Stephen Tall has posted the historic result of the Equal Marriage debate, the House of Commons voting by 400 votes to 175 to give the Marriage (Same sex couples) Bill a Second Reading. Most Liberal Democrats supported the Bill, in contrast to the Conservatives. It’s been reported that more than half of them, 139 as against 132, voted against. Subsequently the Programme Motion was passed by 499 votes to 55.
I’ve watched the majority of the 70 or so speeches from the six and a half hour debate. My 13 year old daughter joined me when she came in from school. It’s the first Commons debate she has ever watched. She despaired as she saw one elderly Conservative gentleman after another proffer trite objections to something she cared deeply about. How, she asked, are these people supposed to represent her? She would have cringed earlier in the day if she’d heard Edward Leigh say that as a Conservative, it was all very well to be concerned with equality, but not at the expense of tradition. You wonder what the 19th Century Edward Leigh would have said about slavery.
I had some sympathy with her. When I started listening to Parliamentary debates (because that’s all you could do then) in the early 1980s, when they were still debating things like bringing back hanging, I was similarly horrified by the number of elderly Conservative men and felt that the Commons was hardly a suitable reflection of the country. However, I was able to tell Anna today that our 71 year old Ming Campbell had made an intervention in favour of the Bill. He said that in the past our country had discriminated against Catholics, women, gay people and others and that the House had voted over the years to stop that discrimination. Today was the chance to do so again.
My Anna’s heroes of the debate were Labour MPs Emma Reynolds and David Lammy, both of whom spoke passionately in favour of the Bill. She didn’t, however, see our Steve Gilbert talk very movingly about growing up as a young gay man in a rural area from a working class background. When the House of Commons voted to equalise the age of consent, he saw that there were other gay people and he didn’t feel alone any more. He continued:
As a community, we should value diversity and treat everybody equally. Those values are enshrined in Cornwall’s motto, “One and All”. That is the community I grew up in and it is a community I am proud to represent—one that values community. The motto is not, “One and All, apart from if you’re black, Catholic or gay.” It is a community that distrusts the abuse of power.
The biggest shock of the day came from discovering that Stephen Williams is older than me – I had him down as being about 15 years younger. He spoke about the difficulties he experienced growing up gay:
Throughout my teenage years and my years at university, being openly gay was virtually impossible, because occasionally it could be a terrifying identity for an individual to have. I am thinking of the abuse that I received myself, and the far worse that I saw meted out to other people at school and university. What I say to colleagues on both sides of the House who oppose what we are trying to achieve today is please have some empathy with what your fellow citizens have been through. Equality is not something that can be delivered partially—equality is absolute.
Two of our MPs have spoken today of their struggles between faith and liberalism and have reached different conclusions. Simon Hughes supported the Bill, although not the programme motion because he felt it needed longer consideration. He did say, though, that he felt that all couples should be given the chance to enter civil partnerships.
Sarah Teather, in a long statement on her website, has tonight explained why she voted against:
Once the concept of marriage has become established in social consciousness as an entirely private matter about love and commitment alone, without any link to family, I fear that it will accelerate changes already occurring that makes family life more unstable. (I should add, that I also suspect it will make marriage ultimately seem irrelevant. After all, how long before gay people begin to say, as many straight couples of my own generation have begun to say, ”if marriage is just about love, why would I need a piece of paper to prove it?”)
If I felt that the current legal framework left gay couples unprotected, I would be much more inclined to support the proposed legislation. However, the civil partnerships legislation, which I voted for in my first parliament, equalised relationships between same-sex couples before the law, providing the same protections as offered to heterosexual married couples.
Party President Tim Farron was another Liberal Democrat to vote against the Programme Motion, although he voted for the Bill itself. I asked him on Twitter why and he replied:
I’d had some emails from party members. Spousal veto on transition, for example. I’d like to iron them out asap
Liberal Democrat opposers and abstainers
Voting against the Bill according to the Guardian blog were Alan Beith, Gordon Birtwistle, Sarah Teather and John Pugh. Not voting were Martin Horwood, Jenny Willott (who may have gone on maternity leave), Norman Baker, Charles Kennedy, Greg Mulholland, John Thurso and David Ward.
It would be remiss to fail to mention the contribution of Lynne Featherstone in laying the foundations for this Bill when she was Equalities Minister. Without her work, tonight’s historic vote would not have happened. Her work has also been helped by having a party leader who can is very comfortable with talking about gay rights in a very matter-of-fact, relaxed way.
There’s a long way to go with this Bill – but tonight’s emphatic votes were a good start.
* Caron Lindsay is Co-Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice and blogs at Caron's Musings