Gay marriage: A stronger society isn’t just about marriage, it’s about plurality

If there is a genuine issue of conscience here for supporters of equality it's surely that they do whatever will secure real change sooner rather than later. That must be to leave Loughton and his wreckers to their own devices.

Gay marriage 2

A day can be a long time in politics. Yesterday I wrote that it was time to stop talking, back gay marriage and move on. I also expressed my hope that the right to civil partnerships would be extended.

It’s that issue which has dominated headlines today because the key backer of an amendment supporting extension is Conservative MP Tim Loughton, who is opposed to gay marriage.

In fact the Loughton amendment was backed by MPs who have previously voted both for and against the Bill. Yet there can be no doubt about Loughton’s motives. Not for him a matter of principle but an opportunity to wreck a Bill he detests.

However, the emergence of an alternative Labour amendment on early consultation about civil partnership appears to be a game changer. Fair play to Stonewall and others who have campaigned so hard; they have found themselves between a rock and hard place at the 11th hour.

Not surprising then that they have been so clear about their opposition to the Loughton amendment. The prize at stake is precious and no one who wants progress should be doing anything to derail it.

A question of conscience?

The notion that voting on anything to do with sexuality is a matter of conscience is questionable. But like the provisions in the Bill around protection for religious institutions, it’s one of those things we have to accept if we want to move forward.

If there is a genuine issue of conscience here for supporters of equality it’s surely that they do whatever will secure real change sooner rather than later. That must be to leave Loughton and his wreckers to their own devices.

But it’s worth remembering that there is an issue of principle about heterosexuals and civil partnerships. If we’re concerned about equal rights as well as gay rights, enabling straight couples to have civil partnerships does matter. And as Andrew Harrop reminded us on the Daily Politics today, there are gay couples who want the option of civil partnership rather than marriage.

There have been calls over the last 24 hours to let civil partnerships wither on the vine, even to repeal the legislation. That doesn’t seem very respectful of the thousands of people who have become civil partners over the last few years. Yes some will have done it because that was the best option available, but for others it will have been their preferred option as it might be for some heterosexual couples.

Shouldn’t we acknowledge that rather than just seek to strengthen marriage?

It’s been suggested that there isn’t a clamour for heterosexual civil partnerships. According to a You Gov poll in the last few days, support for extending civil partnership rights is 64 per cent to 18 per cent in favour, while 74 per cent would prefer to be married against 5 per cent who would prefer to be in a civil partnership.

It might equally be suggested, however, that there won’t be a clamour from all lesbian and gay civil partners to convert to the ‘gold standard’ of marriage. We don’t yet know.

Scaremongering

Whatever the genuine fears of the Bill’s supporters about the possibility of it being wrecked, there are clear signs of some reverse wrecking from ‘government sources’; the huge variation in pension costs bandied about is a clear enough indicator of that.

There’s also a sense that some of the scaremongering about the Bill being wrecked is because Conservative support is rooted in strengthening marriage rather than creating a more plural society in which people have different choices. The Church of England’s suggestion today that the option of heterosexual civil partnerships would create further confusion barks up the same tree.

The truth is that heterosexual people already have options about the sort of marriage they want and that they get married for very different reasons. Gay people are no different.

The purpose of my post yesterday was to signal that we’ve spent enough time talking and change is overdue. That should be the key principle which informs the voting of supporters of equality today. But they should also ensure that consultation on extending civil partnerships is meaningful and efficacious.

A stronger society isn’t just about marriage, it’s about plurality.

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