The day equality crossed the floor

portcullis1This article is admittedly lengthy, but I feel it would be disrespectful to those heavily invested in the debate’s outcome to deal with it spuriously. I have done my best to keep it succinct, but (constructive) criticism is welcome. Happy reading.

Tuesday’s debate over the legalisation of same-sex marriage in the UK has been one of the most heated, contentious and frustrating debates in living memory. Heated, naturally, because of the deeply-held, irreconcilable convictions of both opponents and proponents of this Bill; contentious because of the profound way in which it will affect the future of civil liberties in the United Kingdom; and intensely frustrating due to the fact that some of the same arguments were being repeated ad nauseam, despite their having been largely addressed and debunked hours earlier.

It would be pointless to attempt to summarise the entire debate on gay marriage from start to finish in one blog post. Instead, I have a simple question:

Are all citizens equal before the law, and the court of public opinion?

Sadly, not yet. But we’re getting there.

The times, they are a-changin’

Over the past century in this country we have had a programme of progressively liberalising politics with respect to what we consider to be fundamental human rights. One hundred years ago, in 1913, the UK was a rigidly stratified, aristocratically hierarchical and patriarchal society where most of the population had no established right to choose their government or the laws that governed their lives. This government and its laws permeated the privacy of people’s private lives, criminalising that which most people (at least, those under 50) in the UK would now agree is not a deviant lifestyle choice, but a fundamental and innate characteristic over which we have as much decision-making ability as we do over our own eye colour or allergies.

Since that time we have seen:

  • the partial enfranchisement of women, at first only to those married and over 30 years old;
  • universal suffrage, where everyone citizen over 18, irrespective of sex or level of property ownership, was given the right to vote;
  • a universal declaration of human rights that offered equality and protection from discrimination on certain fundamental grounds;
  • the decriminalisation of homosexuality, so that they would also count as “equal”;
  • civil rights acts granting eligibility for this equality to minorities;
  • laws strengthening all citizens’ protection from hate crimes; and
  • homosexual couples granted some measure of legal protection through Civil Partnerships.

Oppositional MPs rightly pointed out on Tuesday that the Civil Partnerships Act was not expressly intended as a precursor to gay marriage. They were wrong, however, to infer that this would categorically rule out any future consideration of gay marriage in perpetuity.

Married women over 30 being given the vote in 1918 was no doubt a pragmatic compromise at the time; this did not, however, specifically preclude suffrage being universalised ten years later. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights did not eliminate the need to then redefine “human” or “rights”, as evidenced by minorities’ subsequent struggles for full recognition of their equality and civil rights.

As Emma Reynolds (Lab) astutely noted during the debate: “Until 1991, it was legal for a husband to rape his wife. The law is neither perfect, nor sacrosanct.

Even a cursory reason of history shows that most of this change has been gradual, so as to allow time for prevailing public opinion to change. It wouldn’t be unreasonable to say that every stage of progressive liberalisation has met extreme resistance from traditionalists, only for the next generation to already take changes for granted, unable to conceive of a world otherwise.

Most of those opposed to this Bill time and again returned to the assertion that marriage is defined as the union between one man and one woman, and that were that definition to be challenged, it would profoundly affect the established Christian Church. Changing the legal definition of marriage, however, will not change religious freedom in the UK: in fact, I find it mightily convenient that the ‘quadruple lock’ (quoth Miller, “We are 100% clear that if any church, synagogue or mosque does not want to conduct a gay marriage it will not – absolutely must not – be forced to hold it”) slipped their minds during the debate.

Etymology be damned

Some have raised an etymological argument, which needs to be addressed. Yes, the roots of the English world marriage are shared with matrimony, meaning the entailment of a state of motherhood. Agreed. To focus on this as a legitimate reason not to allow homosexuals to marry, however, is to be wilfully ignorant of three significant points.

1. Words change. They are not magically imbued with concrete, inalienable meanings somehow tied to the very word itself; words have the meaning which we attribute to them. Topically, the word ‘gay’ used to mean ‘happy’, and ‘civil rights’ or ‘human rights’ encompassed a different set of principles to those we would typically think of today.

It’s therefore completely idiotic to think that the word ‘marriage’ is somehow impervious to the same changes – in fact it has been changed several times, in a variety of different ways, over the past two centuries. Arguing that changing the definition of marriage is automatically a bad thing is merely pointless, wilfully blind nostalgia.

2. Who says marriage is for the purposes of conception anymore? Many heterosexual couples enter into marriages and never have children; many enter into them knowing full well they either do not want or cannot have children. Many gay couples either have children by donors or adopt them, and more and more heterosexual couples are starting families without ever intending to get married. All of these observations point to the fact that the way in which people perceive the notion of marriage today (i.e. the legal recognition of a commitment to life-long relationship) is a far cry from the institution of creating genetically-protectionist procreation arrangements.

3. What gives religious organisations the continued right, in a secularising, liberalising, more tolerant, democratic and egalitarian society, to retain hegemony over the definition of a word like ‘marriage’? For one thing, the Marriage Act of 1836 made marriage a civil right, not a religious matter. Yes, religious organisations were still granted power to officiate them, and the state continued to recognise that which religions denoted was a marriage, but the fact remains that control of the legal recognition of marriage was stripped from the Church 177 years ago. Nor did the Church invent marriage, but assumed control over validating a pre-existing contractual process in 1215, at the Fourth Council of the Lateran.

Religious freedom: a two-way street

This Bill is not contrary to the wishes of all religious institutions in the UK. All this Bill will do with respect to religious freedom in the United Kingdom is allow those who wish to carry out same-sex marriages to do so in the eyes of the law. If that is not an argument for religious freedom, I don’t know what is.

Not in my back yard

What this issue ultimately boils down to in my opinion is a simply a question of perception and association.

The only change this law will effect with regards to heterosexuals in the UK – religious or not – is the way in which people see themselves, because the identity club of ‘the married’ is set to get bigger. Grass-roots religious conservatives and back-bench arch-Tories, who currently enjoy the cosy self-image of ‘being married’ may simply just not want to be made to feel part of the same group as homosexuals. Changing the keyword around which a fundamental part of someone’s identity – their sense of themselves and their place in wider society – may be threatening to some, but it needn’t be. Fearing the “Other” in this way is nothing more than the unconscious vestiges of society’s engrained, deep-seated homophobia, based on a lack of understanding and a self-righteous unwillingness to rectify this, now manifested as a reaction to a perceived external threat and dressed up in the guise of etymological piousness.

Religious conservatives do not want to be forced to see themselves in the same category as homosexuals. If that is so, come out [sic] and say so, but don’t insult others’ intelligence by quoting scripture (whose authority over dictionary definitions I vehemently challenge) and relying on blind insistence that perceptions and terminology are not in a constant state of flux.

I will be the first to say that religious people deserve to have their opinions heard. I have no problem disagreeing with people on religious grounds, as long as a stubborn reliance on nothing but unsubstantiated dogma doesn’t prohibit enlightened and respectful debate. But I will not accept someone hiding behind their personal faith and claiming religious persecution, whilst inciting others to hateful, discriminatory or otherwise alienating behaviour towards a particular section of society who love a particular kind of person.

To quote David Lammy during the debate, “separate but equal” is “an excerpt from the phrasebook of segregationists and racists […] It is not separate but equal, but separate and discriminated against, separate and oppressed, separate and browbeaten, separate and subjugated.”

If in doubt, ask George Bernard Shaw.

In, out, or shake it all about?

‘Speaking on the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show, [David Cameron] said voters would be offered “real choice” on this at the next election.’

There’s something I’d like to see, but I won’t hold my breath.

As I have said before, I am extremely sceptical of any political party offering any modicum of “real choice”. Whilst he was at pains to keep his hand concealed on the subject of a possible referendum on EU membership before 2015, the Prime Minister did say that ‘any vote would happen within five years.’

There was no mention of what form this officially-sanctioned Question would take, nor was there any clear indication as to whether he’d wait until the Government has prevaricated over how to secure some token concessions on sovereignty from Brussels before that would happen. Instead he focussed his energies on defending Britain’s right to be truculent.

It’s an interesting rhetorical trick that Dave uses in this interview, as it neatly glosses over a glaring logical inconsistency. He starts by listing sub-treaties to which the UK does not subscribe, such as the Eurozone and Schengen, and infers an “opt-in” approach to international legislation, which (he implies but deftly avoids stating) gives the UK a certain licence to cherry-pick its own way through the European buffet.

Both the Eurozone and Schengen agreements are opt-in (at least as far as the UK is concerned; let’s not discuss countries applying for EU membership just yet). The UK chooses not to be a part of either, yet by being a member of the EU and ratifying its various treaties it agrees to suffer any potential fallout – be it from common market economic ties or the free movement of the European labour force.

Cameron alleges that the Eurozone states have “got to change [their internal economic policies in an externally concerted effort] to make their currency work” but that this changes “the nature of the organisation to which we belong.” This is like saying that changing (for example) Dutch citizenship eligibility will affect UK immigration beyond our control. In an indirect way, both of these statements may be true, but this nonetheless makes Cameron’s distinction void. The choice in either case is “lump it or leave”, as with many other consequences of treaties we have signed in order to be the constituent member that Cameron so readily champions.

But not opting into Schengen and the Euro enables us to control our own interest rates and external immigration policies, right? So why should we be necessarily tied down on other issues? Because, Dave, these are subsequent undertakings not explicitly covered by the various binding European treaties like Maastricht and Rome that we signed.

Cameron fishing

If we use this premise as a precedent to unpick the unfavourable aspects that happen to underpin the entire European initiative, like the free movement of peoples, or common fisheries policy, why not rethink other treaties? We could rethink the Treaty of Amiens, put the fleur-de-lis back on our royal standard and reclaim northern France! We could decide that too many people are voting the wrong way and revoke universal suffrage!

Yes, I agree; it starts to get a little bit silly, really. And people wonder why other European states see the Coalition as the political equivalent of a petulant three-year-old in a tantrum.

I’ve just got to get this one off my chest

One of the main reasons for starting this blog was my fury at the way in which the Yes To Fairer Votes campaign threw away the most (and possibly only) promising opportunity to effect meaningful political change in the UK. Their failure at the AV Referendum in 2011 pretty much sealed my disaffection with party politics, and here I explain what could have happened.

Armando Ianucci, the heroic genius mind behind The Thick Of It and In The Loop, wrote a marvellously impassioned treatise in the Independent’s election issue. Katie Ghose could have used it in her campaign months earlier instead of going negative (turning the entire referendum into a political mud-slinging match). Unfortunately for sane liberals everywhere, it was published in a newspaper whose readership was – in all likelihood – going to vote yea anyway.

During the 2010 general election, there was really only one question to be answered: ‘which party/leader is most capable of dealing with the economy?’ That was it. The economy. It was undoubtedly important – and the various parties did indeed have differing views as to how to solve it – but nowhere in the leaders’ debates was anything else mentioned unless it was ancillary to reducing the national debt. Healthcare, currying foreign investment, transportation and Trident were all discussed, but only through the lens of how much they would cost. I don’t remember the foreign ministers having a debate – anybody catch it? Aspiring home secretaries didn’t duel it out on TV over prisons and sentencing policy, nor can I recall seeing prospective environment ministers holding forth about our ratio of renewable energy. Now we have a coalition government for which no one directly voted (one vote each, chaps and chapesses) claiming a wide mandate pieced together from their respective manifestos, when all The People actually did was answer, “whose numbers seem to add up the best?”

I am sick and tired of being offered the choice between a meagre handful of parties on just one particular issue: that which has been deemed the most salient topic of the day come a general election. Subjects declared to be of lesser significance are merely side effects of choosing between representatives based on the single major issue. In 2005 it was the war in Iraq. Back in 1992, the electorate went to the polls to say whether or not it approved of John Major’s leadership. Elections throughout the 1970s were dominated by miners’ concerns and discussions of the relative bargaining rights of trades unions.

The two or three major parties are typically either united on a given issue, giving no freedom to disagree and still make one’s voice heard, or so wildly divergent on entire groups of issues that voters must choose the least unattractive package deal. I am passionately in favour of a more proportionally representative electoral system, as it would allow so-called ‘factions’ of the three major parties – who agree on most issues (those governing their party allegiances) but who ‘rebel’ as their Whips order them to vote against their personal principles – to decentralise into separate parties.

Just as the world is made up of more than three colours, so should be politics. The dividing lines that so often cause tensions, rebellions, resignations, expulsions or even defections within a party would instead become the decisive factors upon which the electorate should be allowed to make an informed choice. Who can honestly say that they have always agreed with every single policy of a given party throughout their voting lifetime? Elections would be very different and drastically duller affairs if that were the case.

How many people feel trapped between two or more parties, agreeing with the economic policies of one party with the social policies of another? How many people wished they could vote for a party if it weren’t for the personal philosophies of that particular candidate?

Imagine what it would be like with more than one party on the left, middle and right. Imagine having the choice between, say, five parties you could generally support but who differ on the very so-called ‘minor’ issues you feel strongly about, that are never discussed under FPTP? You could vote for all five, and rank them in order! Wow, no more tactical voting! It wouldn’t matter that one party never reaches an absolute majority – in fact it would be marvellous. Governments would have to justify their policies to secure the votes of their allies, rather than relying on their Whips to call their backbenchers to heel. Bloc majorities would exist for certain ‘important’ issues, but would not guarantee any dominion over ancillary debates.

Europhile Conservatives would bloc vote with other Tories on issues of justice or education, but would be heard in chorus with liberals on issues of EU integration. As such, liberally minded, fiscally conservative voters would no longer have to decide between economics and foreign policy.

Equally, gone would be the days of Old Labour disenfranchisement with the post-1994 face of the political left: socialists would be free to advertise themselves as such, Marxists could come from the woodwork and expound the theories they really believe, the centre left would not feel constrained by trades unions dictating policy where they would rather listen to the voters, and the rife Brownite/Blairite factionalism that continues to besmirch the party image would be an irrelevance; a dispute deferred to the electorate.

Liberals, for their part, would no longer feel the need to align themselves on the left/right spectrum – instead, those for whom liberalism represents a social philosophy that transcends other political considerations could freely associate with members of the left or the right, without being defined by them: no more permanent slant from Social Democrats or role of political flak jacket for a Conservative-led ‘coalition’.

And finally, the voter would have more of a choice than the least of three evils on a single, pre-determined issue.