Alistair Carmichael writes: for allowing mixed sex couples into civil partnerships

The late great Groucho Marx once said, “Marriage is a wonderful institution – but then, who wants to live in an institution?”

I have no problem in answering “I do” – coincidentally the same words I spoke on September 19th 1987 when my wife and I got married.

Like everyone else, our marriage has had its ups and downs but when we got married I had no doubt that it was the right thing to be doing and I have never doubted it for a second since. I like being married. For us, marriage is a good thing. In fact I would recommend it to anyone in a long term stable relationship and am still immensely proud of the role that our party played in dragging our country into the twenty-first century so that I can offer the recommendation to my friends in same sex relationships too.

That said, I realise that marriage is not for everyone. I know many people who are in long term relationships that are every bit as loving and as stable as our marriage but who remain unmarried. Some people are uncomfortable with its religious roots, some dislike the “baggage” that comes with it. Others may just have been a bit busy with other stuff, never found the right date or venue or dress or whatever.

Does this matter?

Yes, actually, it does. It matters because for centuries society has accorded special status to marriage. To be married opens the door to all sorts of rights and protections in law. These same rights and protections are also available to same sex couples who wish to register their relationship as a civil partnership but, irony of ironies, not to mixed sex couples. That is right – the law now offers a greater range of rights and opportunities to same sex couples than it does to mixed sex couples. That has got to be wrong.

One of the arguments advanced by opponents of equal marriage was that it “would change the nature of marriage”. I thought it spurious at the time and nothing has changed my view since we accepted marriage equality.

What equal marriage did, however, was to change the nature of civil partnership – or, at least, how we saw it. To compensate for the lack of equality in marriage we constructed a ceremonial infrastructure around civil partnership to make it look like marriage and for a time we quietly ignored the fact that it was not as there was one main difference.

Marriage requires a public declaration of intent, a vow. Civil partnership does not.

Strictly speaking, civil partnerships can be entered into by rocking up at your local registry office with a couple of witnesses and registering your relationship. Thus those who register their relationship in this way can acquire all the rights and protections that come from being married.

So you can see the attraction for those who dislike what I refer to as “the baggage” that goes with marriage. Equal marriage was an enormous step forward, now we need to finish the job and extend the same equality to civil partnership.

A Scottish government consultation found that more than half of respondents wanted civil partnerships extended. The Isle of Man introduced different-sex civil partnerships this summer. Findings from the Office of National Statistics show that there are 3 million cohabiting different-sex couples in the UK and the number is rising fast. That means 1 in 5 households are a different-sex cohabiting couple: surely it is only a matter of time before the government has to realise that we cannot cling on to old traditions while the world around us changes.

But perhaps the biggest thing that has given me so much hope is the news that prompted me to write this post. In 2015 Rebecca Steinfeld and Charles Keidan, a London couple, took the government to court over its refusal to allow different sex couples the right to get a civil partnership. Though their case was rejected at the first stage, their appeal is being heard this November and I understand their legal team remain optimistic of winning. Should they succeed in getting a ruling that the ban on different-sex civil partnerships is unlawful I can’t imagine the government will be slow-footed in lifting that ban.

Even if they do not win Charles and Rebecca’s case has already captured the support and attention of a vast swathe of people inside and outside of Westminster. Politicians from all parties support the campaign set up in their honour – the Equal Civil Partnerships Campaign – and over 70,000 people have signed a petition backing their cause.

Change is on its way. Just like in 2013 I want the Liberal Democrats to lead that change. I hope that you will join me in supporting Charles and Rebecca in their campaign and pursuing all the legislative means possible to finish the job we started three years ago.

* Alistair Carmichael is the MP for Orkney and Shetland and Liberal Democrat Chief Whip.

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This entry was posted in Op-eds.


  • Lorenzo Cherin 1st Nov '16 - 2:14pm

    lAny contribution that opens with a quote from from the man that turns Liberals into Marxists , namely , the great Mr. Groucho Marx, gets my support! By the way Alistair , et al, not sure if you are aware of this one :

    ” I’ve been a Liberal Democrat all my life !” I am utilising it in a new project I am developing , he was a political man !

    I support what you say in this article strongly !

  • “Does this matter?”

    Only to a very tiny minority and I doubt it’s even important to them.

  • “These same rights and protections are also available to same sex couples who wish to register their relationship as a civil partnership”

    Is this true ? I thought there was an issue around pensions for a surviving partner but this may have been resolved.

    Personally I’ve always seen Civil Partnerships as the stepping stone to equal marriage and certainly feel that there would have been more objections had Civil Partnerships not been in place for a number of years prior to the equal marriage legislation.

  • Graham Evans 1st Nov '16 - 9:58pm

    Steve Way is right. Same sex couples, irrespective as to whether they are married or in a civil partnership, have inferior rights when it comes to the pension of a surviving spouse. The government refused to correct this anomaly when gay marriage was introduced, claiming that the cost to private sector pension providers could be prohibitively expensive, though in reality it was to avoid increased liabilities for public sector pension schemes. It was supposed to revisit the issue after a year but nothing has been done to date.

  • Victoria Yardley 2nd Nov '16 - 12:48am

    I think the attention that this case attracts could also be used to put out some public information messages about legal issues relating to cohabitation and the need to make a will if you don’t wish to get married but want your partner to inherit your property.

    There seems to be quite a widespread misconception that there is something called “common-law marriage” that confers some kind of de facto legal rights but to my knowledge this is not the case in the UK (unlike in some other countries). I know of a couple where one partner died suddenly and the other, very sadly, inherited nothing – all the property went to some distant relative that the deceased person had rarely if ever set eyes on, when they probably would have wanted the partner to have it. It would be great if more people could be made aware of this to help avoid such unfortunate situations.

  • Jayne Mansfield 2nd Nov '16 - 9:47am

    @ Dave Page,
    In France it is illegal for anyone to conduct a religious marriage ceremony without a prior civil marriage.

    This plus greater protection for all cohabitees would offer greater protection to all women, which is as it should be if we really believe in equality.

  • It’s a pity Alistair didn’t pick up on an extremely important issue which ought to give pause for thought to all unmarried couples not in a marriage or a civil partnership.

    It is a common misconception that an unmarried partner has similar inheritance rights to those of a wife/husband/civil partner, should their partner die without leaving a Will (intestate). This is not the case and the death of a partner (no matter how long-term the relationship) may leave the survivor with nothing.

    The Law Commission has recommended that certain qualifying cohabitants be given automatic inheritance rights on intestacy. However, the government has confirmed that it will not implement these recommendations during the current parliament.

    When someone dies without leaving a Will, there are legal rules (the intestacy rules) which decide who benefits from their estate. Any husband/wife/civil partner is the main beneficiary, followed by children, parents and siblings. Cohabiting partners are not included in these rules, neither are any children of the cohabiting partner from a previous relationship, even though they may have been brought up as the deceased’s own children.

    It is estimated that up to two-thirds of all adults do not have a Will. Until such time as the law changes, it is best advice to cohabiting couples to make a will.

  • Malc – so if we imprisoned you for life, on false evidence, you’d be happy with that because only one person was affected and that’s a very tiny proportion of the population?

  • David Evans 2nd Nov '16 - 5:18pm


    True, but then it might be very important to him :-). We support it because we are Lib Dems, and it is right for the individual (or couple in this case), and so (almost inevitably) is right for society.

  • Kay Kirkham 2nd Nov '16 - 9:44pm

    Adrian is right. Marriage carries a lot of historic and religious baggage which same sex couples can avoid but different sex couples cannot. I supported same sex marriage for reasons of equality and we should support different sex civil partnerships for the same reason.

  • @ Ian Sanderson. Very sorry to hear about the situation you are having to deal with, Ian. I’m glad you make the point about the different jurisdictions.

    This whole issue seems to be hidden away and it clearly needs to be more widely understood. It would be helpful if our parliamentarians – in the different jurisdictions – took this matter up and explored practical solutions to the problem.

    Sadly this is a problem that is not always dealt with in an amicable way. A friend of mine living with his female partner was forced out of his home by the partner’s adult children when she unexpectedly died – not a good situation in any sense.

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