This is about so much more than a piece of paper. Photo: Firemedic58 on Flickr, via Creative Commons
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Equality on marriage certificates will be worth every penny

Every single instance of inequality is worthy of our time, and compared to other things the government chooses to spend our money on, £1.5m is a small price to pay for it.

The roller-coaster life of a campaigning bride-to-be: yesterday it seemed as if the wedding was back on! The Sunday Times reported that equalities minister Jenny Willott was “preparing to make the change” that would finally bring marriage certificates into the twenty-first century along with the rest of us. No longer would the document that makes a marriage legal continue to proclaim marriage a marketplace, where women are traded between men. Mothers were no longer to be banned, and marriage could now legally be what we say it is: a loving union between two equals. How we rejoiced; how I dreamed of champagne and drunken speeches.

But today, apparently, Theresa May says no to equality. I say apparently, because this intervention seems so incredibly ill-judged (who actively comes out against equality? Surely the better part of valour is silence, in such cases), that I still hold out some hope that there has been a miscommunication. There certainly seems to have been one within the Home Office, which the Sunday Times yesterday specifically named as “working on the change with the Department for Culture”. It surely cannot be that equality is going to be a casualty of the Tories' desire to mark themselves out from the Lib Dems in their bid for 2015 success. It cannot be, following on from the May-Gove row, another sign of Theresa May's attempts to mark herself out as the future leader of the Conservatives. I hope not – to sacrifice equality on the altar of electioneering would be shameful.

May has refused to specify the exact amount that would tip this small change over into being “too complex and costly”, but previous estimates from the Home Office have stood at around the £1.5m mark. Granted, that seems like a lot of money for a small change on a document, and the government has yet to substantiate how on earth it could cost so much to add a box to a form – particularly given the new civil partnership forms already have spaces for both mothers and fathers. But even if we were to take this figure at face value, it is peanuts in comparison to the “taxpayers’ money” the government is prepared to spend when the change fits in with their own ideology.

It is peanuts compared to the £425m spent on the Universal Credit system that doesn't work and that by January this year only numbered 5,250 live claimants. It is peanuts compared to the £140m plus lost defending indefensible Atos assessments. It is peanuts compared to the estimated £2.3bn lost selling Royal Mail off on the cheap. And – this is my favourite – it is peanuts compared to the £1bn overspend on Royal Navy Aircraft carriers that don't carry aircraft.

As for the claim that the change is too “complex”, the existence of forms for civil partnerships that contain spaces for both mothers and fathers rather suggests that such a change is not beyond the wit of this government. The existence of equal marriage itself is evidence that where there is political will, Theresa May can manage to find a way to deal with even the most seemingly intractable of problems: having so thoroughly sullied the “sanctity of marriage” by allowing same-sex couples into the institution, surely allowing some extra women through the gates wouldn't be the end of times? Or perhaps this is exactly the kind of slippery slope scenario some conservatives were so concerned about.

Some say that this is just a piece of paper – and in some ways it is. In the strictly literal sense, in the sense of what the government actually needs to change, that is exactly what it is, which is why the resistance to the change is so incomprehensible. And why the fact that we have to fight so hard for it, as we have had to fight so hard for every other change, big and small, is so disheartening. The resistance to this change is a damning indictment on this nation's sense of itself as a progressive land of equal opportunity.

Some say that this is just a piece of paper. But the slightness of the change does not make it unworthy of our time. Every single instance of inequality is worthy of our time. While there is still one area, no matter how small, no matter how seemingly insignificant, in which what applies to men does not apply to women, the fight for equality will not be over. Because every single instance is a sign that we are not yet equal. That we are not yet equally valued. And while we are not equal, the power does not rest equally with us. While we are not equally valued, our power is on loan. Our equality, such as it is, is granted on sufferance.

Some say that this is just a piece of paper. But to me, to Ailsa Burkhimser Sadler, who started the petition on change.org, to the 38,798 people who have so far signed it, it is much more than a piece of paper. It is a symbol of our oppression. It is a sign of how lightly we take women's equality, that we so glibly dismiss attempts to reform legal documents that present women as chattels to be traded. That we tell women to just get married anyway and ignore what is a legal process at the heart of the ceremony – that we tell women to concern their minds only with the fluffy bits.

I think we ignore the significance, underlying or not, of legal documents at our peril. I take this document seriously. I take it so seriously that I feel unable to get married while marriage means I have to sign it. But I want to get married. I want to make a public pledge of commitment to the man I love. And I see no reason why in order to make that public pledge of commitment, I must sacrifice my commitment to equality.

Sign the petition: change.org/nameequality.

Caroline Criado-Perez is a freelance journalist and feminist campaigner. She is also the co-founder of The Women's Room and tweets as @CCriadoPerez.

Photo: Getty
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Why there's never been a worse year to leave the EU than 2017

A series of elections will mean Britain's Brexit deal will be on the backburner until at least January 2018. 

So that's it. Theresa May has invoked Article 50, and begun Britain’s formal exit from the European Union.

Britain and the EU27 have two years to make a deal or Britain will crash out without a deal. There are two ways out of that – firstly, it's possible that Britain could withdraw its invocation of Article 50, though the European Court of Justice has yet to rule on whether Article 50 is reversible or not. 

But if the government reaches the end of the two-year window, the timetable can only be extended with the unanimous agreement of not only the heads of the 27 other member states of the European Union, but the United Kingdom as well. Although both sides would suffer economic damage from an unplanned exit, no-one has done particularly well betting on economic self-interest as far as either Britain or the European Union in general is concerned, let alone when the two’s relationship with another is the subject.

For May in particular, the politics of extending the timetable are fraught. Downing Street wants Brexit done and dusted by 2019 to prevent it becoming a destabilising issue in the 2020 election, and in any case, any extension would provoke ructions in the Conservative Party and the pro-Brexit press.

But the chances that the EU27 and the UK will not come to an agreement at all, particularly by March 2019, are high. Why? In a stroke of misfortune for Britain, 2017 is very probably the worst year in decades to try to leave the European Union. Not just because of the various threats outside the bloc – the election of Donald Trump and the growing assertiveness of Russia – but because of the electoral turmoil inside of it.

May will trigger Article 50 at exactly the time that the French political class turns inward completely in the race to pick François Hollande’s successor as President enters its final stretch. Although a new president will be elected by 7 May, politics in that country will then turn to legislative elections in June. That will be particularly acute if, as now looks likely, Emmanuel Macron wins the presidency, as the French Left will be in an advanced state of if not collapse, at least profound transformation. (If, as is possible but not likely, Marine Le Pen is elected President, then that will also throw Britain's Brexit renegotiations off course but that won't matter as much as the European Union will probably collapse.) 

That the Dutch elections saw a better showing for Mark Rutte's Liberals means that he will go into Brexit talks knowing that he will be Prime Minister for the foreseeable future, but Rutte and the Netherlands, close allies of the United Kingdom, will be preoccupied by coalition negotiations, potentially for much of the year.

By the time the new President and the new legislative assembly are in place in France, Germany will enter election mode as Angela Merkel seeks re-election. Although the candidacy of Martin Schulz has transformed the centre-left SPD's poll rating, it has failed to dent Merkel's centre-right CDU/CSU bloc significantly and she is still in the box seat to finish first, albeit by a narrow margin. Neither Merkel's Christian Democrats or Schulz's Social Democrats, are keen to continue their increasingly acrimonious coalition, but it still looks likely that there will be no other viable coalition. That means there will be a prolonged and acrimonious period of negotiations before a new governing coalition emerges.

All of which makes it likely that Article 50 discussions will not begin in earnest before January 2018 at the earliest, almost halfway through the time allotted for Britain’s exit talks. And that could be further delayed if either the Italian elections or the Italian banking sector causes a political crisis in the Eurozone.

All of which means that May's chances of a good Brexit deal are significantly smaller than they would be had she waited until after the German elections to trigger Article 50. 

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