THE rights of Scotland’s LGBT community are now centre stage, as what many assumed was our country’s settled will is now being questioned.

The reason for this is the social conservatism of Kate Forbes; her membership of the Free Church of Scotland, her views on LGBT rights and abortion, as well as her opposition to sex and having children outside marriage – all of which she insists would have no bearing on her actions if she became first minister.

This also raises questions about modern Scotland: How progressive are we? What does “equality for all” mean in practice? How do we champion LGBT equality and ensure that the rights of minority groups are non-negotiable? And if many independence supporters say the personal views of one SNP leadership candidate do not matter on this, what does that in turn say about the cause of independence?

Let’s throw some red herrings out. The politics of faith are pivotal to understanding Scotland. There is clearly no barrier to being a believer and playing an active part in public life, although the stain of anti-Catholicism has been one too many people have been happy to excuse.

Neither do socially conservative opinions preclude people from public and elected office, with examples from the Labour Party and SNP through the ages – Winnie and Fergus Ewing abstaining from a vote on Section 28, the latter also voting against same-sex marriage; John Mason being vocally anti-abortion.

But clearly, there is a difference between being a backbench MSP or minister and first minister. Some of those making excuses for Forbes would take to the barricades if this was someone standing for the leadership of Labour or the Tories. In this, a brief outline of Scotland’s recent history on LGBT rights is perhaps salutary. As recently as the 1950s and 1960s, homosexuality was a taboo subject in Scottish public life. The 1957 Wolfenden Report on decriminalising male homosexuality across the UK contained one formal dissenter in its ranks –former procurator-fiscal for Glasgow, James Adair.

The 1967 Sexual Offences Act followed, decriminalising male homosexuality in private – but only in England and Wales. Scotland and Northern Ireland were excluded due to the perceived weight of conservative opinion in both – and in Scotland, additionally the Kirk and Labour Party. Bob Cant, author of Footsteps And Witnesses, the first published account of lesbian and gay life in Scotland, says, looking back: “Silence was the order of the day.”

It took until 1980 in Scotland, and 1982 in Northern Ireland, for legislation to pass – under threat of action against the UK Government via the European Convention on Human Rights. This was at the onset of the Thatcher government and hence in Scotland, there was little debate or wider recognition.

The National:

SNP MPs Gordon Wilson and Donald Stewart opposed the 1980 legislation, with the campaign being led by Labour’s Robin Cook, Tory Malcolm Rifkind and Liberal David Steel. However, no party was exempt from conservative thinking, with Glasgow City Council taking until 1994 to put LGBT people into its equal opportunities policy, after several attempts.

In 2000, Labour minister Wendy Alexander’s announcement of the abolition of the Thatcherite Section 28 made a whole host of the Scottish political classes uncomfortable, and the prejudiced campaign bankrolled by Stagecoach owner Brian Souter (“Keep the Clause”) caused many in the new Parliament to wobble.

This was a cathartic moment in recent history. While too many in Labour and the SNP equivocated, a pro-LGBT equality campaign led by a new generation of trade union activists and LGBT supporters found a voice. It was difficult at times, but UUltimately, after the Scottish Parliament voted to abolish the clause it was clear something major had happened – Scotland had experienced its first-ever public debate on homosexuality, and the forces of homophobia and reactionaries were defeated.

Bob Cant states: “Many people who would generally be in favour of human rights found themselves at a loss about Clause 28. The lack of any prior debate about homosexuality and human rights gave a field day to those who were bigoted and those who were ill-informed.”

SCOTLAND progressed civil partnerships in 2004 (via UK legislation) and same-sex marriage in 2014, allowing the Scottish consensus to bask in the belief that “Scotland was the most gay-friendly country in Europe”. A little too self-congratulatory, and with no grasp of the history and prejudice we have experiencedseen.

More recently, the Gender Recognition Reform Bill has seen intemperate and abusive debate which has lacked in places respect and tolerance for differing views.

Missing in the debate was a conscious attempt to find common ground and language between being pro-trans people and pro-single-sex women’s spaces.

In its absence, and the political void of any real leadership, came problematic views, including transphobic views. The mainstreaming of prejudicial views has wider consequences, as academic Cas Mudde, an international expert on populism, observes: “Transphobia is a gateway drug into the far right.”

The rights of LGBT Scotland have only just come in from the cold. For decades this was a complete no-go area in public life – the ultimate “cancel culture” of yesteryear.

Scotland has changed dramatically in the past two decades with the Scottish Social Attitudes Survey showing 48% of Scots believed gay relationships were wrong in 2000 with 37% disagreeing. By 2015 the figures had shifted to 69% thinking gay relationships were not wrong and 18% saying they were wrong.

Scotland went from being one of the most illiberal parts of the UK to one of the most liberal in the world. But in that journey we have often forgotten where we have come from and that there are still dark, conservative forces present and many more who will accommodate them.

Three takeaways from this. First, there is a global war on LGBT equality, reproductive rights and women. It is found in the far right, the US Republican Party, and evangelical Christianity across the world. We cannot just sweep such prejudice under the carpet, or collude and appease them as Scotland has done in previous generationspreviously. They have to be taken on.

Fraser MacDonald grew up in the Free Church but was never a member. He addresses the culture that Forbes embraces in the current London Review of Books, writing: “What’s controversial are the political positions she holds that are associated with evangelical Protestantism, a wider movement that is fast rolling back LGBTQ and reproductive rights in the US.”

He concludes that: “Precedents suggest that wherever evangelicals hold power, their beliefs do inform their policies.”

Second, we have now learnt to our cost all over the globe that no human, economic or social rights are ever permanently won. It does not matter what European convention or UN charter a state has signed up to. Look at the debased nature of this Tory government. Across the developed world, countries which used to pride themselves on democracy and tolerance are seeing a rise in the politics of the right making war on minorities – asylum seekers and refugees, LGBT people and anyone who is different.

The most basic human rights can never be taken for granted. They have to be asserted and reasserted every single day to guard against the march of authoritarianism.

We now know this includes the principle of democracy itself – as presidents Trump and Bolsonaro have shown in the US and Brazil.

Third, some say none of this matters compared to the goal of independence. But this does seem a problematic position and one which as in earlier times appeases and bends to the forces of reaction.

One young SNP female member said to me last week: “Kate Forbes will produce a generational chasm and divide which will last for years, damaging the SNP and independence long after her leadership.”

Independence has to be about creating a fairer, more equal, diverse and inclusive country and that involves the rights of LGBT people and standing up for their equality. If we allow LGBT people and equality to become a second-order issue or something reduced to a matter of conscience, then the idea of independence as being about a progressive Scotland is severely weakened with enormous consequences for its prospects.

That is the gamble many in the SNP and independence seem prepared to take. But if they do, don’t be surprised if independence is fatally damaged and the forces of reaction and bigotry are emboldened.