The Marriage (Same – Sex Couples) Bill has easily passed through its third and final reading in the House of Commons. It goes to the Lords today, where the real battles over detail, and final approval (or rejection), will take place early next month. With 60 Anglican bishops among them, and an age profile somewhat older than that of the Commons, the bill is likely to have a rougher time there than it did this week. Some opponents are confidently predicting that it will be thrown out, but I’m not so sure: the amendment to permit civil partnerships on religious premises was expected to meet stiff opposition in the Lords, but in fact passed fairly easily.
Instead of anticipating what will happen, let’s consider what has happened, with the clear victories this week, beginning with the unexpected amendment to begin a process to extend civil partnerships to other – sex couples.
Equal Marriage, Equal Civil Partnerships
When the original consultation on equal marriage was announced, this was specifically excluded from the terms of reference. Even so, the consultation report noted that there had been numerous submissions asking for such a provision. Still, the matter was not included in the Bill. When it was introduced as an amendment to the main bill, this was together with a series of amendments to water it down, by an arch – opponent of equal marriage, so was widely seen as a deliberate attempt to delay implementation (possibly until after the next general election), and became known as the “wrecking amendment”. The strategy not only failed, it backfired, badly. To neutralise the wrecking element, the government first proposed an alternative amendment to review the possibility of extending civil partnerships, possibly after five years experience with equal marriage, then accepted instead a Labour amendment to begin such a review immediately. Instead of delaying the main equal marriage bill, the wrecking amendment has had the effect of accelerating a move to equal civil partnerships, which was not even on the horizon a year ago. British “equal marriage” will be even more equal than originally expected.
Recent polling by Yougov shows that the British public supports this expansion of civil partnerships, even more strongly than equal marriage:
This support however, seems to be based on a principle of equality, rather than personal desire for their own relationships.
Still, marriage remains the more popular institution. Nearly three-quarters of the public (74%) would prefer to be married to someone “in an ideal world”, compared to one in twenty (5%) who would prefer to be in a civil partnership.
Yougov does not report the reasons for preferring civil partnerships – even if the question was asked, 5% of respondents would be far too small a sample to support any further analysis – so we can only speculate. The reasons I have come across fall into three broad groups. For some progressive couples, it’s a principled decision to avoid the patriarchal, unequal relationship structures that have been part of the historical baggage and symbols of traditional marriage. For others, it’s a corresponding desire to avoid the religious connotations and associations of traditional marriage. But for others, it’s a desire for some legal protections for their relationships, with a somewhat reduced burden of expectation, responsibility and commitment.
There’s irony here, for the religious leaders who so strenuously opposed extending marriage. Had there not been such vigorous attempts to restrict marriage, it’s likely that there would not have been the same pressure to expand civil partnerships – which is likely to reduce marriage rates for opposite – sex couples. In France, where the PACS system of civil unions was introduced for all couples, the Catholic bishops are concerned that it has been widely adopted by heterosexual couples as an alternative to full marriage. The Anglican Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, was quick to speak out against any amendment to extend civil partnerships, no doubt aware of this danger.
At the second reading, there were many Catholic MPs, from all parties, who voted in favour, and even spoke out publicly, some stressing that they were supporting equality not in spite of their faith, but because of it. I’ve not yet seen or compiled a comprehensive list of Catholic votes in favour, but we can confidently expect that the pattern was repeated for the final reading. During the debate, some commentators echoed this tweet by Ben Bradshaw:
Newcastle North MP Catherine McKinnell decribed how her support was influenced by traditionally Catholic strong family values – and a gay brother.
“They say that the family that prays together stays together and that is very much the case with us. We are a close-knit unit, sometimes to the point of that being overbearing, but whenever there is a crisis or something to celebrate, we are all there in droves.”
Drawing on more family ties, she said: “A big part of my childhood was spent with my brother, who is two years older than me and he shared with us the fact that he was gay in his early 20s.
“He was my best friend growing up, my playmate, my partner in crime and my defender when in trouble, and I found it challenging when the announcement came because of my Catholic faith.
“It has been a journey in which I have had to question my faith and understanding of the world, but I believe that the experience has not only kept my faith intact but renewed and enriched it.”
Read more: Journal Live
ChaoticTories Remain the Nasty Party, In Denial.
Before the last general election, David Cameron tried to convince gay and lesbian voters that his party was the best hope for LGBT equality. It is true that the election saw more openly gay Conservative MP’s than in any other party, and that Cameron’s personal support was crucial in getting the marriage equality bill off the ground, but subsequent events have shown conclusively that the party as a whole remains the nasty party. Opponents of equal marriage have consistently maintained (correctly) that opposition to gay marriage is not in itself a sign of homophobia - but some of the statements the same people made in the debates definitely are. Moreover, those most strongly opposed are convinced that they represent the views of ordinary Britons, demonstrating how totally out of touch they really are. It doesn’t apply to all Conservatives, but with such vocal hostility, they remain on balance the Nasty Party, on gay rights as much as on their complete insensitivity to the real problems of families in need.
The extraordinary thing is that the reactionaries are convinced that they represent the views of ordinary British people. Lord Dear, who is expected to lead the opposition in the Lords, has said that the British people are “massively opposed”, a view which is completely contradicted both by the government’s own consultation, and by a succession of scientific public opinion polls. Sound and sensible Conservative commentary by James Forsyth at The Spectator
After all the parliamentary back and forth yesterday, gay marriage passed third reading by the comfortable margin of 366 to 161. Tory sources are briefing that fewer of their MPs voted against at third reading than second reading, though we’ll have to wait for the division lists to confirm that.
We probably now have only a couple more Commons votes left on this; there’ll be on any amendments made to the bill by the House of Lords.
The atmosphere in the House as the result was read out did not seem particularly historic. There was some clapping from the Labour front bench, but the Treasury bench didn’t join in and it rather petered out. But, I suspect, that in years to come this will be remembered as one of the more significant things that David Cameron did in office. If it is followed by a series of other measures to strengthen marriage, it might end up being seen as a moment when the fundamental importance of marriage to our society was re-stated.
- but the vitriolic response by his own readers is ample evidence, if any more were needed, that the Tories have a long, long way to go if they can ever be credibly seen as remotely gay – friendly: For evidence, read the comments thread – if you can stomach it.
- Catholic MPs Back Gay Marriage
- Opponents’ Attempts to Weaken UK Equal Marriage Going Down – Heavily.
- Poll shows most Britons want gay marriages and straight civil partnership