Why is same sex marriage so controversial?

Its opponents may well have a darker motivation than they admit.

Ever since the debate about same sex marriage was launched last year I've been wondering what all the fuss is about.

Obviously, opening what has previously been an exclusively heterosexual legal status to couples of the same gender was going to cause some controversy. There was opposition from traditionalists to the creation of civil partnerships in 2004, though you wouldn't know it to listen to most of them today. Allowing gay couples to adopt children was once controversial. So was equalising the age of consent at 16. So was reducing the age of consent for same sex partners from 21, which happened as rececently as 1994. These measures always attract opposition, often from the churches. 

But the opposition to same sex marriage has been of a different order. Some of it has been quite bizarre.

600,000 people have signed an online petition opposing any "redefinition" of marriage to include gay couples. MPs' postbags have bulged, swelled by a write-in campaign preached from the pulpits of many churches. Senior Tory figures have warned of mass defections of party members. Religious leaders have spoken in apocalyptic terms of what will befall society should the proposed change go ahead. Scotland's Cardinal Keith O'Brien suggested that the move was akin to legalising slavery. One openly gay Conservative, Conor Burns, has spoken of his shock at the tone of some of the correspondence: "I don’t know what kind of God some of those people who have contacted me from religious groups believe in," he said, "but he’s certainly not compassionate or loving."

Around 50 MPs voted against civil partnerships in 2004. It was reported at the weekend that up to 180 Conservative MPs may rebel (on a free vote) in today's debate. We shall see. But at a time when poverty is rising, the economy - to put it politely - becalmed and the NHS, the education system and the police in organisational chaos, you have to wonder precisely why for so many people same sex marriage has become such a big deal.

It's worth remembering that for all the heated debate the proposed change is almost entirely cosmetic. Civil partnership already gives a couple all the legal rights of marriage, as opponents of the Same Sex Couples Bill never tire of pointing out. All they lack is the ability to say that they are legally married. How can a single word be so important?

The nearest thing to a coherent argument against same sex marriage goes something like this. The majority of human cultures have always seen in the union of a man and a woman the basic building-block of society. Marriage isn't merely an arrangement between the couple, but anchors the wider social realm - and, like it or not, homo sapiens comes in two distinct sexes (with some fuzziness around the edges, perhaps, but let's not complicate things too much). Above all, marriage is about the family, about the raising of the next generation. Therefore it is rightly regarded as in some sense sacred. Its heterosexual nature is part of its intrinsic nature: some go on to argue that "same sex marriage" is an oxymoron, or at best a legal fiction.

But if marriage is mainly about children, what about marriages which are infertile, or where the couple is past childbearing age, or where one of the partners is terminally ill or incapacitated? In none of these cases do proponents of traditional marriage object. These are said to be exceptions to the general rule. What they fail to explain is why a marriage where the partners are of the same sex might not equally be considered an exceptional case. At present, more marriages take place between heterosexual couples who intend not to have children than are ever likely to take place between gay couples.

If campaigners for "traditional marriage" care so much about formalised, monogamous heterosexual relationships, should they not be concentrating their efforts on preventing marriage breakdown, perhaps by making divorce more difficult, than on frustrating the desire of a relatively small number of same-sex couples to tie the knot? To be fair, some do campaign on more general issues around the state of marriage - but rarely, it seems to me, with anything like the intensity they bring to bear on their obsession with same-sex unions. 

I've come to the reluctant conclusion that same sex marriage inspires such passionate opposition mainly because it represents the last symbolic move towards full equality of esteem for gay couples. Legal equality they already have, or close enough: civil partnerships represent the substance of marriage without the name. But the name matters, because without it those who have never quite been reconciled to gay rights can convince themselves that heterosexual marriage is still a qualitatively different from and superior to its homosexual equivalent. While the law reflects this distinction, all is not lost: opposite sex marriage is still special, therefore heterosexuality is still special, still normative rather than merely the majority preference. 

Civil partnerships, however unwelcome they seemed at the time (and the Catholic Church still opposes them) are quite useful in this regard. On the one hand, they can be held up as evidence that same sex marriage is unnecessary, a symbolic distraction, because gay couples now have legal rights. (And also as evidence that the speaker is not homophobic, because "I support civil partnerships".) But on the other, the distinction between the two forms of public union reinforces, perhaps even creates, the idea that heterosexual and gay relationships are different types of thing. 

It would be untrue to say that support for civil partnership is the last refuge of homophobia in modern Britain; gay people still face much more serious forms of hatred and discrimination. It's a sign of progress that the section of religious and political opinion that 45 years ago fought the legalisation of gay sex contents itself today with arguing about the meaning of a word. But the vehemence of the opponents of equal marriage, out of all proportion to any effect that the proposed change could possibly have, suggests a darker motivation than they admit or even realise.


Loren Cowley and Michelle Ricketts after their wedding in Sydney. Photograph: Getty Images
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John McDonnell interview: "We’re going to destroy Osborne’s credibility"

The shadow chancellor on the Spending Review, Jeremy Corbyn's leadership and why trade unions will have to break the law. 

When I interviewed John McDonnell in March, before the general election, he predicted that Labour would be the largest party and confessed to a “sneaking feeling that we could win a small majority – because I think the Tory vote is really soft”. As the long-standing chair of the Socialist Campaign Group, McDonnell anticipated leading the resistance inside Labour to any spending cuts made by Ed Miliband. Eight months later, he is indeed campaigning against austerity – but as shadow chancellor against a Conservative majority government.

I meet McDonnell in his new Westminster office in Norman Shaw South, a short walk down the corridor from that of his close friend and greatest ally, Jeremy Corbyn. The day before George Osborne delivers his Spending Review and Autumn Statement, his desk is cluttered with economic papers in preparation for his response.

“The message we’re trying to get across is that this concept of the Tories’ having a ‘long-term economic plan’ is an absolute myth and they’re in chaos, really in chaos on many fronts,” he tells me. McDonnell points to the revolt against cuts to tax credits and policing, and the social care crisis, as evidence that Osborne’s programme is unravelling. On health, he says: “He’s trying to dig out money as best as he can for the NHS, he’s announced the frontloading of some of it, but that simply covers the deficits that there are. Behind that, he’s looking for £22bn of savings, so this winter the NHS is going to be in crisis again.”

Asked what Labour’s equivalent is to the Tories’ undeniably effective “long-term economic plan” message, he said: “I don’t think we’re going to get into one-liners in that way. We’ll be more sophisticated in the way that we communicate. We’re going to have an intelligent and a mature economic debate. If I hear again that they’re going to ‘fix the roof while the sun shines’ I will throw up. It’s nauseating, isn’t it? It reduces debate, intellectual debate, economic debate, to the lowest level of a slogan. That’s why we’re in the mess we are.”

Having abandoned his original support for the Chancellor’s fiscal charter, which mandated a budget surplus by 2020, McDonnell makes an unashamed case for borrowing to invest. “The biggest failure of the last five years under Osborne is the failure to invest,” he says. “Borrowing at the moment is at its cheapest level, but in addition to that I’m not even sure we’ll need to borrow great amounts, because we can get more efficient spending in terms of government spending. If we can address the tax cuts that have gone ahead, particularly around corporation tax, that will give us the resources to actually start paying again in terms of investment.”

He promises a “line-by-line budget review” when I ask whether there are any areas in which he believes spending should be reduced. “My background is hard-nosed bureaucrat . . . we’ll be looking at where we can shift expenditure into more productive areas.”

From 1982 until 1985, John McDonnell, who is 64, was chair of finance at the Greater London Council under Ken Livingstone. After vowing to defy the Thatcher government’s rate-capping policy he was sacked by Livingstone, who accused him of manipulating figures for political purposes. “We’re going to look like the biggest fucking liars since Goebbels,” the future mayor of London told him. McDonnell, who later described Livingstone’s account as “complete fiction”, has since resolved his differences with the man now co-chairing Labour’s defence review.

After his election as the MP for Hayes and Harlington in 1997, McDonnell achieved renown as one of New Labour’s most vociferous opponents, rebelling with a frequency rivalled only by Corbyn. His appointment as shadow chancellor was the most divisive of the Labour leader’s reshuffle. “People like Jeremy even if they don’t agree with him. People don’t like John,” one MP told me at the time. Mindful of this, McDonnell has sought to transform his image. He has apologised for his past praise of the IRA and for joking about assassinating Margaret Thatcher, rebranding himself as a “boring bank manager”. But there are moments when his more radical side surfaces.

He told me that he supports workers breaking the law if the trade union bill, which would limit the right to strike, is passed. “It’s inevitable, I think it’s inevitable. If the bill is introduced in its existing form and is used against any particular trade unionist or trade union, I think it’s inevitable that people will resist. We established our rights by campaigning against unjust laws and taking the risk if necessary. I think that’s inevitable and I’ll support them.”

“Chaos” might be how McDonnell describes Osborne’s position but the same term is now daily applied to Labour. The party is riven over air strikes in Syria and the renewal of Trident and MPs are ever more scornful of Corbyn’s leadership.

While Corbyn has so far refused to offer Labour MPs a free vote on Syria, McDonnell says that he favours one and would oppose military action. “My position on wars has always been that it’s a moral issue and therefore I veer towards free votes . . . We’re waiting for Cameron’s statement; we’ll analyse that, there’ll be a discussion in shadow cabinet and in the PLP [Parliamentary Labour Party] and then we’ll make a decision. I’m still in a situation where I’ve expressed the view that I’m opposed to the bombing campaign or engagement. I think the history of the UK involvement in the Middle East has been a disaster, to say the least . . .This isn’t like the Second World War where you have a military campaign – you defeat the enemy, you sign a peace agreement and that’s it – this is asymmetric warfare. In addition to the risks that are in the battlefield there’s a risk in every community in our land as a result of it.”

Would he want any of the 14 former shadow cabinet members who refused to serve under Corbyn to return? “All of them, we’re trying to get them all back. We’ve got Yvette [Cooper] helping us on a review we’re doing about the economy and women . . . It’s an open door policy, I’m trying to meet them all over these next few weeks.”

Livingstone, a member of Labour’s National Executive Committee, recently called for Simon Danczuk, who revealed details of a private meeting with Corbyn in the Mail on Sunday, and Frank Field, who told me that MPs should run as independents if deselected, to be disciplined. But McDonnell takes a more conciliatory line. “With Simon [Danczuk] in particular and the others, it’s just a matter of saying look at the long-term interests of the party. People don’t vote for a divided party. They’ll accept, though, that within a party you can have democratic debate. As I said time and time again, don’t mistake democracy for division. It’s the way in which you express those different views that are important. All I’m saying is let people express their views, let’s have democratic engagement but please don’t personalise this. I think there’s a reaction within the community, not just the party, against personalised politics. It’s not Jeremy’s style, he never responds in that way. It’s unfortunate but we’ll get through it. It’s just minor elements of it, that’s all.”

McDonnell disavows moves by some in Momentum, the Corbyn-aligned group, to deselect critical MPs. “What we’re not into is deselecting people, what we want to try and do is make sure that everyone’s involved in a democratic engagement process, simple as that.

“So I’ve said time and time again, this isn’t about deselection or whatever. But at the same what we’re trying to say to everybody is even if you disagree, treat each other with respect. At the height of the debates around tuition fees and the Iraq war, even though we had heated disagreements we always treated each other with mutual respect and I think we’ve got to adhere to that. Anyone who’s not doing that just lets themselves down, that’s not the culture of the Labour Party.”

In private, the 90 per cent of MPs who did not support Corbyn’s leadership bid speak often of how and when he could be removed. One point of debate is whether, under the current rules, the Labour leader would automatically make the ballot if challenged or be forced to re-seek nominations. McDonnell is emphatic that the former is the case: “Oh yeah, that’s the rule, yeah.”

McDonnell’s recent media performances have been praised by MPs, and he is spoken of by some on the left as a possible replacement if Corbyn is removed or stands down before 2020. His speech to the PLP on 23 November was described to me by one shadow minister as a “leadership bid”. But McDonnell rules out standing in any future contest. “No, no, I’ve tried twice [in 2007 and 2010], I’m not going to try again, there’s no way I would.”

Despite opinion polls showing Labour as much as 15 points behind the Conservatives, McDonnell insists that the party can win in 2020. “Oh definitely, yeah, you’ll see that. I think this next year’s going to be pivotal for us. We’re going to destroy Osborne’s credibility over the next six months. But more importantly than that, we can’t just be a negative party . . . we’re going to present a positive view of what Labour’s future will be and the future of the economy.

“Over the next 18 months, we’ll be in a situation where we’ve destroyed the Tories’ economic reputation and we’ve built up our own but we’ll do it in a visionary way that presents people with a real alternative.”  

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.