Saturday, 2 February 2013

Defending Cameron? Well, Just on Same-Sex Marriage

Talk about a rock and a hard place. David Cameron's draft legislation on the legalisation of same-sex marriage ceremonies goes to Parliament on Tuesday, but the proposal seems to be attracting criticism from both sides. On the one hand, some religious groups and some on the political right have criticised the plans because the new law will depart from tradition and, in a somewhat contradictory argument, because there are more pressing things to attend to.

On the other hand, there are those on the other side of the argument who criticise the proposals because of the accommodations which are made for religious groups, and indeed some say that this proposal is really just a ruse on the part of the government to distract the population, either from their anti-equality approach to most policy issues or more broadly from their unpopularity with much of the electorate.

I'm not usually one to defend the PM, but I do wonder whether any of these arguments has any real merit. The new law will depart from tradition, that is obviously true. But then, most new laws depart from the status quo - that's what's new about them. The fact that reform will involve change is more or less inherent, and in itself is not an argument against change. Jim Hacker is right, in Yes, Prime Minister, to be incredulous when Sir Humphrey tells him that he cannot have a cook because that's the way it has been for two and a half centuries. Tradition is not in itself an argument.

At the same time, some Conservative party members seem to have missed the point of the reforms, which have drawn a clear distinction between civil and religious marriage. The former will be allowed, the latter will be left to individual religious groups to determine (except for the Church of England and the Church in Wales - more on that in a moment). Given that, the view of Mr Andrew Kolker, chairman of the Congleton Conservative Association, is a little hard to accept. He was quoted in the Guardian yesterday as saying this:

"We have more important things to do and we should be leaving this to the church to sort out."
I'm sorry, what? We should be leaving this - marriage, I suppose he means - to the church? I have no objection to there being religious marriages which the state accepts (though we might ask why some religious marriages count in the state's eyes and some don't) but, in a secular state, marriage is really not a religious institution. Marriage carries enormous social and legal consequences, and those of any religion or none are entitled to those benefits and burdens if they so chose. The Marriage Act of 1836 made valid marriage ceremonies performed in civil ceremonies by state-employed registrars, and it is extraordinary that, 177 years later, anyone should think that 'the church' (meaning, I presume, the Church of England) should 'sort out' this issue. No thanks. The state shall determine who may and may not enter a marriage.

Then there is the point that 'we have more important things to do'. The difficulty with this is threefold. First, it is always true that there are urgent things to attend to; but focusing only on the urgent can mean losing sight of what is important. A good chunk of Parliamentary business could be dispensed with if only the most important thing were ever attended to, and society would be much diminished by that approach. The second difficulty is that this point undermines the main argument against this legislation. By saying "we're too busy", it has to be conceded that, but that there were more time, this would be a good thing to do. If it's a good thing to do, then stop complaining about it. Finally, I take issue with the idea that same-sex marriage is unimportant. Some of its benefit is symbolic, since the legal benefits are available already through civil partnership - but symbols are important. The commitment to equality, both in our hearts and in our actions, calls for changes to the law to remove unjustified inequalities. This inequality has no justification, and it is important that it be removed.

On the other side, the PM faces criticism for giving too much ground to religious groups. This argument seems to me unhelpful. I am saddened that the Church of England has set its face against same sex marriage, and I think many of its members - including some very senior members - are deeply unhappy with the position adopted. I also think that it will be a relatively short time before the Church changes its collective mind, which makes it all the more disappointing that the message sent out has been so firmly against these proposals.

Nonetheless, just as I do not think that the state should be dictated to by any religion's views, I am also cautious about the state imposing its views on religious organisations. This is, perhaps, a less strong point for me, because there are limits to what a religious organisation can claim exemption from. I also think that there is a respectable argument to be made that any religion that wishes the ceremonies that it performs to be recognised by the state should comply with the state's rules. Nonetheless, for pragmatic reasons if nothing else, I would not choose this moment to start that fight. Let's get this legislation passed and deal with perfecting it later.

Then there's the 'ruse' argument. I've heard a number of people make this point, but I just don't see it. If it's true, and Cameron is trying to kid us, or distract us, into thinking he's a nice guy, I don't think anyone's buying it. I'm happy to support this measure, as is most of the Labour Party and many others who disagree with most of this government's agenda - but it doesn't make me any more likely to vote Conservative at the next election. At the same time, swathes of the Tory party's core membership is jumping ship, so it's hard to see this as a nifty political manoeuvre.

Moreover, for those hundreds of thousands of people whose welfare benefits are being cut, or who can no longer access local services or legal advice for their problems, or who are forced to remain on waiting lists longer for medical treatment as waiting times rise again, I hardly think that gay marriage legislation is going to make them forget the overall agenda of this government. There's plenty to hate about Cameron's government, so let's stop attacking him over the one thing he's doing that we agree with.

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