Defining marriage

On the purpose of this voluntary union, the Book of Common Prayer is correct on one of three counts.

Who "owns" marriage? The Archbishop of York thinks that he does, or at least that the church, rather than the government, is its custodian. "It is set in tradition and history and you can't just [change it] overnight, no matter how powerful you are," he warned ministers in an interview with the Telegraph last month. Lynne Featherstone, the equality minister, hit back at the weekend with a piece of her own in the Telegraph. Marriage, she asserted, is owned by "the people"; and that therefore the government, whose job is "to reflect society and to shape the future", has a perfect right to extend the scope of legally-recognised marriage to gay couples.

It's significant that traditionalists are now making what looks like a last stand on the word "marriage" itself, having largely accepted the existence of civil partnership, a phrase invented partly to convince traditionalists that the new status was not the same as marriage. In fact, the distinction is largely a semantic one. There are, perhaps, genuine fears that if the word "marriage" was used, clergy would find themselves faced with legal action if they refused to officiate at gay weddings. But that doesn't seem to have been what Sentamu had at the forefront of his mind when he accused reformers of "trying to change the English language".

Appealing to the "naturalness" or "universality" of exclusively heterosexual marriage, as Dr Sentamu did, is a clever rhetorical strategy, once used by defenders of slavery or racial discrimination. But in truth, the mainstream modern concept of marriage as the romantic union of one man and one woman is neither natural nor universal. It's a fairly modern construct, dating back not much further than the middle of the last century. Rather than being immutable and God-ordained, it is an artefact of developed capitalist societies.

Of course, all known societies have had something that anthropologists recognise as marriage, and in almost all known cases it is a heterosexual institution. The religious conservatives are right about that at least. There are a few exceptions that prove the rule. In some parts of Africa, for example, a woman may take on the attributes of a man, including a wife. She becomes a "female husband" and the legal father of any children born to her wife. But such arrangements are mechanisms to preserve family property (typically when there is no male heir) rather than romantic unions; both partners are expected and indeed encouraged to take heterosexual lovers to satisfy their physical needs.

This points to the reason why legally-defined marriage has, until very recently, been an exclusively heterosexual business. What distingugishes marriage, anthopologically speaking, from other forms of attachment both heterosexual and homosexual is not the relationship of the couple (assuming that they are "a couple") but securing the legitimacy of children.

In most societies, marriage also has an important secondary function of creating bonds between wider kinship groups. In an agricultural society, where land forms the basis of the economy and there is relatively little mobility, either social or geographical, marriage has been the bedrock of society for entirely practical reasons. And these practicalities have produced forms of marriage that romantic modern Westerners, brought up on the myth of the couple, tend to look upon with suspicion or horror: polygamy, arranged marriages, child marriage, levirate (the automatic marriage of a widow to her late husband's brother), dowry systems and so on.

How we got from there to here is a long and complex process. Christianity certainly played a part in it, so it's worth looking briefly at how the church traditionally defined marriage.

According to the Book of Common Prayer there are three purposes for marriage. They are, in order (presumably) of importance: children, sex and companionship. Marriage provides a legitimate and secure setting to raise the next generation, "to be brought up in the fear and nurture of the Lord" as the marriage service has it. This has always been conservatives' favourite argument for preserving the special status of marriage. Nevertheless, a high proportion of children are now born to cohabiting couples and the social stigma on births outside wedlock has largely gone. As for the second reason, ("a remedy against sin, and to avoid fornication") I would only observe that the number of people who insist on marriage as the only proper setting for sex is now fairly small, and the number who rigorously practice such an ideal is considerably smaller still.

Instead, the stress now falls heavily on the third of the traditional marriage service's stated aims, companionship, what the Prayer Book rather beautifully describes as "the mutual society, help, and comfort, that the one ought to have of the other, both in prosperity and adversity." Marriage is now less about creating a family than about celebrating and cementing the relationship of the couple. It is about love and commitment; and it is about two people (or, in an increasing number of cases, about the two people and the children they already have).

Marriage is now an essentially voluntary union that expresses the couple's commitment to one another, to sexual fidelity (usually), to children (optionally), to their religious traditions (sometimes) and to social expectation (decreasingly). To conservatives, marriage serves as a source of stability. The individual commitments of couples still form, they would argue, the basis for a stronger society as a whole. But that is not because the couples are heterosexual; it is because they are couples. And the past few decades have revealed, to the surprise of many, that gay couples can be as traditionally-minded and conventional as straight ones. Why else would they want to get married?

Belief, disbelief and beyond belief
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Junior doctors’ strikes: the greatest union failure in a generation

The first wave of junior doctor contract impositions began this week. Here’s how the BMA union failed junior doctors.

In Robert Tressell’s novel, The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists, the author ridicules the notion of work as a virtuous end per se:

“And when you are all dragging out a miserable existence, gasping for breath or dying for want of air, if one of your number suggests smashing a hole in the side of one of the gasometers, you will all fall upon him in the name of law and order.”

Tressell’s characters are subdued and eroded by the daily disgraces of working life; casualised labour, poor working conditions, debt and poverty.

Although the Junior Doctors’ dispute is a far cry from the Edwardian working-poor, the eruption of fervour from Junior Doctors during the dispute channelled similar overtones of dire working standards, systemic abuse, and a spiralling accrual of discontent at the notion of “noble” work as a reward in itself. 

While the days of union activity precipitating governmental collapse are long over, the BMA (British Medical Association) mandate for industrial action occurred in a favourable context that the trade union movement has not witnessed in decades. 

Not only did members vote overwhelmingly for industrial action with the confidence of a wider public, but as a representative of an ostensibly middle-class profession with an irreplaceable skillset, the BMA had the necessary cultural capital to make its case regularly in media print and TV – a privilege routinely denied to almost all other striking workers.

Even the Labour party, which displays parliamentary reluctance in supporting outright strike action, had key members of the leadership join protests in a spectacle inconceivable just a few years earlier under the leadership of “Red Ed”.

Despite these advantageous circumstances, the first wave of contract impositions began this week. The great failures of the BMA are entirely self-inflicted: its deference to conservative narratives, an overestimation of its own method, and woeful ignorance of the difference between a trade dispute and moralising conundrums.

These right-wing discourses have assumed various metamorphoses, but at their core rest charges of immorality and betrayal – to themselves, to the profession, and ultimately to the country. These narratives have been successfully deployed since as far back as the First World War to delegitimise strikes as immoral and “un-British” – something that has remarkably haunted mainstream left-wing and union politics for over 100 years.

Unfortunately, the BMA has inherited this doubt and suspicion. Tellingly, a direct missive from the state machinery that the BMA was “trying to topple the government” helped reinforce the same historic fears of betrayal and unpatriotic behaviour that somehow crossed a sentient threshold.

Often this led to abstract and cynical theorising such as whether doctors would return to work in the face of fantastical terrorist attacks, distracting the BMA from the trade dispute at hand.

In time, with much complicity from the BMA, direct action is slowly substituted for direct inaction with no real purpose and focus ever-shifting from the contract. The health service is superficially lamented as under-resourced and underfunded, yes, but certainly no serious plan or comment on how political factors and ideologies have contributed to its present condition.

There is little to be said by the BMA for how responsibility for welfare provision lay with government rather than individual doctors; virtually nothing on the role of austerity policies; and total silence on how neoliberal policies act as a system of corporate welfare, eliciting government action when in the direct interests of corporatism.

In place of safeguards demanded by the grassroots, there are instead vague quick-fixes. Indeed, there can be no protections for whistleblowers without recourse to definable and tested legal safeguards. There are limited incentives for compliance by employers because of atomised union representation and there can be no exposure of a failing system when workers are treated as passive objects requiring ever-greater regulation.

In many ways, the BMA exists as the archetypal “union for a union’s sake”, whose material and functional interest is largely self-intuitive. The preservation of the union as an entity is an end in itself.

Addressing conflict in a manner consistent with corporate and business frameworks, there remains at all times overarching emphasis on stability (“the BMA is the only union for doctors”), controlled compromise (“this is the best deal we can get”) and appeasement to “greater” interests (“think of the patients”). These are reiterated even when diametrically opposed to its own members or irrelevant to the trade dispute.

With great chutzpah, the BMA often moves from one impasse to the next, framing defeats as somehow in the interests of the membership. Channels of communication between hierarchy and members remain opaque, allowing decisions such as revocation of the democratic mandate for industrial action to be made with frightening informality.

Pointedly, although the BMA often appears to be doing nothing, the hierarchy is in fact continually defining the scope of choice available to members – silence equals facilitation and de facto acceptance of imposition. You don’t get a sense of cumulative unionism ready to inspire its members towards a swift and decisive victory.

The BMA has woefully wasted the potential for direct action. It has encouraged a passive and pessimistic malaise among its remaining membership and presided over the most spectacular failure of union representation in a generation.

Ahmed Wakas Khan is a junior doctor, freelance journalist and editorials lead at The Platform. He tweets @SireAhmed.