Lynne Featherstone interview part 3: Same sex marriage and life as a Minister

In the hours following the icy gales of Storm Doris, I caught up with Lynne at Taunton’s most distinguished hotel, The Castle. This is the final instalment of our chat. You can read the others here.

You were and still are a campaigner against important issues such as Female Genital Mutilation (FGM), child abuse and violence against women. However, perhaps your greatest achievement is being the originator and architect of the equal marriage act, which was passed into law in 2013. No party had equal marriage in their 2010 manifestos nor was it part of the coalition agreement. Why did you take this issue on and why is it important to you?

When we entered into coalition, 20 ministerial posts had to be filled. After two days, I received a call from [the then deputy PM] Nick Clegg offering me the post of Equalities Minister. In fact, I ended up with three-quarters of me as a Home Office minister and one-quarter as Equalities Minister. So I’m a minister in the coalition, we have Liberal Democrats in government, and I’m thinking to myself ‘I’ve got to do something to make sure everyone knows that there are Liberals in this government’. It never crossed my mind that it wasn’t in the manifestos or portfolio because to me it was an obvious piece of equalities work that needed doing. Labour were great with civil partnerships, but I thought they were a kind of apartheid – one rule for gay people and one rule for straight people. My view is that you should have marriage and civil partnerships for both gay and straight, both for both. The state’s job is to facilitate that union, not to judge if one is good or one is bad.

We were all new Liberal Democrat ministers and didn’t have a clue what we were doing, so the Institute for Government put on a morning instruction for newbie Liberal ministers. They invited Michael Heseltine and Andrew Adonis to advise us. Heseltine said ‘you are going to be really busy. You do not understand the tsunami of work that will hit you when you become a minister. You will have debates, orals, speeches, correspondence and endless other things. Your diary will be full from morning to night. If you do not ruthlessly prioritise one or two things you want to get done in your time in the sun, you will not achieve it. You will be a very good minister doing very important things but you won’t have done anything you went into politics for’. Adonis encouraged us to trust our civil servants. He said it wasn’t like The Thick of It or Yes Minister, although, I have to say, I thought it was quite like Yes Minister! He told us  ‘If you don’t direct your civil servants, they will fill your diary from first thing in the morning until midnight, all with very worthy things but you’ll just be executing what they want you to do. If you trust your civil servants, you have to direct them. They will go to the ends of the earth for you’. As I walked back from the Institute for Government to the Home Office, it just crystallised in my brain that I wanted to do same sex marriage because it was a piece of equalities legislation that needed doing. I came back into my office and said to one of my assistant private secretaries ‘I want to do same sex marriage, what do I do?’ That is literally how it started.

If I hadn’t had that morning, we would not have same sex marriage. It’s really strange how things happen.

Can you explain the process? What did you have to do?

To get a new policy into government programme, the Secretary of State of the department that the policy emanates has to write round to all the other Secretaries of State, and every one of them has to agree it. That is how you introduce new policies. My assistant private secretary said ‘well Minister, you need to write some words, and we’ll take them to the then Home Secretary [Theresa May] for approval. If she approves, she will write round’.

My first effort wasn’t good enough, apparently. I remember sitting in the basement café at the House of Commons with my assistant private secretary, who said ‘you’ve got to make it stronger if you want to get it into legislation. In one sentence it has to take you from A to Z’. The words were something like ‘It has become clear to me that there is a genuine desire by those with an interest in these matters to move to same sex marriage and straight civil partnerships. We wish to move to legislation within this parliament’. The actual words are in my book. The wording went to Theresa May whose reputation was not great on matters LGBT, but I had sussed that she wanted to change her past. It took two or three days before the word came back that she was prepared to back me. She then conducted a write round to the cabinet ministers.

Any cabinet minister has a veto. Both Philip Hammond and Iain Duncan Smith vetoed. David Cameron overruled them because he, like Theresa, wanted to recast the Conservative Party away from their homophobic track record. Thus it began. Many things had to be sorted, but eventually it was made public at our party conference in 2011. After 18 months of working out all the parameters and, as it was my baby, Nick [Clegg] got agreement for me to announce it. There’s a lot of argy bargy that goes on about who will announce what at party conferences.

About two days before, Cameron’s special advisors rang mine. They said if I did not drop civil partnerships for straight people from the bill, it’s dead in the water. We argued back and forth for about six hours but he wasn’t budging, so I gave way. I thought ‘okay, same sex marriage is the important equalities step and I’m sure straight civil partnerships will follow at some point’. Unfortunately, I had to drop civil partnerships to get the same sex marriage bill through.

Do you know why Cameron objected to straight civil partnerships being included in the bill?

Yes I do. Cameron did not believe in living together and, as far as he was concerned, civil partnerships were living together. In the Conservative world, marriage is the gold standard and anything else is not appropriate.

In that case, why didn’t he repeal civil partnerships?

For 18 months arguments raged behind closed doors. The Tories said that if we have same sex marriage they want to get rid of civil partnerships altogether. My argument was that some people believe in marriage, some do not. We should facilitate both, whether you are gay or straight. When this didn’t work, I took to stomping around the Home Office saying ‘oh my God, you’re doing all of this to ingratiate yourself with the LGBT community after your hideous past, and if you abolish civil partnerships they will hate you again’. That worked!

But you still didn’t get straight civil partnerships though.

No, but the consultation, which I announced at Conference, turned out to be the biggest in history. It still is today. There was a question in there about straight civil partnerships, and religious marriage wasn’t included at the beginning because the Conservatives wouldn’t have it, but it came in.

You were met with much opposition to the bill, with a certain lobby group branding it ‘appalling’. Were there any stumbling blocks you came up against, and how supportive were your colleagues especially your superiors, for example the then Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg? 

There were a number of things that made me think I could do same sex marriage. I could see a route through. One of which was that the three leaders of the main parties were on the record, mostly in pink news, as saying that they wanted to do same sex marriage, although, as you rightly said, it wasn’t in the manifestos. Nick was the first of the leaders to say, without doubt, it should happen. Cameron said it should and then it shouldn’t. He flip-flopped. Surprisingly, when asked during the Labour leadership contest, Ed Miliband claimed that it wasn’t a big issue as no-one was asking him about it. After he became leader a year later, he changed his mind.

Nick was a honey. He was lovely and very supportive. I had a lot of support, some from surprising places. I could send a whole number of people out to bat.

Yes, I met with some fierce opposition too. The bishops kicked up quite a lot of fuss. Theresa had them in her office to talk to them. She is religious you know, she is a vicar’s daughter, but she was quite clear about her support for me on this. I did run into some hideous homophobes. The evangelicals, for instance, shocked me rigid at one meeting. At the meeting, I was joined by the Jewish Board of Deputies, Catholics, CoE and the evangelicals. The evangelical was getting so het up. He was saying ‘these homosexuals will be sorry that they started this. We will see them back in their trenches’. My civil servant next to me was gay. I thought ‘how can you sit there and say these terrible things?’ I had death and rape threats and all sorts of other threats. I wrote an article for the Telegraph titled ‘The Church Doesn’t Own Marriage’. It was quite provocative as a title, and everything fell on my head! The simple fact is that the Church does not own marriage. Nevertheless, the most senior Catholic in the country at the time Archbishop O’Brien, for example, used lots of homophobic language, equating it to bestiality and other really stupid things. A year later, he was defrocked for inappropriate sexual behaviour with young priests. I rest my case!

After the consultation closed in mid-2012, your Tory successor announced that the bill would be put before a vote in Parliament, which as we know passed. Besides the dropping of straight civil partnerships from the bill, how happy are you with the law, and are there any other amendments that you think should be made?

I am super happy. There were a few anomalies that we could never get passed. One was the definition of consummation. The divorce rational is slightly different for same sex couples as opposed to opposite sex couples. Adultery is not a ground for divorce for someone of the same sex, you have unreasonable behaviour instead, but case law will eventually sort that out. There is a tiny difference on one section of pensions. Otherwise, it is absolutely wonderful and the same.

Obviously, I wanted the amendment for straight civil partnerships. I didn’t think we needed the Triple Lock for the CoE. That was the only thing that changed. I didn’t take the legislation through myself because I had already tied it all up and didn’t need to actually do it. I knew it would go through. I had no worries about that. Maria Miller, who subsequently took the bill through, included it. I imagine the CoE must have said ‘you aren’t making us special. We are the established Church!’

The law actually protects all religions. We introduced religious same sex marriage, which as I said wasn’t in the original bill, because we would be outside of the Equalities Act if we didn’t. Literally, in my first few weeks as a minister, we also passed the law allowing civil partnerships in religious premises, which meant you could sign the register in the church if that church wanted it. That got through the Lords because it was permissive. That permissive law protects those religions that want to do it. Those that don’t, do not have to. They cannot be forced either way. The whole cry during the same sex marriage bill was from the religions. They were concerned that they would be forced, against their will, into marrying same sex couples and would be taken off to the European Court of Justice if they refused, which was a load of rubbish.

So you do not believe that the government should have the power to force churches to accept equal marriage?

I don’t think it’s possible. It remains permissive. I do not think that the orthodox religions, which include CoE, Catholics, Orthodox Jews and all Muslim groups, would do it. We have religious freedom in this country. This means that you cannot force them to do things. However, no one should have to choose between his or her religion and their sexuality. They need to move their position on this. I don’t think that this is achievable through law, but it is ridiculous to preach love when you don’t love all of your congregation equally.

That’s the vast majority of religions then isn’t it?

Yes, and I think that they are all at fault.

What are your thoughts on the recent unsuccessful court case that aimed at overturning the ban on heterosexual couples entering into civil partnerships?

Well, straight civil partnerships will happen at some point. It’s an inevitability, as it leaves an inequality that is not sustainable. It would be wonderful if the government would just do it. They’ve already had a review and a consultation, and everyone has come back saying ‘yes, let it happen’ but nothing does. This is because the government does not really want it to happen. I think that this case will be taken to the Supreme Court. I just wish people would do things themselves in a timely manner, not wait to be forced by law. It’s bloody stupid!

Although the court didn’t give the judgment, it did say that something isn’t right and it needs working out. As I say, the Tories would still prefer to remove civil partnerships altogether. That’s the concern. During my time there, I prevented them from doing so by promising to cause a lot of trouble if they tried. I’ve written a few blogs on the subject to try and wake the LGBT community to what the Tories might be up to, if it does come to that. I do hope the Tories will see the light.

* Rob May is a Political History PhD student and Lib Dem activist.

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8 Comments

  • Katharine Pindar 11th Mar '17 - 9:41am

    Thanks, Rob, for getting Lynne to tell us here her inspiring story. Wonderful to learn of how a Lib Dem minister initiated and saw through such a good and important piece of legislation. Lynne remains a huge asset to our party, a woman we are really proud of, who can still do fine work for our country.

  • Many thanks for your kind words Katharine, and I’m glad you enjoyed the article. Lynne was very generous with her time and a really nice lady. It was a pleasure to interview her. Yes, definitely an asset to the party, as you say.

  • Richard Underhill 11th Mar '17 - 1:04pm

    Lynne Featherstone had defeated a Home Office minister at the general election. The minister had told us that she was under instruction from the PM (Tony Blair) to bore everybody, especially MPs, if they asked for meetings. There was plenty of scope.

  • Great interview. Great minister. Great achievement. When people ask me what we got out of the coalition, this is always the first thing I mention. It’s sad that it is not generally recognised as a LD achievement, but that’s down to our woeful media strategy at the time.

  • Thanks Tony. Much appreciated. Hopefully with the recent releases of Clegg, Laws and Featherstone’s books, which all highlight the Lib Dems achievement (Lynne’s is dedicated to the story of equal marriage), exposure will rise somewhat.

  • Lynne Featherstone 11th Mar '17 - 8:23pm

    Thank you everyone – and Rob for listening so patiently x

  • And thank you for answering so candidly.

  • A truly fantastic achievement and one for which Lynne should feel rightly very, very proud.

    As a side issue it was, to me, very noticeable that Lynne responded to comments on this site when appropriate during the last Parliament. Such a shame she lost her seat the Commons is poorer for the loss.

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