by Mark Stockwell
At a recent event for “Conservatives in communications”, I was gently upbraided (cruelly mocked, some would say) by culture minister Ed Vaizey for my all-too-apparent ignorance of the fact that the government’s proposals on same-sex marriage would fall under the remit of his boss at DCMS, Maria Miller. In common with most of the population, I simply hadn’t given the issue a moment’s thought. So it had not occurred to me that the culture secretary, in her dual role as minister for women and equality, would be responsible for the legislation.
In all honesty, I’d rather not be writing this. I’ve got Christmas shopping to do, for one thing. And it’s not as if I’ve got skin in the game. I’m pretty certain I’m not gay. To the best of my knowledge and recollection, I’m not married either. As for the religious aspect, well, the closest I come to belief in the power of a supernatural being is my blind, unquestioning Tory faith in the guiding force of Adam Smith’s invisible hand.
In other words, the whole issue just didn’t seem that important to me. Certainly not important enough to spend time thinking or writing about. Until now.
I’m not sure whom I should blame for the fact that I now find myself hunched over my laptop typing this when I could be hunched over my laptop buying overpriced wooden toys for my nieces and nephews, and working out how to ship some of them to New Zealand in time for the big day. (Just in case my niece and nephew in NZ are reading this, yes, of course Santa will bring all your presents and no, he’s not a supernatural being, he’s absolutely real. I’m afraid you’ll have to ask your mum what “gay” means.)
I could blame Ed Vaizey, of course. The mere fact of his mentioning the issue sowed the seeds of doubt in my mind that maybe this was something more than just a tidying-up exercise.
More obviously, I could blame the government as a whole for picking a fight with the Tory traditionalists who have entirely predictably come out against the idea. Yes, the current position is anomalous but I don’t sense any great clamour for reform, none of Martin Luther King’s “fierce urgency of now.” David Cameron could have just left well alone, for a time at least.
Sadly, though, anomalies which seem minor can give rise to grave injustice. Intolerance of homosexuality remains rife and out-and-out discrimination – as with the gay couple who recently won damages after they were refused accommodation at a B&B – is far from unknown. The absence of full equality sends out a signal that this is somehow acceptable. It is just not good enough for the opponents of gay marriage to point to civil partnerships and argue that same-sex couples should be satisfied with that. In King’s words again, “they can never be satisfied until they can gain lodging in the motels of the highways and the hotels of the cities.”
Ultimately this is a debate about ownership of the concept of marriage, of the very word. It’s one the traditionalists can’t win – because whether they realise it or not, they’ve already given up without a fight.
It is perfectly legitimate for proponents of a particular religious view to try to claim marriage for themselves. If you regard marriage as, say, the union of one man and one woman in the sight of god, that’s fair enough. There’s as much point arguing with that as with the idea that god created the world in six days and on the seventh he rested. It’s an article of faith.
We could, as a society, decide that we’re perfectly content for religious groupings to “own” the concept of marriage. We could say the state has nothing to do with it beyond supporting the ability of two people to enter freely into a contractual arrangement with one another.
Thankfully, the pass has already been sold. My parents were married at Croydon registry office the best part of 50 years ago with nary a crucifix in sight. They are married in the eyes of their friends and family, and in the eyes of the state. God had nothing to do with it. But married they most certainly are.
Secular couples like my parents have shown they share the desire of religious ones to declare publicly their love for and commitment to one another and, crucially, to call that declaration “marriage.” Civil marriage makes that possible. Nobody seems to have any desire to alter that.
Opponents can cite religious objections or invoke “tradition” against same-sex marriage. But the concept of marriage isn’t theirs to dispose of as they see fit. It doesn’t belong to one section of society but to society as a whole. And to the extent that marriage is recognised by the state it must be available on equal terms to all, regardless of their sexual orientation. You can’t continue to deny civil marriage rights to gay couples without also denying them to everyone else. If gay couples can’t get married, my parents shouldn’t have been able to either.
It’s not a question of society munificently granting equal marriage rights to same-sex couples, as if they were somehow applicants for membership of a gentlemen’s club or off-peak gym members wanting to use the pool after work. Whether Tory traditionalists like it or not, gay people are fully paid-up members of the club, and they should have the same rights as everyone else.
Mark Stockwell is a former adviser to the Conservative party. He now works in public affairs