Michael McManus, author of Tory Pride and Prejudice, on the progress in the gay marriage debate, and why he doesn’t see legislation on the horizon any time soon.
When the government announced in September that it intended to launch a public consultation on marriage equality and intended to bring forward firm reform proposals before 2015, many campaigners for LGBT rights were looking for a catch or, at the very least, struggling to decide whether their glasses were now half full or half empty. They cannot have been anything other than delighted when David Cameron then took his message of equality to the Conservative Party conference itself, where a generation ago the line ‘if you want a queer for a neighbour, vote Labour’ drew rapturous applause. In October, the Prime Minister was warmly applauded when he explained: ‘I don’t support gay marriage despite being a Conservative. I support gay marriage because I’m a Conservative’.
This felt like another significant landmark in a remarkable journey for the party, one which began when Michael Howard endorsed civil partnerships in a robustly pragmatic spirit: ‘Families are changing. Not all conform to the traditional pattern. Many couples choose not to marry. And more same-sex couples want to take on the shared responsibilities of a committed relationship’.
This latest vigorous phase of debate was inaugurated by a front-page story from that wise old operator Andrew Grice in the Independent on 17th January, when an on-line headline blazed: ‘100 Tory MPs to rebel against PM’s plan to legalise gay marriage’ and the following article claimed that David Cameron faced the prospect of ‘a rebellion bigger than the one in which 81 voted against the Government on Europe’. This was technically incorrect, of course, since no one has ever suggested that back-bench Tories would be subject to party whipping on a matter that has traditionally been seen as one of personal conscience. Nonetheless, this was becoming a significant “Tory split” story.
Some of the “usual suspects” on both sides took the bait and new fire was breathed into the controversy. The Lords Spiritual too entered the fray. A former Archbishop of Canterbury, George Carey, and the second most senior cleric currently in the Church of England, John Sentamu, have sought to bring the debate onto a less secular battleground, but both have implied that politicians who seek to extend marriage to same-sex couples are going beyond their legitimate remit. Carey has described any such proposal as ‘one of the greatest political power grabs in history’ and Sentamu has said, ‘I don’t think it is the role of the state to define what marriage is’.
What is immediately striking (though perhaps not surprising) is the difference between the two sides in this debate, not only in tone, but also in language. I suspect some rethinking and refinement will take place in the months ahead. The strongest argument in favour of reform is, to my mind, encapsulated in the very phrase “marriage equality”. This is a corollary of the wider principle of equality for all before the civil law – a principle that all mainstream democratic parties are usually keen to embrace. When the language of the equal marriage proposal is the language of fairness and natural justice, all the polls now confirm there has been a sea change of opinion – through tolerance of same-sex relationships, through acceptance, to the point where many (and probably a clear majority) really aren’t bothered in the least about how other people choose to live their private lives.
Of course there is a religious aspect to many marriages, but arguably what is really at stake here is the civil or civic institution of marriage, which is already very similar indeed to a civil partnership. I am told there are still slight differences between the two institutions so far as pension rights are concerned, but I confess to glazing over whenever I am treated to an attempted explanation of what they are, by one of the handful of people who grasp them. I think there is something quite technical to do with public sector pensions, but that is barely germane to the debates of today.
It’s not surprising that the opponents of change feel a bit sore. Many of them opposed civil partnerships precisely because they believed they would, in time, lead to calls for marriage equality. Their worst fears have been confirmed, but what those opponents of reform surely still need to do is to hone their argument, beyond the kind of inchoate distaste expressed on the Coalition for Marriage web-site. They do, however, understand the power of words. Their use of the word “matrimony”, with its undertones of motherhood (and, perhaps, apple pie too), is carefully calibrated. So too is the image they use, of what I suppose must be termed a “traditional family”.
There are inherent dangers for them in this. For all kinds of reasons, many perfectly happy and devoted male-female partnerships and marriages are less than fecund. They should beware seeming to imply that the only purpose of marriage is procreation. Elderly couples who marry are couples too and surely we have gone beyond the point where infertility is regarded as some kind of divine retribution?
On the other side is the slightly more recent Coalition for Equal Marriage, whose website (presumably deliberately) pays implicit tribute to that of its near namesake with a similar lay-out and almost identical URL. Its spare language and the clarity and simplicity of its argument are commendable, though some will wince (as I did) at the line about teaching children ‘not to be massive bigots like their parents’. Inflammatory language rarely builds broad coalitions.
There is some talk of a marriage reform bill in this May’s Queen’s Speech. So many bills have been vying for the twenty or so precious slots available that I would be surprised to see this proposal make the cut, particularly with the consultation yet to start, so both sides should probably be looking to run a marathon, not a sprint. For better or worse, for richer or for poorer, an inequality that has endured for centuries is hardly likely to be swept away in a matter of months.
Michael McManus is Director of Transition at the Press Complaints Commission and writes here in a personal capacity.