Let me begin by saying that I enthusiastically support equal marriage. The ability of two people who love each other to marry regardless of their gender is a blessing, Tuesday’s vote was a victory for liberalism, and despite its flaws the Bill is a big step forward to a fairer society. I found the explanations made by those Lib Dem MPs who opposed the bill to be intellectually unconvincing, sometimes evasive, and fundamentally illiberal.
And yet, I was slightly perturbed by the number of people – and a party organisation – discussing whether to refuse to campaign for the ‘rebels’. I have seen deselection mentioned at least twice. I question why this issue – above all of the other difficult votes in this parliament – has earned, uniquely, the scorn and approbation of so many for a small minority within our party.
Is it the fact that this debate, so concerned with questions of equality under the law and non-discrimination, encapsulates the things that make us liberals? The argument has been made that we would never tolerate any MP voting against equal rights for ethnic minorities. Yet, while this is true, there has been near silence within our party (except for some honourable exceptions) about the potential abolition of Equality Impact Assessments. Regardless of the merits of EIAs, they are one of the few proactive tools for ensuring, amongst other things, racial equality. You might at least have expected a serious debate. Similarly, there has been little fuss made about the de-fanging of the Equality and Human Rights Commission. These are also challenges to equality, and to freedom. To quote Lyndon Johnson;
We seek not just freedom but opportunity. We seek not just legal equity but human ability, not just equality as a right and a theory but equality as a fact and equality as a result.
Is it the fact that this issue is so profoundly emotional, dealing with the profoundly personal questions of sexuality and love? Undoubtedly. But at the same time, many of the things that we chose to do in government affect others profoundly – to give an example, seemingly minor changes to the Employment and Support Allowance. To a disabled man or woman, ‘welfare reform’ is an acutely personal issue as well. Our government and our MPs are, with a few exceptions, supporting these changes. Should we promise not to support those who vote for measures, such as cutting disability benefits for the most vulnerable in our society, which are, to my mind, illiberal? Is voting against equal marriage alone a boycottable offence?
I am not trying to say that these issues are ‘more important’ than same-sex marriage, or that you can’t care about more than one thing at once. Quite the opposite. David Laws, in his somewhat controversial introduction to the Orange Book, invoked the idea of a ‘four cornered’ liberalism, which balances and incorporates political, personal, social and economic liberalism. As a result of the ideological divisions which that volume exposed and precipitated, we have tended in internal party discourse to stress personal and political liberalism above the other forms because of the shared consensus the party holds around them. I worry that, because of this, there is an unhealthy trend to emphasise some aspects of legal equality or due process as the main focus of liberalism, and to ignore the question of substantive freedom outside the narrow framework of the law. LGBT rights and civil liberties are so very, very important. And so are women’s rights and the rights of the disabled and the poor and the vulnerable. So is the ability of a child to fulfil her talents, to grow up and flourish as a human being whoever his parents might be. And so is the future of our public services.
Ultimately, it’s up to you and your conscience whether you refuse to campaign for any of our parliamentarians who vote against equal marriage. What I hope is that everyone will judge them not on one division, but on all the divisions they make in this parliament. Liberalism is too precious and too complex to be judged by a single vote.