There have been a number of events recently that puzzle me. That is not surprising these days; I am now constantly foxed by life, by parking meters, telephone answering machines, BOGOF offers at the supermarket, texts from Ms Sexylegs, etc.
But to deal with one of these events, you may have seen that on 5 February the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill was approved by the House of Commons by 400–175. The legislation still has to pass the House of Lords, and who knows how they will vote, but the decisive Commons vote by more than 2 to 1 seems to be pretty representative of current public opinion. But the voting has split the Conservative Party. Bizarrely, more Conservatives voted against the bill than voted for. In fact, almost all the votes against were Conservative. Because of this, a number of questions have arisen.
Why has the Prime Minister pushed this legislation through? It wasn't in the Party manifesto and clearly wasn't supported within the Party. Passing legislation by enlisting Opposition support is not that unusual, but it's pretty odd for an issue of this kind, especially when you don't have your own party's backing at all. Moreover, although public opinion is onside, most people are actually fairly apathetic about the subject. They are much more likely to get excited about the tax on sausage rolls or a railway running through their garden.
Secondly, what has made half the Conservative Party vote against their leader's Bill? Surprisingly, their objections seem to be religious ones. 'Surprisingly' because no one else in Parliament seems to hold such strong religious views. I shan't go into the religious points here, you no doubt know, or can guess, what they are. Anyway, it will remain illegal to have a same-sex marriage in a CofE or RC church for some years I think, but some other religions have already accepted the principle, so church marriage will be possible when the law is passed.
Thirdly, what is the view of same-sex couples? Are they all as keen on the law change as their activist representatives? It is always the same with minority views, the activists are so vociferous, that one can hardly believe the whole world doesn't agree. But, as far as I am aware, there has been enormous support for the Civil Partnership, introduced at the end of 2005, a union which the Church accepts, but not much of a movement in preference for same-sex marriage. There remains a body of opinion within the LGBT community none the less that wants marriage on a par with heterosexual couples. But what exactly does 'on a par' mean here?
I confess my initial reaction was to bemoan the continual minority picking away at societal norms. Marriage is a union between a man and a woman and that's that. There's no reason of course why that can't change. Society is dynamic and views evolve. Changing the law is trickier and changing religious practice is something else. But the position can change and no doubt will, given the present momentum. Never the less, although LGBTs don't want to be different in marriage from everyone else, the fact remains that they are different.
Same-sex relationships tend to be based on the way one likes to have sex, whereas marriage is based on procreation for the survival of the species or the family line, depending on your view. Maybe those needs are less urgent these days, but this was the intention of the institution of marriage. Henry VIII would have had none of his problems if that was not the case. And, as you will have seen in the Tudors television series, sexual gratification was a separate matter. In some cultures, a marriage between members of different families and descent is still considered more important than love, certainly than sex.
However, in a ruling against marriage between transsexuals as long ago as 1967, Mr Justice Ormerod stated "Marriage is a relationship which depends on sex, not on gender". This rather defeats my initial conclusion. And anyway Henry VIII made some pretty radical changes to law and religion to accommodate marriage, so it it is clearly not impossible to do it again.
So how does civil partnership change the situation? I was rather irritated, to be honest, when, after all the fuss to get that legislation approved, gay activists continued to campaign for more. The recent case of Celia Kitzinger and Sue Wilkinson is also interesting, where their discrimination case (that not recognising their civil partnership as a marriage contravened their human rights) failed because "such discrimination has a legitimate aim, is reasonable and proportionate, and falls within the margin of appreciation accorded to Convention States." In other words, human rights legislation not only permits discrimination against same-sex marriage, but recognises that civil partnership confers all the rights and responsibilities of marriage. So, opening marriage to same-sex couples would confer no new legal rights on those already in a civil partnership, yet would require multiple legal changes and the definition of marriage would have to change for everyone. As I have said, that is no reason not to do it and it would certainly end discrimination.
So, the argument is between maintaining marriage and civil partnership, since there is no difference between them, or harmonising the two because there is no difference.
But, even accepting that, it is still a slightly odd debate. The trend to marriage has continually fallen (despite a slight recent rise, probably following the 2002 changes in the immigration laws). The fastest-growing type of family in the UK is of those living together without being married. The number of people who cohabit has quadrupled from 0.6% to 2.2% (5.9 million couples) since 1996. Over the last 10 years, the numbers of children born to cohabiting couples has also doubled, suggesting that the unmarried state is a genuine social choice over marriage. There is, moreover, no religious or society objection now generally to cohabitation or to children born out of wedlock, nor indeed to divorce. Since the Divorce Reform Act came into effect in 1971, the annual number of divorces has continued to rise. At the same time, although same-sex couples in civil partnerships appear to be less likely statistically to “divorce” than their heterosexual counterparts, dissolutions of such unions, particularly among females, are already occurring, despite only being made legal relatively recently, suggesting that legal union for homosexuals is no more binding than for heteros.
So we have a situation where growing numbers of couples live together, rather than marry, where indeed ambitions to marry have softened considerably in recent years, even where children are concerned, and where there is no inherent commitment to permanence in any legal union. Furthermore, of those that do marry, church is not now the first choice for marriage. Many still content themselves with a 'legal' marriage at the registry office and dispense with the ceremony altogether. Very many others choose mundane secular locations such as hotels or even beaches for their nuptials. This, coupled with the fact that divorce rates continue to increase, shows just how rapidly strict attitudes in society have relaxed in the last few years. It is not inconceivable, with presently proposed legislation supporting same-sex marriage and not especially encouraging heterosexual marriage (indeed for some couples cohabitation offers a preferential tax position), that at some stage only homosexuals will bother with marriage. That will provide an interesting divide.
Ultimately though this is a legal problem and, even without the public apathy, no one is much excited by a legal debate. The Bill may or may not drift through Parliament without much fanfare, except from a small minority whose euphoria will not be understood by the majority of us, from the quality newspapers who will call it a 'landmark', and from Zimbabwe which will call it an abomination. But my puzzlement at the Prime Minister risking his re-election on the strength of it remains. If we aren't much moved by same-sex marriage, we would surely prefer not to have to make this into an election issue. There are far more important things to worry about in this country. Personally, a manifesto offering cheap sausage rolls will get my vote every time.