Gilbert and Williams lead Lib Dem speakers in Equal Marriage debate

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

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35 Comments

  • 1. Sarah Teather is off my Christmas list for good.

    2. I had always assumed you were a student-age blogger! The perils of postage-stamp mug-shots ;-)

  • Helen Tedcastle 5th Feb '13 - 9:46pm

    @ Caron Lindsay: ” 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?”

    Sorry but I don’t understand these comments.

    This issue has little to do with age in itself – it has a lot to do with values – granted but I find it a little disturbing that this important issue is characterised by a subtle and intolerant form of ageism – “your’re old and stuck in the past etc.. I’m young, thrusting and modern…”

    When I watched the debate, I did not look at the age of the MP or their appearance but assessed the quality of argumentation and persuasion – Stephen Williams MP made a good speech, so did Edward Leigh (not often I write that!) – as someone who is opposed to this ill-configured bill but who is the same age as the thrusting David Cameron, I am happy to break any assumptions or prejudices.

    I’m not sure either that I would take my steer on issues like marriage from children in the early stages of adolescence either – but it’s a diverse world.

  • Helen Tedcastle 5th Feb '13 - 9:50pm

    Voting against the Bill according to the Guardian blog were Alan Beith, Gordon Birtwistle, Sarah Teather and John Pugh.

    I have always had a very high opinion of Alan, Sarah and John – this confirms my high opinion of them as thoughtful legislators. Don’t know much about Gordon Birtwhistle but he is to be commended for standing by his conscience.

  • @Helen Tedcastle: And people who voted FOR are not to be commended? Nice.

  • Stuart Mitchell 5th Feb '13 - 10:24pm

    Caron, you have clearly brought your daughter up well. But I think too much is being made of this intergenerational thing. In my experience, the most homophobic age group around is probably young children. “Gay” is used as a casual term of abuse among youngsters now just as it was in the past. It’s only when kids get in to their teens that their opinions change to the extent that we see the kind of outstanding figures quoted for support of gay marriage among young adults. This happens because they have benefitted from the kind of education that the likes of Edward Leigh did not.

  • So on the Guardian’s figures, about 80% of Lib Dem MPs voted for the Bill (compared with about 85% of Labour MPs).

    And Sarah Teather’s argument really is that legalising same-sex marriage will result in fewer heterosexual couples with children being married. Isn’t that a remarkable idea?

  • Labour beat us in terms of % of MPs who voted for this bill? That’s embarrassing for a supposedly liberal party.

  • Richard Dean 5th Feb '13 - 10:37pm

    I watched parts of the long debate too, and was pleased to see that we had covered everything already in our debates here on LDV. Well done to everyone here I think.

    There was one aspect of the parliamentary debate that I found disappointing. This was the number of presumably gay MPs who recounted their personal experiences of pain at being different followed by relief or joy at being able to come out and be accepted. Personal experience is good, of course, but MPs are not supposed to be in parliament to push for their own personal benefit. Their job is partly to represent a constituency, and partly to lead it. Quite a few MPs seem to have been doing neither.

    It was interesting that Sky showed a gay couple from Whitby who had no idea what “equality” would do to their lives, except that they’d probably have to get married now. Might this whole thing just be an imaginary creation of the Westminster bubble?

    I agree with Caron’s daughter and with Helen. It was agonizing to see the evident prejudice of some who opposed the bill, but even so I remain persuaded that same-sex and different-sex marriages are different. Like Heather, I would not take my lead from the first reactions of an adolescent to a first experience of something she might not understand much. As a parent I have a duty to assist and advise and support, rather than follow

    Well, we will see how the committee stage goes. My guess is that, if the bill is eventually passed, people will find a new ways to differentiate themselves, and that in effect the whole thing will have been a waste of time.

  • Helen Tedcastle 5th Feb '13 - 10:40pm

    @ Stuart Mitchell: ” But I think too much is being made of this intergenerational thing. ”

    I agree – I have heard a number of very ageist comments today from those who wish to change the law, mostly legislators – it’s a bad argument – the quality of argument is more important and overall, I think the debate was excellent on both sides.

  • My personal experience is that we are now seeing a whole new generation of children of same-sex couples coming through. In outr school there are three. Their peers accept their domestic situation just as they accept divorced parents etc etc, Teenage children, in my experience, are extremely tolerant of all sorts of differences so I don’t agree that it isn’t a generational issue. Let’s face it, us old fogeys can be pretty set in our ways and we start fearing for future generations when we really don’t need to.

  • Richard Dean “Like Heather, I would not…”

    Fine but who is Heather? And does she support Equal Marriage?

  • The reason Jenny Willott did not vote is that she has given birth

  • Richard Dean 5th Feb '13 - 10:57pm

    Heather -> Helen. Apologies to both. Three, Phyllis, is a “whole new generation”? How big is the school?

  • Richard Dean 5th Feb ’13 – 10:57pm
    Heather -> Helen. Apologies to both. Three, Phyllis, is a “whole new generation”? How big is the…

    There didn’t use to be any!! but don’t worry Richard, this number is growing and will grow even more quickly now that Equal Marriage is going to be legal. Not sure whether this will aggravate your insomnia or not. Now that it’s all been settled, I’m off to bed. You’ll be off to walk your dog soon I guess. In which case, don’t leave your computer on – you’ll only incur the wrath of Mrs Dean again ;)

  • Richard Dean 5th Feb '13 - 11:28pm

    But, Phyllis, how will you know how many? And why will you want to?

  • It was a free vote on a conscience issue, we should respect our MPs right to vote as they saw fit, even when we disagree with their arguments. Some of the reasons for absence seen tenuous though (honourable exception Jenny Willott – congratulations!) as every single MP somehow made it to the boundaries vote. If MPs chose to abstain tonight, there is no need for them to hide behind diary clashes. I’m not sure it paints the Party in a good light that a number did this.

  • Congratulations. A year from now, the very existence of this debate will seem surprising. The experience of other countries that have passed this kind of legislation shows that the only one of the catastrophic predictions of its opponents that will actually be realized will be the necessity of increasing orders for marriage certificates.

  • Chris, the ratio of MPs for/against was higher for Lib Dems (11) than Labour (9.86). I think we need to see why MPs did not vote – they may have a good excuse for absence.

  • Kevin McNamara 6th Feb '13 - 2:57am

    no offense but i’ve no idea why people engage with richard dean on this issue. it’s clear that he thinks “difference” is a good enough reason to oppose equality. why, i’ll never know .

  • Richard Dean 6th Feb '13 - 4:19am

    Keeping working at it Kevin, I’m sure you’ll get there eventually :-)

  • paul canning 6th Feb '13 - 5:21am

    This is the third blog post I have now read from a mother about her child’s reaction to the debate. In each case the child is bewildered that so-called adults don’t accept same sex love. *Bewildered *

    Where do people think homophobia comes from? Just as with seeing racial difference, it isn’t inculcated in the womb, It is learned.

    In every case the child’s reaction is disgust that so-called ‘grown ups’ want to treat same sex love differently. In other words, think on so-called ‘adults’ … the kids ‘get it’ better than 4 LibDem MPs.

    David Lammy’s speech was the best on what ‘separate but equal’ actually is about’ …

  • Richard Dean 6th Feb '13 - 5:50am

    Marriage, as many married people will tell you, is about a lot more than just love.

  • Caron Lindsay Caron Lindsay 6th Feb '13 - 7:49am

    Helen – my daughter was confronted with a whole stream of old men deeply offending her with the way they framed their views. It’s hardly surprising that she felt that they didn’t represent her – it’ snot agesim and she was pleased when I told her that Ming had spoken in favour.

    Richard – the personal is political and I’m delighted that Steve and Stephen and Margot James to name but a few shared their experiences. I think it contributed to greater understanding of what they ‘ve had to go through in their lives. I never want young people to feel as isolated and unable to be themselves as they were.

    Oh, and on your point about marriage being about more than love – with almost 25 years’ experience, I’d say that the love makes the other bits a lot easier.

  • Caron Lindsay Caron Lindsay 6th Feb '13 - 7:51am

    Those of you who questioned theLib Dem abstentions may be interested in this article by our own Mark Pack who suggests that out of the 7 absences, only 1 was a real abstention. I am fairly convinced thatJenny Willott would have voted in favour had she not been on maternity leave. http://www.markpack.org.uk/38982/same-sex-marriage-7-lib-dem-mps-not-present-of-which-only-1-an-abstention/

  • “Kevin McNamara 6th Feb ’13 – 2:57am
    no offense but i’ve no idea why people engage with richard dean on this issue. it’s clear that he thinks “difference” is a good enough reason to oppose equality. why, i’ll never know .”

    Ah well Richard was initially pro-Equal Marriage but he changed his mind in the last couple of days. Having followed his comments throughout I have started to suspect that he has done this for two reasons 1. Out of gallantry to support Helen who was pretty much a loan anti-Equal Marriage commentator and 2. he thoroughly enjoys a good argument.

  • I am just very very disappointed that 4 of our MPs chose to vote against an issue that is about fundamental equality – perhaps they need to re-read and digest the pre-amble to the party constitution before subjecting themselves to the electorate again as representatives of our party?

  • I’m struggling here – there are provisions in law to ensure that homosexual and heterosexual couples have absolute equality in terms of their property and tax arrangements vis a vis the state.

    Surely, as Liberals, we should then let organisations/individuals conduct their own arrangements regarding declaring their commitments to each other?

  • @Tabman – In an ideal world. But that would be the State no longer regulates marriage. You want to campaign on that? I’ll join you. But you and I will get nowhere. We might as well call for drugs to be legalise. So, if this is the case, having the State make provision for a broadening of the legal definition of marriage is a reasonable to solution, that increases freedom of all involved.

  • Simon Banks 6th Feb '13 - 11:54am

    Richard – do you think that in order to represent the people you need to suppress and not draw on your personal experience? So an ex-soldier who has been in action should forget that when a war is in prospect, a Black MP who has experienced harassment should in no way draw on that to inform his or her comments on racial harassment and a debate on carers should be kept free of comments which reveal that those MPs had learnt from being carers for vulnerable people?

    Parliament would be a much poorer place.

  • mpg – I’m trying to educate myself here, so thanks for engaging. My understanding was that there was no legal difference between a civil marriage and a civil partnership, other than the former is between a man and a woman and the latter between same sex couples. Marriage/Civil Partnership in the eyes of the law is all about regularising the financial affairs of a couple so that there are certain benefits around sharing of property and taxation.

    What I’m struggling to get is what *additional* benefits are being created by the current bill? Is it simply a name change?

  • Tabman

    You may find this blog post helpful:
    http://jaekaygoesforth.blogspot.co.uk/2012/05/differences-between-civil-partnerships.html

    Note that the problem with pensions is still not going to be addressed by the Bill as it stands.

  • Richard Dean 6th Feb '13 - 12:31pm

    Parliament would be a much richer place if the MPs did what they are supposed to do, and not focus on themselves so much. Persons experiences are political, in the plural, and while one person’s experience may help that person to understand another, it is always different – which is why it’s called “personal”.

    MPs need to get rid of the ideas that they are prima donna film stars or that politics is about exorcising their own personal demons. They can do that privately, They need to get into the ideas of representing the people and of finding solutions to problems that beset the people.

  • Chris – thanks. That’s most helpful.

  • Peter Hayes 7th Feb '13 - 7:31pm

    I suspect it is time to adopt the French model, a civil ceremony is required and a religious blessing is optional. Extend that to call the legal option a civil partnership and marriage something you can only get if your religion is not homophobic, or even only allows active, not divorced, members to get a blessing. My partner and I could not face the fight of her mother and mine in the hat wars, we are the only couple still together of our friends.

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