It’s been a week of ups and downs with regard to marriage equality and I am not just talking about in Britain. This week the Polish parliament voted down a bill that would have introduced civil partnerships. Despite an impassioned plea by Prime Minister Donald Tusk, a significant part of his governing party voted against the bill, teaming up with conservative members to destroy any chance it had of becoming law. Indeed, one member declared that she would be voting against the bill because gay people “are of no use whatsoever to society.” From this position, equal marriage seems a long way off.
As a Brit (and a Lib Dem) who has lived in Poland for the past eight years, I have witnessed many changes here but this is still the least diverse country in Europe. The strength and dominance of the catholic church, although waning, make it a challenging environment to be different. On a more positive note, 2011 saw the first openly gay member of parliament and also the first transgender MP, Anna Grodzka, elected. So there are signs that attitudes in society are changing.
As the much analysed census figures have shown us in the past few weeks, the relationship between Poland and the UK is a close one. Polish is now being the second language spoken in England and some 546,000 Poles reside in the UK after Poland’s accession to the EU in 2004. Some of the first Poles I met in the UK after accession were people who had come to the UK not only for economic reasons but also for reasons of tolerance and acceptance. We should take some pride in the fact that the UK is seen by many across the globe as a beacon of rights, freedoms and tolerance. I am especially proud that, now the Lib Dems are in government, we are at the vanguard of establishing equal marriage rights for all.
That being said, it is with some bewilderment and sadness that I see some members of the parliamentary party are wavering on which way to vote. When I discuss this fact with Polish friends in Warsaw they are slightly bemused as to how a person calling themselves a liberal, should want to maintain this inequity in society. Of course it is well understood (especially in Poland) that the issue of gay marriage may challenge the consciences of those who hold strong religious beliefs. But it should be our obligation to make this commitment to equal marriage thereby setting an example to other countries like Poland on how they should move forward and build a fairer and more equal society. If Lib Dem MPs in the UK can’t bring themselves to support equal marriage then why should conservative-minded MPs in Poland?
In the past few years I have flown back to the UK for autumn conferences. I have also helped in election campaigns to fight for our party in what must have been some of the most challenging times (politically) since the party’s creation. We all know that the next election will be particularly brutal, with many of our MPs fighting for their political survival. MPs who vote against this legislation will certainly be alienating people like me and I will look to deploy my campaigning support to those who have stood up for my rights and for fundamental liberal equality. In the meantime, my partner and I have decided to wait for changes to Polish law before we make it official. It could be some wait…
* Daniel Russell is a teacher, editor and academic writer. He has been a Lib Dem member for 23 years and is currently living in Warsaw.