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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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.