Equality campaigners divided over "wrecking" amendment to gay marriage bill

While some support the introduction of civil partnerships for heterosexuals, others warn of a "dark" and "cynical" attempt by Tory MPs to destroy the bill.

After devoting last week to an esoteric debate over Europe, this week is set to be another in which the Conservative Party demonstrates its increasingly tenuous relationship with the modern world. The gay marriage bill is back in the Commons for its report stage and David Cameron is likely to face a revolt on the scale of that in February when 136 Conservative MPs opposed the legislation.

Before the main vote tomorrow, MPs will vote tonight on an amendment tabled by former Tory minister Tim Loughton that would extend civil partnerships to heterosexual couples. Loughton, who opposes same-sex marriage, insists that the amendment has been submitted in good faith, but the government is briefing that it is an attempt to "wreck" the legislation. (It's worth pausing to note the oddity of Tory MPs opposing gay marriage, which won't "undermine" the institution of marriage, while supporting heterosexual partnerships, which certainly will.) It has warned that the change could delay the passage of the bill by up to two years and cost the government an additional £4bn in pension liabilities. On the Today programme this morning, equalities minister Maria Miller said: 

Look, I want to be seeing marriages being undertaken under this new bill as early as next summer and to actually put in at this stage such a fundamental change I believe risks that and it risks significant delay and I think those that are supporting it need to be very aware of that.

Miller's words were a warning to Labour, which has pledged to support the amendment on the grounds of equality. It has dismissed the government's warnings as "farcical", noting that the supposed size of the "price tag" has grown from £3bn to £4bn in five days. Some Labour MPs also believe that ministers may be preparing to use the passage of the amendment as a convenient excuse to abandon the bill. But other equality campaigners echo the government's concerns. 

Despite long supporting the introduction of civil partnerships for heterosexuals, the Lib Dems are set to vote against the amendment for fear that it will wreck the bill. Lynne Featherstone, the former equalities minister, said: "The people pushing these changes are not those with records of supporting equality and marriage rules that accommodate a diversity of couples.

"The proposals are coming from those who are avowed and determined opponents of equal marriage. Have they suddenly become converts to the cause of equality?

"Given their public statements I fear what is at work here is rather darker and more cynical – a deliberate attempt to wreck the legislation."

In addition, the gay rights group Stonewall has said that it is "anxious about anything that could delay this much needed change in the law to bring about marriage equality". 

But other campaigners, most notably Peter Tatchell, have urged MPs to support the amendment to correct a long standing injustice. Asked if he was concerned that Loughton and other Tory MPs were proposing it simply to "wreck" the bill, he said: "Yes, I am concerned but we should do the right thing, regardless of their shabby motives. Equality for all. You can't fault that." 

The outcome is now likely to rest on whether the government can persuade Labour that its warnings are sincere and that it should reconsider its position.

David Cameron addresses guests at the gay pride reception in the garden at 10 Downing Street, in central London on June 16, 2010. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Is the Great Fire of London a blueprint for how governments deal with disasters?

Visible leadership, an established authority, and a common external enemy: an enduring defence mechanism 350 years on.

In 1968, the science journal The Lancet ran a report into human behaviour. When populations are confronted with disaster, it recommended, effective “communications, coordination, and control, and the establishment of a recognised authority” are of utmost importance (advice that should have been heeded immediately after the Brexit result in June this year).

The 350th anniversary of the Great Fire of London this week seems is a good time to think about how we deal with disasters: over 13,000 homes were destroyed, 87 churches ruined and thousands of Londoners displaced.

For me, one of the most striking parts of the story of the Great Fire is not the fire itself nor the dramatic rebuilding programme that followed, but the state of flux in between.

When the fire broke out, England was at war with both the Dutch Republic and France. As soon as news reached France, the Venetian ambassador Alvise Sagredo, declared that the fire would be “worse than the plague and any other disaster, capable of making [the English] change their government and their principles”.

In England, even the London Gazette warned that England’s foes would try “to persuade the world abroad of great parties and disaffection at home against his majesties government”. Faced with unparalleled destruction and unprecedented disarray, how did the king, his advisers and civic authorities regain control of London?

With the Guildhall severely damaged and the Royal Exchange destroyed, the first step was to find a new base for civic and mercantile power. On 6 September, Charles II instructed the Lord Mayor and the city aldermen to resume governance of the city. Gresham College and buildings around Bishopsgate were taken over and efforts were immediately taken to re-establish trade. Vendors were granted permission to set up sheds in temporary markets at Bishopsgate Street, Tower Hill, Smithfield and Leadenhall Street.

“Honest and able persons” were selected to monitor the ruined city to ensure fire did not break out afresh, appeals were made across the country for charitable donations and neighbouring counties were called upon to provide sustenance. From the navy stores, ship’s biscuit was offered to the needy and canvas was provided so that the tens of thousands of homeless people stranded in the fields surrounding London could fashion tents.

The measures were not perfect. Visiting Moorfields, the diarist John Evelyn described, “the poor inhabitants . . . some under tents, some under miserable huts and hovels, many without a rag”.

Those stranded found food to be in short supply and many succumbed to the illnesses bred by a reduced condition in life, including aged playwright James Shirley, who died in October 1666.

But it wasn’t long before people started to disperse – either leaving London altogether, finding accommodation elsewhere, or returning to the locations of their former homes and shops to erect makeshift shacks above the ruins.

In the background, the trial and execution of French watchmaker Robert Hubert, who falsely claimed to have started the fire, provided a focus for any anger and rage.

With communication ruptured following the destruction of the London Gazette printing house and the General Letter Office, rumours of plots, arson and invasions had spread almost as quickly as the fire itself. Indeed, terrible violence had broken out during the fire, with mobs targeting any “strangers” or foreign-born Londoners. One French servant, for example, reported how gangs of “English women did knock down strangers for not speaking good English. Some of them armed with spits, some with bread staffs, and the captain with a broad sword.”

When the London Gazette was released the week after the fire – after only skipping one edition of its biweekly run – it provided readers with a detailed description of the catastrophe, emphasising its accidental nature and promoting the role played by Charles II and his brother and heir, James, Duke of York, in preventing the fire spreading even further.

Against protocol, the newspaper also allowed important tradespeople to advertise their new offices: the goldsmith-bankers, for example, informed readers that they had found premises along Broad Street.

By mid-September, the etcher Wenceslaus Hollar had already begun his survey of the city and plans had been submitted to the king from John Evelyn and architects Christopher Wren and Robert Hooke, to name just a few, as to how to rebuild the capital.

Writing at the time, Sir Nathaniel Hobart, believed that the “rebuilding of the Citty will not be soe difficult as the satisfying all interests, there being many proprietors”. As such, one of the most important innovations following the disaster was the establishment of a judiciary, known as the Fire Court, to untangle the complex web of formal and informal agreements between tenants and landlords. From 1667 until 1672 the Fire Court settled hundreds and hundreds of cases.

There were certainly many bumps along the way – for a while, the City of London was plundered and inhabited by gangs. Plus, anger towards foreign-born Londoners continued; owing to his Dutch background, one Johan Vandermarsh had to fight tooth and nail to keep hold of his property on Lime Street, despite helping to save many of his neighbours’ homes.

All of this considered, there was nothing like the widespread disorder that Charles II had feared and his enemies expected. On the contrary, the visibility of the king and his brother and heir – and the convenient suspicion that the fire had been started by an external enemy – worked to bind the people to their king and settle unrest. Although hard to believe at the time, there was also the promise of “a more beautiful city”.

Rebecca Rideal is a historian, factual television producer and author of 1666: Plague, War and Hellfire.

She will be speaking at London’s Burning festival on Friday 2 September – a contemporary festival of art and ideas produced at Artichoke to commemorate the 350th anniversary of the Great Fire of London. Free to the public, it runs from 30 August-4 September.