years was inevitable. Nicola Sturgeon made the choice to stand up for gay rights before most and helped shape a more open, tolerant country in the process. You can decry her politics and her governance but you cannot question her moral courage. There are those who will dismiss Sturgeon’s words as virtue-signalling and the concept of a national apology as tokenistic. When Tony Blair expressed ‘our deep sorrow’ for Britain’s role in the slave trade, he was rebuked by some conservatives. Charles Moore wrote:
‘There is no reason for Mr Blair to say sorry. He is not responsible for the slave trade in any way, and by half-suggesting that he is, he surrenders to unreason and creates difficulties for his successors.’
And it was true; Blair had neither bought nor sold any man. But he was the Prime Minister in a succession that stretched all the way back to Walpole. He did not speak only for himself but for the collective past. Burke depicted society as a contract ‘between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born’. Britain does not begin afresh every five years; it is a living history. To make amends for past sins is not to strike out against tradition but to cultivate it. Scotland is a little more moral tonight.
Those under a certain age may be bemused by today’s proceedings and generations to come will be positively bewildered. They will struggle to imagine the shame, the opprobrium, the self-loathing and the cruelty of others that once attached to behaviour they have only ever known to be normal and natural. They would not understand the blackmailed man in Basil Dearden’s ‘Victim’ who cries pathetically, ‘Nature’s played me a dirty trick’. Homosexuality has gone from a whisper to a shout to the flat tone of banal conversation. They should know, however, that their world is a recent one that came about only after great pain and long struggle. A national apology will go some way to teaching that lesson.
And was it virtue-signalling? Yes, it was. Wrongs were done and their doing was called decency. Prejudice passed for morality and disgust for common sense. Virtue is not always obvious; sometimes it has to be signalled. When Nicola Sturgeon concluded her statement, applause rippled across the chamber. Above her in the gallery, two old men wept and embraced. Their love had never been a crime.