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
Belief, disbelief and beyond belief
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How can the left make the case for immigration?

All too often, we drift into telling people we want to convince that they just don't get it.

We don’t give the public enough credit. You’ll often hear their views dismissed with sighs in intellectual circles. In fact on most issues the public are broadly sensible, most are these days supportive of cutting the deficit and dubious about political giveaways, but in favor of protecting spending on the NHS and education. Yet there is one issue where most, “knowledgeable” folks will tell you the public are well out of step: immigration. 

With [today’s] net migration figures showing yet another record high, it is an ever more salient issue. On a lot of measures ‘too much immigration’ ranks highest as the number one concern (see Ipossmori). The ongoing rise of right wing political parties across Europe demonstrates that simply enough. But concerns about immigration don’t just sit with those with more extreme views, they’re also shared across the mainstream of public opinion. Yet unlike thinking on cutting the deficit or funding the NHS the public consensus that immigration is bad for Britain, flies flat in the face of the intellectual consensus, and by that I mean the economics. 

Given the intense public debate many a study has tried to spell out the economic impact of immigration, most find that it is positive. Immigration boosts the nation’s GDP. As the theory goes this is because immigrants bring with them entrepreneurialism and new ideas to the economy. This means firstly that they help start new ventures that in turn create more wealth and jobs for natives. They also help the supply chains to keep ticking. A example being British agriculture, where seasonal workers are are needed, for example, to pick the strawberries which help keeps the farms, the truckers and the sellers in business. 

Most studies also find little evidence of British jobs being lost (or displaced) due to immigrants, certainly when the economy is growing. Indeed economists refer to such “ “they’re” taking our jobs” arguments as the “lump of labour fallacy’. On top of all that the average migrant is younger than the native population and less likely to rely on welfare, so their net contribution to the state coffers are more likely to be positive than natives as they don’t draw as much state spending from pensions or the NHS. 

So why haven't the public cottoned on? Many progressive types dismiss such views as racist or xenophobic. But it turns out this is to misunderstand the public just as much as the public ‘misunderstand’ immigration. When you study people’s views on immigration more closely it becomes clear why. Far from being racist most people asked by focus groups cite practical concerns with immigration. Indeed if you go by the British Social Attitudes Survey a much smaller number of people express racist view than say they are concerned about migration.  

The think tank British Future broadly set out that while a quarter of people are opposed to immigration in principle and another quarter are positive about it the majority are concerned for practical reasons - concerns about whether the NHS can cope, whether there are enough social houses, whether our border controls are up to scratch and whether we know how many people are coming here in the first place (we don’t since exit checks were scrapped, they only came back a few months ago). But more than anything else they also have very little confidence that government can or wants to do anything about it. 

This truth, which is to often ignored, begets two things. Firstly, we go about making the argument in the wrong way. Telling someone “you don’t understand immigration is good for our economy etc etc” is going to get a reaction which says “this person just doesn't get my concerns”. Despite the moans of progressives, this is precisely why you won't hear left leaning politicians with any nous ‘preaching’ the the unconditional benefits of immigration.

More importantly, the economic arguments miss the central issue that those concerned with immigration have, that the benefits and effects of it are not shared fairly. Firstly migrants don’t settle homogeneously across the country, some areas have heavy influxes other have very little. So while the net effect of immigration may be positive on the national tax take that doesn't mean that public services in certain areas don’t loose out. Now there isn't clear evidence of this being the case, but that could just as well be because we don’t record the usage of public services by citizenship status. 

The effects are also not equal on the income scale, because while those of us with higher incomes scale tend to benefit from cheep labour in construction, care or agriculture (where many lower skilled migrants go) the lower paid British minority who work in those sectors do see small downward pressure on their wages. 

It’s these senses of unfairness of how migration has been managed (or not) that leads to the sense of concern and resentment. And any arguments about the benefit to the UK economy fail to answer the question of what about my local economy or my bit of the labour market. 

Its worth saying that most of these concerns are over-egged and misused by opponents of immigration. Its only a small factor in stagnating wages, and few local areas are really overrun. But the narrative is all important, if you want to win this argument you have to understand the concerns of the people you are trying to convince. That means the right way to make the argument about immigration is to start by acknowledging your opponents concerns - we do need better border controls and to manage demands on public services. Then persuade them that if we did pull up the drawbridge there is much we’d loose in smart entrepreneurs and in cultural diversity. 

Just whatever you do, don’t call them racist, they’re probably not.

Steve O'Neill was deputy head of policy for the Liberal Democrats until the election.