Same sex marriage bill: Speeches from Lords Phillips and Carlile

wedding ringsWe’ve covered in full all the Liberal Democrat speeches from the Same Sex Marriage Bill, which passed its second reading in the Lords last night.

Lord Phillips of Sudbury was the last but one speaker very late on Monday night. He made an original contribution, describing himself as “pathetically open-minded.”  I’m not sure that  young people will be entirely satisfied with his comments which implied that when they grow up, they won’t support equal marriage in as large numbers. He di, however, again use thoughtful and temperate language in his critique of the Bill.

He said:

My Lords, I am pathetically open-minded about many aspects of this Bill. I have studied with great care the arguments put forward on both sides of the debate, although you cannot really talk in terms of a single debate with such a complex measure. I have been immensely impressed, as I am sure we all have, by the quality of today’s debate, and the sincerity of the contributions made by all who have spoken. I have been particularly touched and moved, intellectually and emotionally, by the personal testimonies of my noble friend Lady Barker and the noble Lords, Lord Smith of Finsbury, Lord Browne of Madingley and Lord Black of Brentwood. I confess that my contribution tonight is not going to be sharp-edged and decisive, although I do have one proposal to make. I am going to speak very much in the hope that there may be reactions from your Lordships to it.

First, however, I have to join others in saying that although the Prime Minister has shown real courage in bringing forward this Bill, the way in which it has been brought forward and the conduct so far have been woefully inadequate. If there was ever a measure in which the general public should have felt part of our debates and our deliberations, this is it. This is not our issue. This is pre-eminently an issue for all the people of this country, whatever their views, whatever their background, wherever they live, whatever they do. There has been a lamentable failure to engage them. As the noble Lord, Lord Dear, said in his opening speech, the way in which responses have been measured, with petitions, however large—he mentioned one of half a million signatories—being treated as a single contribution really beggars belief, and one wonders why it was done.

In the same way, the gauging of public opinion by opinion polls is not sufficient. We have not had a deliberative document, a Green Paper—call it what you will—that can be distributed far and wide in order to elicit the mature views of our fellow citizens. I am a little suspicious of the figures that have emerged through the opinion polls, although I accept—and indeed it is my point—that most young people tend to think that this is a no-brainer, that of course those of the same sex should be able to marry; but it is possible to say that young people are not so much tolerant as indifferent to some of these issues. The sexual mores of our very young adults and late teenagers are staggeringly different from those which prevailed when most of us were their age. I suspect that many of those young people would say off the top of their heads, “Of course, marriage for everybody”. When they actually become married themselves they will mature into a different mindset, but that is by the bye.

I have to say to the noble Lord, Lord Dear, that I cannot accept his proposal, particularly in terms of the constitutional arrangements with the other place. I do not think it would be right for us to seek to jettison this Bill at this stage. However, if we proceed as we are presently doing, there is the risk of a backlash. My noble friend Lord Alderdice has referred to this. There is a real risk that of the very many—I would say millions—of our fellow citizens who feel strongly about this measure, most of them feel strongly against the change. One cannot judge this by one’s own mailbag, but from the comments made in the debate, it seems that most noble Lords have received a disproportionately large number of letters and e-mails from those who are very concerned about what we are up to.

I do not want that. I would rather we emerge at the end of this process with an Act of Parliament that has general consent and does not risk a backlash in the manner seen in France or anywhere else. It should heal and reconcile the differences of opinion and, in particular, the extremes of opinion. There is some homophobia in our society, although thank goodness it is vastly less than we experienced in our youth. At the other end there is, I fear, a sort of phobia against those who do not take a totally liberal view of the homosexual position.

I put forward my proposal tentatively and in a genuine spirit of reconciliation. We should think of using a different word or title for a homosexual union from that of a heterosexual union; in effect, not to call the union of a same-sex couple a marriage but, I suggest—it is only a suggestion—an espousal. The noun that derives from that word is spouse, which is gender-neutral. I think that it would lance a boil in the public mind as to what we are seeking to do, bearing in mind that everything else in the Bill will remain unchanged. All the rights will be the same.

I am tempted to say that those who talk about equality of esteem, as I do—my goodness, if there is one thing that I live by in my politics, it is the equal worth of every human being and the equal esteem in which they have the right to be held—that to some extent it is a misnomer to talk about a same-sex union in exactly the same way as that of a different-sex union. That is because of two fundamental, factual, inescapable and ineluctable differences which have been referred to by other noble Lords. The first is the nature of the union and the second is the procreative potential. It is no good saying that lots of people who get married are too old to have children, do not want children or whatever. The fact of the matter is that most people who marry seek to have children and do so. Same-sex couples in their civil marriages cannot have children except, of course, through adoption, surrogacy or whatever. That is fundamentally different. It is not better or worse but it is fundamentally different. I do not see why we should not face that. It is a form of honesty that would inure to the benefit of same-sex couples in the long run.

That is my late-night thought. I hope that noble Lords will give me some of theirs before Committee so that I can decide whether or not to table an amendment.

Lord Carlile of Berriew may not be the darling of the party activists at the moment with his position on secret courts and the snoopers’ charter, but many will be happy with his strong support of the Bill, citing the example of his daughter’s relationship:

My Lords, in some very fine speeches yesterday we heard every legal, theological, ethical and procedural issue set out very cogently. I noted that in the very last speech at the end of yesterday’s proceedings my noble friend Lord Flight said:

“If there is one single point on which I think this Bill should not proceed, it is that the nation is absolutely divided”.—[Official Report, 3/6/13; col. 1046.]

Hearing that comment prompted me to remind myself at once that my noble friend Lord Flight really is the noted author of an irresistible page-turner entitled All You Need to Know About Exchange Rates. If in that context one always had to wait for consensus, we would surely be in a far worse position economically than we are now. I say to my noble friend and to others that Parliament has a duty to lead, as well as to follow.

The way in which I hope to enforce this debate is by evidence rather than by advocacy. Among the five challenging and always interesting daughters that my wife and I have between us, my oldest daughter is a 40 year-old respected academic with two fine children. She is engaged—to be married, they hope—to another professional woman with one child. Past relationships—including, in my daughter’s case, heterosexual relationships—have proved unsuccessful and unenduring for them both. Now, we have two articulate and clever women who at least have found constant love, and emotional and every fulfilment, in each other.

We as a family respect their wishes. Their wish is to be married and they will brook no other term for their intention. They believe and articulate that it is discriminatory and demeaning that their intended marriage should receive any less legal recognition than any other marriage in the country—indeed, in the world, as they would say. By their relationship, they have brought new stability and certainty for their children, all of whom want them to be married and wish to take a full part in their wedding. I agree with them when they ask what conceivable damage their marriage, if permitted, would do to any other marriage in the land. Is there any one of your married Lordships who would feel any less married if Anna and Joanna were permitted lawful wedlock?

Among the many objections that we have heard, we have heard a good deal about pressure on ministers of religion. That has been answered comprehensively, but quite apart from the answers that have already been given, including the quadruple lock, and the detailed answer on the law given by the noble Lord, Lord Pannick, and the noble Baroness, Lady Kennedy, do your Lordships really think that any gay couple would want to be married by a priest or other official of any kind who was opposed to single-sex marriage? Of course they would not.

Therefore, to opponents of the Bill, I suggest that this is far from the end of marriage as we know it. Indeed, it may be the reinvigoration of marriage in a way that we do not yet know. The Bill offers the prospect of strong new examples of marriage, such as my daughters, and an increase in family stability, which these additional marriages would bring.

* Caron Lindsay is Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice and blogs at Caron's Musings

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  • I do hope that my good Lord Phillips generally has better late night thoughts than that one. ‘Espousal’ rather than ‘marriage’ because ‘spouse’ is gender neutral … whereas ‘marriage’ of course, is … um … let me go away and re-think this one.

  • In response to Lord Phillips, I have this to say, if your response is to say that the reason people cannot understand your arguments is because of something as immutable as their age, then either you are not making a very good argument or you simply do not have an argument.

    The fact is this, marriage, like many words in the English language, has just as many meanings as the number of people using it at any one time. It is not Law’s place to superimpose any one meaning on any word and anyone who truly understands our Law will know that the protean nature of our Language is one of our Law’s greatest strengths.

  • Matthew Huntbach 7th Jun '13 - 6:05pm

    The arguments on both sides are symbolic. The supporters of gay marriage argue that it’s not enough for a legally recognised same-sex partnership to have the same right as a different-sex one, it must actually be called the same thing to “send out a message” that gay people are equal to everyone else. Fine, I accept that. If that is not the core of their argument, someone please let me know.

    While there are many arguments used against, the strongest one which the most thoughtful opponents centre on is also about “sending out a message”. They are concerned that gay marriage sends out a message that marriage is just about two people who love each other and so also sends out a marriage that the commitment to child-rearing that was once central to marriage is downplayed. The argument is that it establishes more firmly that John and Mary’s marriage is just about John and Mary, so if John and Mary feel they don’t really love each other any more, they can split up and what happens to the children they produced isn’t relevant.

    When I first got to understand this argument against, I felt it was a valid point. Enough to balance the very valid point in favour I mentioned first? The problem for me was that the more I heard those in favour use lines such “Why should two people of the same sex who love each other not get married?” the more I felt those against had a valid point which hadn’t been taken into account. This is NOT about “rights” as if often claimed, at least not once we have moved to the point where a civil partneship has the same legal rights as a marriage, it is about symbolism on both sides.

    Although those in favour claim they have listened to the arguments against and rejected them, I wasn’t left convinced of that. I’d be happier if I was. So the more they talked about “rights” and “two people who love each other” the more they convinced me they hadn’t. The abuse that was thrown at opponents, accusing them of taking their position only out of prejudice and hatred of gay people, pushed me still further to sympathise and agree with the anti side.

    It’s often said “Look, in country X gay marriage was introduced and society did not instantly collapse”. Well, no, it didn’t. But I suspect homophobia was not instantly wiped out either. As both sides are saying, it’s about sending out a message, these things work slowly anyway. I do think the weakening of the idea of marriage commitment has had detrimental effects on children. Of course one can argue that husband and wife sticking together without love also has a detrimental effect. It goes both ways. But I think the idea that marital love is something you must work at even when it doesn’t come easy is a good one, when kids are involved – and one which is weakened a little more by every use of the line that marriage is JUST about two people who love each other, no more than that.

    So often I wish I didn’t have this urge to argue against whatever it is the majority around me are so in favour of. But I do, especially when I think the case against hasn’t been properly understood. I think that’s part of being a liberal. Other people seem to think that my coming out to put the case against here, means I am not a liberal. Maybe. So what am I? A bigot? For wanting both sides of the case to be understood? Is that bigotry?

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