Looking back, the case against same-sex marriage being introduced as it was remains valid. The forcing of it upon the Conservative Party by its leadership (there was no free vote in any meaningful sense) divided Tory MPs – more of whom voted against the proposal than for – lost Party members and alienated older voters. Many of the latter have pinned it up amidst the mental collage that each assembles as a reminder of why not to vote Conservative next year – together with immigration, onshore wind farms, overseas aid, the EU and the vague but powerful impression that Westminster is run by an insulated political class that has contempt for their values, and them.
We all know the drill: there was no Party consultation, no green paper, no white paper, no manifesto commitment, no Coalition Agreement commitment – no democratic mandate,
Looking forward, the case against the move is as good as ever, too. By this, I don’t mean that marriage can never change. Since it is a social institution, it follows that society can change it, which is why I found the argument of the Catholic Church to the contrary unconvincing. No, the real case against same sex marriage is not so much social as legal – marriage, after all, being a legal matter. Equality legislation reels off a list of “protected characteristics”, including religion and sexual orientation. But it gives no guidance about what to do when they clash. This has serious implications for Christian teachers, chaplains, registrars, nurses – all those who work in the public square.
In short, the price likely to be paid for same sex marriage is less religious freedom. The latter has always been integral to conservatives. No wonder the bargain is a bad one.
So much for the past and the future. But there is a present, too, and opponents of same sex marriage must live in it, like everyone else. The majority for same sex marriage in the Commons more or less reflected that in the country. This matters. At the level of the individual MP, the Burkean ideal applies: MPs are representatives, not delegates, and shouldn’t be obliged to bend to the majority view – on same sex marriage or anything else. At the level of the the Commons as a whole, however, it cannot. Ultimately, MPs must bow to voters’ wishes, and they could not collectively have been able to stave off the majority in the country for same sex marriage forever, or even for long.
So that the whole business would better have been dealt with by a private members’ bill on a genuinely free vote scarcely touches the here and now. The first same sex marriages are happening. More will follow. In short, gay marriage is something that modern, liberal, democratic countries are increasingly going to do. Change has happened and voters backed it. End of story – at least for the moment. Those who don’t like the practical effects should now look to amend the equality laws, not fight a battle to end same sex marriage which would be lost before it was started. And those who want to preserve the traditional meaning of marriage must persuade others of their case.
Such a conversation is a cultural and not a Parliamentary one, for the forseeable future at any rate. It cannot be confined to one country. But those living in this one who don’t care for same sex marriage will gain nothing from being grumpy and grousy about those that are taking place. They may not feel like raising a glass of champagne to the newly married couples this weekend, but they should open their hearts and wish them all the best for the future. To do otherwise would be bad manners. And there are too many bad manners around as it is.