This evening MPs will be voting on the second reading of a Bill to introduce same sex marriage (SSM). It is, to say the least, proving to be controversial, with some estimating that more than a hundred Conservative MPs will oppose the Bill. However, even though Labour quite likes to revel in causing the government discomfort by voting against things it agrees with (like reform of the House of Lords allowing it to win out against boundary changes), it is unlikely that it will go as far as defeating SSM.
I think it is probably fair to say that there isn’t a large majority, or even a majority in the country that is agitating for SSM. So, in one way, it might be seen as a strange thing for David Cameron to be pushing through against the wishes of a significant proportion of his MPs and Conservative supporters, particularly when one might think that antagonising his Party’s core vote is a dangerous thing to do given their option of switching to UKIP. That SSM ought to be the sort of thing that a Party like UKIP that still pretends to be “libertarian” should support is by the by – by forcing out a parliamentary candidate and its youth wing’s chairman in recent weeks over their support for SSM UKIP has forfeited that claim. So, what’s it all about?
A big reason for Cameron trying to bring SSM in is, I think, that in common with most people of his generation and younger, homosexuality is not something which has or ought to have any stigma. If anything, in urban and suburban middle class, educated areas it can seem more “deviant” to be an outspoken regular churchgoer other than for the purposes of obtaining a place at a “good” school than to be gay.
In this, the proposal can perhaps be seen as a mere reflection of changes in broader society and the direction in which social change is moving. Traditionalists might not like it, but that doesn’t mean that it is bad or illusory. On that basis, Cameron can stand with Margaret Thatcher who was one of only 27 Tory MPs to vote in favour of legalising homosexuality in 1966.
Most of the objections to SSM, whether couched in religious terms or not, seem to be based to an extent on a concept of marriage as a natural state and an inextricable link between marriage and the raising of children. However, marriage is not a natural state but a socially constructed one. So, objections that the SSM proposals redefine marriage don’t take us anywhere in themselves – so what if they do redefine marriage, it doesn’t make them illogical? The link between marriage and parenting was broken a long time ago if it ever really existed. Even if, as I do, think that marriage is a good thing and that it is generally a good thing for children to be raised by their married natural parents that doesn’t mean that has to be to the exclusion of other forms of having and raising a family. Perhaps that should lead towards making marriage less important rather than more important, and in that sense, broadening marriage to SSM might be seen to be fighting the move to make marriage less socially prevalent.
Another feature of the objections which I find striking is that much of the intemperate language used (I hope only) rhetorically by opponents of SSM, invoking legalising polyamory or bestial marriage, echoes the sorts of things only a generation or so ago would have been said about heterosexual relationships between people of different races (as expressed so clearly by Madness), or perhaps a little longer back, between different classes. I’m old enough, at 40 to remember relatively kindly-meant comments from people sympathising with the plight of “half-caste” children for being neither one thing nor the other even if that is now only publicly held as a view by the BNP. They have an echo in people remarking of children being brought up by two parents of the same sex “which one do they call mummy?”.
It is no surprise that there is opposition from social conservatives and Conservative MPs, if anything it is a surprise that more Labour MPs haven’t had the courage to stand up for the views of their more traditional supporters, but this doesn’t make it a wrong thing for the government to be doing. However, the fact that such views are more widely held by those who are older or more strictly religious doesn’t mean that they should prevail or that some MPs representing them somehow makes the Conservatives “baddies” here, no more than that proposing the legislation somehow makes Cameron and those supporting it less Conservative. Really that’s the point of such a measure being subject to a free vote.
So, even if there is no great clamour amongst same sex couples to marry, there’s not a very appealing case for preventing those that wish it to do so. It might not equate to extra votes and may lead some to defect to less socially liberal parties. As with issues like capital punishment, this may be something where Parliament could and should lead rather than follow opinion. If nothing else, it rather gives the lie to Ed Miliband’s cheap line against Cameron that he was being led by his backbenchers if he still retains the confidence to bring forward legislation which he knows many of them will oppose.
SSM doesn’t undermine marriage but broadens its availability to include more people who equally validly wish to make a public committment to their partner and for that committment to be the same regardless of the sex of that partner. The religious and traditional concept of marriage is not a universal – Mrs B and I might be odd, but we specifically did not wish to marry in church, because for us, making the marriage promises in front of and to a God we didn’t believe in would have made it mean less, not more than doing so in front of the people we cared about most. Most couples do not know whether they are capable of having children naturally when they marry, some don’t know whether they even want to have children, others never do and yet marry nevertheless. Is anybody who is arguing that SSM undermines marriage going to say that suddenly they will love their spouse less or that their relationship to their children will be somehow weakened? Will they be clamouring for people to boycott marriage because it has been ruined by being opened up to same sex couples and so no longer an institution they want to be part of? I really don’t think so.