Anyone who keeps an eye on the news can’t have missed the coverage given to the second reading of the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill in the Commons yesterday. Credit where it’s due, David Cameron was behind it, but sadly 175 MPs voted against it - that’s almost half of the Conservatives in the Commons.
What is the basis of opposition to gay marriage? It seems to boil down to two general ideas: that such a change was not in the manifesto and therefore has no mandate, and/or that marriage is somehow only meant to be applied to ‘one man and one woman’.
Let’s deal with the first objection, as given by those such as former Tory defence minister Sir Gerald Howarth. I am actually in favour of manifesto commitments being binding. If a party promises something in their manifesto they should be legally obliged to at least put a bill to the vote in parliament. Yes, there would be ways to ensure that it never passed (like voting against it), but it would certainly be a step in the right direction towards being straight with the voters. This should not only apply to ‘positive’ commitments, but also ‘negative’ ones, i.e. things that the party won’t do.
These promises and commitments wouldn’t necessarily have to be included in published manifestos - they could also be given in speeches, leaflets, party policitcal broadcasts and so on. The legal test would be whether any reasonable voter might expect the party to do it. It would be similar to laws around advertising. After all, advertising is what the parties are doing in manifestos etc.
It’s true that there was no manifesto commitment to the introduction of gay marriage, but then there was no promise not to. Governments must be allowed to do things that aren’t in any manifesto or commitment (or not specifically excluded before the election), otherwise all governments would be rather hamstrung. As it is, we have a government where one party hasn’t kept a specific commitment (Lib Dems on tuition fees) and a main party who flat-out lied to get elected (Cameron on NHS reorganisations). These things should be criminal offences. It might be harsh, but being able to make promises then not act on them, or just lie, makes a mockery of the democratic process.
No party in government said anything about gay marriage, so legislating on it is fair game, whether Tories like it or not.
Let’s consider the second point, which is the general ‘marriage can only be between a man and a woman’ argument. Up until now this has been true, of course. However, that doesn’t mean it’s right or shouldn’t be changed. Until quite recently, the very act of having sex was illegal if you were gay, and you don’t have to go back much further to see no votes for women, slavery, and so on. To modern minds is seems incomprehensible that politicians ever argued against the right for gay people to sleep with who they like, or votes for women, etc, but they did. We are simply seeing a more current version of the same argument. It rests on a resistance to change rather than logic or evidence, so it really has no validity.
Finally one must consider the religious argument. Some MPs used faith as a reason to vote against the bill. Now, personally I don’t think religion has any place in politics, and every time it is brought-up in parliament strengthens the case for a full separation of church and state. However, aside from that I don’t think anyone could claim that the church will ‘suffer’ in this case. There is a clear exemption for churches who do not wish to perform gay marriages from doing so, so why should those churches stop others doing as their congregations wish? For the record, it is worth noting that all of the Muslim members of parliament voted for the bill.
Conservatives like to talk about ‘small government’ and shrinking the state, but ‘small c’ conservatives and those on the Right around the world are the most obsessed with what consenting adults do. I think that the state has no business saying much at all, and certainly not legislating, about activities that don’t harm anyone else. What difference does a gay marriage make to people who don’t like it, other than a vague unease that others don’t see life in quite the same way as they do? I guess racists feel the same, but we don’t have to pander to them, and they don’t get so many MPs arguing their case. And rightly so.
We live in an age where we like to think that equality is a given. The fact that so many MPs voted against the Bill rather shows that it isn’t. Let’s be clear - this is a vote that either shows you believe in equality or you don’t. Saying that people of the same sex shouldn’t marry is not only making government inexplicably concerned in the private lives of individuals, but is just plain old bigotry. To have people with such views making our laws should worry everyone.