Nick Herbert is the MP for Arundel and a former Minister for Policing and Criminal Justice. Follow Nick on Twitter.
John Stuart Mill held "that the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilised community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others." Take, then, the Quakers, who wish to conduct gay marriages. At present the law forbids them from doing so. What harm will it do to others, or to society, to allow Quakers to solemnise a marriage between two people who love each other and want to commit to a faithful, lifelong partnership?
The answer, say those who are concerned about same sex marriage, is that allowing gays to marry will change the meaning of the institution for all married couples. This is what the Defence Secretary claimed on Question Time last night. But how? How, precisely, would the the wedding of two people of the same sex in Weybridge change or devalue Philip Hammond's own marriage?
There are sincere concerns about the proposed change of the law which it was right to answer. The faith groups who opposed gay marriages wanted reassurance that they would not be forced to conduct them. That principle of religious freedom is a precious one. I would not have supported the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill if it had not provided unequivocal protection to churches, mosques and synagogues who disagree. Amendments which the House of Commons will consider on Monday and Tuesday next week to underline these safeguards, and protect freedom of conscience, are well intended and deserve careful consideration.
I'm afraid that other arguments have been less respectable. We've been told that gay marriages won't require consummation and adultery will be permitted. Actually, heterosexual marriages don't have to be consummated to be legal. The marriage of a couple who cannot have either sex or children is not invalid. And unreasonable behaviour is cited in most divorces, not adultery. Such a claim will apply to gay marriages, too. The implication that gays want marriages from which they can cheat, or that the relationship of gay partners is more akin to the affection between siblings than the bond between a married couple, is awful.
Last week, Lord Dear told the House of Lords that there was "overwhelming evidence of the depth of feeling in the general population against the Bill." One might have expected a former chief constable to have more regard for the evidence, which is that literally every poll has shown a majority for the reform, bar those conducted for the anti-gay marriage lobby. Not content with his calumny, he then proceeded to claim that the Bill would "create such opposition to homosexuals in general that the climate of tolerance and acceptance in this country … could well be set back by decades." Has Lord Dear stopped to consider why gay people should want this Bill at all if such an outcome were likely? On his absurd logic, blacks would not have recovered from the abolition of slavery and women would regret being given the vote.
Some of the amendments tabled for next week have a superficial attraction, but bear closer scrutiny. One proposal is that heterosexual couples should be able to enter civil partnerships on grounds of equality with gays. I see the point, but I'm not convinced that there is any real demand for such a status, and anyway there won't be equality while so many doors remain closed to gay people: neither the Church of England nor the Catholic Church will allow gay marriages. Gay people like me entered into a civil partnership not because we chose or preferred that name, but because we were not permitted to get married.
I am worried that the effect of passing an apparently simple amendment which, in reality, has far-reaching consequences could be to disrupt the Bill. And while some are genuinely committed to the principle of extending civil partnerships, others who opposed the Bill, but have suddenly developed a new-found attachment to equality, may have less benign motives. I think it would be better to consider the future of civil partnerships for gay and heterosexual couples alike after a short period of seeing the new law in effect.
Since Second Reading of the Bill in February, the parliaments of France and New Zealand have passed same sex marriage laws, bringing the total number of countries to 15. Only this week, Delaware and Minnesota became the latest US states to allow the freedom to marry: 12 states and the District of Columbia now do so. Across much of the western world, the tide of change on equal marriage is running astonishingly rapidly, because public attitudes to gay people are changing at the same rate. Younger people can't understand what all the fuss is about. This has not been an easy reform for many good and loyal Conservatives to accept, and I am sorry that it has caused disagreement in our Party, but just as civil partnerships were opposed at the time yet became widely accepted very quickly, so I believe will gay marriage. Losing touch with the new generation of our electorate would produce a different and far more dangerous kind of pain.
Issues of conscience often divide MPs, and this one has been no exception. Yet the majority for the Bill on a free vote at Second Reading in the Commons was substantial, a fact of which opponents of the Bill are aware and the Lords cannot easily or by convention ignore. Whatever the disagreement between Conservative MPs on this issue, most of us share a common ambition to move on and focus on the challenge of winning the next election. There are important issues of detail to discuss next week, and the Lords always has the valuable job of scrutinising legislation, but if as expected the Bill receives a Third Reading on Tuesday evening, it will be time to accept the democratic will. No-one will be forced to enter a gay marriage, and no church will be forced to conduct a gay marriage. No harm will be done, but in allowing loving couples to be admitted to one of our most important institutions, and sending a signal about the place of gay people in society today, we will have done much good.