The following is the text of an email that I sent to a constituent earlier today. He wrote to me to ask about my views of the government’s proposals “to re-define marriage”, which he believes “will have far-reaching consequences…[that] will have an adverse effect on the stability and flourishing of our local community.” I beg to differ.
Thank you for your email regarding the government’s proposals to change the law on marriage in the United Kingdom. This is not a local authority matter, and so has no relevance to my role as a local councillor. However, as you have asked to know my views on this matter, I am happy to oblige.
There are, in my view, two discrete roles that marriage plays in society. The first is legal: it creates a clear contractual basis between parties that enables them to share property and divide the proceeds of their joint enterprise between them. It protects each party in the event of the other’s demise. And it provides a sound legal footing for children. In so doing it ensures that, in the event of bereavement or separation, each party is protected. Spouses and children are assured their inheritance; property is fairly shared in the event of break-up. This is especially important in an environment where it may be rational for one party to specialise in wealth-creation while the other specialises in non-financial contributions to the household, including rearing children.
The second is ceremonial. A marriage – and in particular a wedding – is an opportunity to signal to the world that one is entering into a special, unique and (one would hope) permanent relationship. It is also an opportunity for religious people to consecrate their union in the appropriate manner, and for all people to celebrate the union with a big party.
Both these functions are valid and serve an important social role.
Neither of them require the involvement of the state.
The legal function, like other legal contracts, could be facilitated by anybody with a sufficient level of legal expertise. There are thousands of solicitors and professionals with legal training who would be able to draw up appropriate contacts. It is likely that, very soon, a few standard forms of marriage would emerge as the most popular. Some of these would undoubtedly have been commissioned by religious organisations that would incorporate them into their ceremonies alongside the consecration of the union. The different forms that would emerge spontaneously would enable tailoring the contract to the parties’ needs. The role of the state would be limited to ensuring freedom of, and honouring of, contacts and adjudicating contract disputes.
As for the ceremonial role, it seems utterly unnecessary for the state to provide for ceremonial functions – indeed, existing civil marriages are very streamlined affairs, with the celebrations being organised privately by those getting married.
To suggest that marriage should be defined by the “roles that a mother and a father play in the raising of children” implies that those who are not going to have children do not benefit from, and should not be allowed to enter into or enjoy, marriage. That would exclude not only homosexuals, but also (inter alia) the infertile, those who fall in love after childbearing age, and those who choose not to procreate.
As the above should make clear, individuals who fall into any of the above groups can derive a huge benefit from entering into a legal contract of marriage that protects them against unforeseen (or unavoidable) events. Equally, many such individuals will share the desire to celebrate their union. Consequently I do not accept that childbearing is integral to, or should define the nature of, marriage.
The government seeks to create a fair system for everybody who wishes to get married, while at the same time retaining the monopoly on defining and licensing marriage. I believe that it is the government’s ongoing wish to be the final arbiter of what is, what is not, and who can engage in, marriage that is the source of the conflict over this issue today. I hope that we can one day move to a system whereby individuals are free to define their union, celebrate it and – where appropriate – have it blessed in whatever manner they chose. In the meantime, I welcome the current proposals as a small step forward in creating a free and fair system.
If you have any questions about this or any other matter, please do not hesitate to contact me.
Cllr Tom Papworth
* Cllr Tom Papworth is the Leader of the Liberal Democrat Group on the London Borough of Bromley.