Should siblings be able to have civil partnerships? It’s the wrong question

A combination of deliberate trolling and lack of consideration dominates the debate.

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How do you respond to a question like Edward Leigh’s? The Conservative MP for Gainsborough was heavily criticised for asking why, in the wake of the government’s decision to legislate to extend civil partnerships to heterosexual couples, the law shouldn’t also be amended to cover siblings who cohabit and run their affairs jointly.

The answer to Leigh’s question is, in a way, open and shut. Leigh has voted against essentially every equal rights measure to come before parliament in his time as an MP and his commitment to the rights of cohabiting siblings, despite an admirably Stalinist attempt to rewrite history by Stephen Daisley over at the Spectator, springs from a long attempt to denigrate and belittle homosexual romantic relationships. He had no problem with the limited rights that siblings or other platonic households have relative to heterosexual married couples. His support for the rights of siblings emanates from his opposition to the extension of the rights of heterosexual people to homosexual people. It’s not a serious point about how people live – it’s trolling.

However, there is a wider discussion about non-romantic households and of course the (now successful) campaign to extend civil partnerships to heterosexual couples as well, which deserves a more considered answer than Leigh’s trolling.

From a legal perspective, the important rights of marriage all relate to its end, whether through early termination or death. Before we got married, my partner and I were already an economically integrated unit: we had a joint bank account from which we paid rent and utilities and a shared tenancy agreement. But, rather like the Eurozone, we had no mechanism for an orderly break-up. From a commitment perspective, the uncertain legal position of our shared financial obligations was a far bigger leap of faith than anything we said to one another at our local town hall.

And, as I was immediately and terrifyingly reminded when, on our honeymoon, my partner became very ill, the other essential rights of marriage are, fundamentally, about hospitals. (She got better.) The best case scenario for any long-term relationship, barring a shared plane crash aged 98, is that one of you will have to make end-of-life decisions on behalf of the other and that an economically interdependent joint household will have to continue as a solo one, which is why inheritance and tenancy rights pass onto the widow or widower afterwards.

So those are the important rights and protections that a marriage, whether secular or religious, extends to the couple in question. And there is a good case to be made that similar protections should be given to platonic households, particularly as it looks likely that the changing shape of our housing market will mean the proliferation of that kind of arrangement.

However, civil partnerships are an inappropriate way to do that, whether or not the suggestion is, like Leigh’s, motivated by animus to homosexual love. Because for most people, their marriage isn’t just about the protection of various rights and end-of-life decisions. It is also a social covenant, a bond that is recognised not only by lawyers, landlords, mortgage lenders and hospitals but also by friends, family and society as a whole.

To illustrate that, I want to talk about the first wedding I went to as an adult. It was, as it happens, a civil partnership, between a couple who had been at the time of their wedding together for 32 years. Their relationship lasted a further four years and ended when one of them died – but before the introduction of equal marriage.

For the couple in question, and for almost everyone who knew them, that death marked the end of a marriage. We attended a wedding ceremony. Our friend had become a widower. It wasn’t a not-quite marriage that is more acceptable to straight couples who don’t like aspects of civil marriage ceremonies: it was a marriage. Nor was it a legal mechanism equally suited to facilitate and protect the relationship between cohabiting siblings. It was a celebration of enduring romantic love.

And I’m not saying that the civil partnerships for straight couples campaign has been deliberately or maliciously indifferent to the importance of that in the way Edward Leigh is being: but the language of their campaign has regularly slipped into that. If you want to campaign for greater legal protections for platonic households, or a different institution of civil unions, you should do so on that basis.

Stephen Bush is political editor of the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.