In more ways than one it’s impossible to be heard above the din right now in the wake of the Yes vote in Ireland on gay marriage. There’s a special noise that goes with an orgy of self-congratulation, a roar of mutual approbation, and it drowned everything else out in Dublin as the results came in today. Like rugby, only more triumphalist. Actually, I was watching the scene from the Sky studio in Millbank, where my interlocutor in central Dublin, Patrick Strudwick, a journalist and activist, was appearing on a screen on the streets and had to shout over the crowd to make himself heard, to repeat, over and over again, ‘It’s a victory for love, for equality, for human rights’.
Mind you he did go off piste sufficiently to declare that I was a bitter loser and a bigot (I was expressing concern that the family courts would be influenced by the vote when it came to decisions on the guardianship and custody of children). Oh and that this was a victory over the forces of the Catholic Church because no one would ever listen to them again on account of the cover ups of the clerical child abuse scandals. As a summary of the sentiments and subtlety of the Yes campaign it was, I’d say, bang on.
This week the British Government begins a 12-week public consultation on its proposal to legislate for gay marriage. The battle lines are drawn and a Sunday Telegraph opinion poll at the weekend showed that for populist politicians, the issue is fraught with risk – which they don’t seem to recognise yet. While 45 per cent support the proposal in principle, 36 per cent oppose it, and the rest say they do not know, the more significant finding for the Conservatives, the larger of the two political parties in the governing coalition, is that among their supporters 50% are opposed.
Even more significantly, a majority of voters are saying to the Government, “stop wasting your time on this issue and get on with the job we elected you to do.” Asked whether the Government is right to prioritise this issue – with other issues such as the economy and public-service reform battling for parliamentary time – voters overwhelmingly disagree.
More than three quarters – 78 per cent of all voters and 88 per cent of Tories – think it is wrong to fast-track new laws ahead of 2015 while only 14 per cent say it is right to do so, in the ICM survey for The Sunday Telegraph.
Mr Cameron is driving this, with many Tories believing a large part of the reason he is doing so is a desire to prove his party has changed,is now more “modern” and is no longer the “nasty party”.
Meanwhile the newspaper and magazine columns of the nation are keeping the pot on the boil, for and against. Melanie McDonagh in The Spectator remarks that “Consultations are, for the prudent, an exercise you only engage in when you’re quite sure of the outcome.”
Perhaps the Government has miscalculated on this one and that the outcome of the battle which both sides are now galvanised for will not be what they had hoped for. Charles Moore, a former editor of The Spectator, suggested this in his column in London’s Daily Telegraph on Saturday that the Tories are out of touch with voters on this issue.
McDonagh notes that leaders of the Catholic Church are in the vanguard on this one. She says that in a pastoral letter issued by two of its London Archbishops this weekend it is “wisely make clear is that this is not a religious question at all. It’s about human nature, or what Catholics would call natural law.”
Objections to gay marriage, she suggests are best based on respect for the inherent nature of marriage, not the religious conception of a sacrament. She supports civil partnerships on the basis that they do away with inequity. Previously, if one member of a gay partnership died, the other had to pay inheritance tax on their property. “Objection to gay marriage isn’t about religion at all and the letter that the bishops are sending to Catholic churches does, to do them credit, make that clear.”
“It’s all to do with the nature of marriage”, she says. “And that is, a natural institution providing the optimal situation for raising children. It’s vulgarly biological, marriage — a state for bringing up children in. And that’s how it’s been for almost all of human history. Even in ancient Greece, which practically invented homosexuality — alright, it was especially about the Socratic master-pupil relationship — reserved marriage for men and women, for the conceiving and bearing of children. And it’s that fundamental character of marriage which makes it essentially heterosexual. It’s to do with the complementarity of the sexes. Men and women fulfil different roles when it comes to the rearing of their offspring, and even in an atypical family like my own, in which I’m the sole breadwinner, those complementary roles make sense. Children relate differently to mothers and fathers; they pick up cues about how the sexes work, even children who go on to become gay. And departing from that biological foundation for marriage is a radically new departure.
“Obviously, there are infertile normal marriages, which are no less valid and exemplary for that. The most perfect Catholic marriage I know is involuntarily childless. Some people marry post-menopause, and their marriages aren’t second class, just exceptional. But these are the exceptions to the norm. The Anglican marriage service, which gives an excellent account of the purposes of marriage, talks about the mutual comfort that the couple give to each other and the function of the institution as an outlet for sexual urges, as well as for the raising of children. But those purposes, in heterosexual marriage, complement the basic utility of the thing. They are meant to accompany the essential role of marriage in raising children, not become an alternative for it.
“Of course, homosexual relationships share important aspects of heterosexual marriage, though the element of permanence may not be quite what it is in conventional marriage because children — the reason so many people stay in unsatisfactory marriages — are absent from the equation. Plainly gay partnerships can be committed and loving, and civil partnerships recognise the commitment. And on the margins, post-IVF, gay men can now father children by surrogate mothers and raise them with their own partners, and gay women can use surrogate gametes to do the same. But that parental relationship is always going to have something absent at its heart, the complementarity of the sexes, which means that sons and daughters learn about gender from how it’s lived out in their own family. And a relationship cannot be a marriage, as traditionally and everywhere understood, where children cannot naturally be part of the equation.
“What I’m saying, and what the bishops are saying, is that marriage is child-centred, even though children may be involuntarily absent from good marriages. We cut that anchor at our peril. For the optimal environment for raising children you need a stable environment with parents of either gender. And even in a reluctantly childless marriage, the complementarity of the sexes, the very fact of sexual difference, gives the institution its nature, its charge. To say as much isn’t to advance a religious argument. It’s to work from nature, from history, from human experience. The very definition of a marriage is a union between a man and a woman. Let’s leave it like that.”
Charles Moore, also a former editor of the Sunday Telegraph and later, the Daily Telegraph, came to more or less the same conclusion.
Accepting that the Tory party needs to update itself, he still feels that doing so on this issue and in this way is a shortsighted way of doing so and betrays nothing more than its old tendency to just go on talking to itself – populism with an abysmally narrow focus.
With “modernisation” in mind, Moore wrote, “Mr Cameron said from the first that his party should become gay-friendly, in its policies and its selection of candidates. In his first party conference speech as leader, he equated, morally, the ‘commitment’ that man makes to man or woman to woman with that which men and women make to one another.
“To Mr Cameron and most of the people with whom ministers spend their time, this will seem logical. Indeed – for it is the chief subject about which self-consciously “modern” people feel extremely righteous – it will seem unquestionable. The Government’s current “consultation” will not, despite its name, pay heed to anyone who disagrees. Ministers have adopted the language of equality and rights, and any other language is, to use an unmodern word, blasphemous.
“But let me play back at the Tory leadership the very thing that worried it in the first place – the danger of talking to oneself. The orthodoxy in favour of gay marriage is an iron one if you are well off, well educated, live in central London and wish to hold political or public office. By adhering to it, Mr Cameron ensures that he will not be insulted in BBC studios or at Downing Street receptions for the creative industries. It does not follow, however, that it is a legislative priority for the general public, or the way by which they judge a politician’s virtue. If you talk to the wider public, you get a very different perspective.”
“The number of civil partnerships contracted in this country “, he poined out, “is less than one per cent of the number of marriages each year. You can sell to most people the proposition that such small minorities should be fairly treated. You will encounter sales resistance if you insist they be allowed to redefine something which belongs to us all. That something, in this case, is marriage. And on the ‘what matters to voters’ index, which rightly worries modernisers, marriage comes high; the precise situation of homosexuals comes low.
“Marriage has never meant simply the right of all people who believe they love one another to have their relationship legally recognised on demand. There are qualifications. You have to be adult. You cannot be married to somebody else. You cannot be closely related by blood to the person you marry. And the person you marry must be of the opposite sex.
“You could say that these are restrictions. The decision to permit only monogamy was controversial at the time, and upsetting for lots of people, particularly men. After all, you may genuinely want to have three wives at once and claim that you can truly love them all. I do not know how Mr Cameron, if he opposes discrimination, can possibly sustain the view that Muslims, who are much more numerous in Britain than homosexuals, should be forbidden the polygamy which their faith sanctions.
“If you talk to ministers just now, they say, “Gay marriage is like the smoking ban. People thought they were against it, but when it happened, they just accepted it.” I cannot prove this wrong, but the triviality of the comparison makes me suspicious. Marriage is a great, big, deep subject. There is no crying need to change it just because a vociferous lobby says we must. I recommend a policy which should surely unite all conservatives, trad or modernising – masterly inactivity.”
For this and more on the issue of the future of marriage, go to MercatorNet’s Conjugality blog.