Stephen Gilbert MP writes… Equal marriage is now a litmus test for Cameron

Marriage ring - License Some rights reserved by jcoterhals May has been a good month for equal marriage. Minnesota became the 12th American State, plus DC, to allow same-sex couples to marry and France became the 9th country in Europe (the 14th around the world) to introduce this landmark change. Millions of gay and lesbian people are now able to marry the person they love.

This week, in Britain, the debate returns to the House of Commons. I have no doubt that a significant majority of MPs are in favour of equal marriage. But let’s also be in no doubt that a small number of out of touch Tory MPs are using any and all means at their disposal to disrupt and derail this historic legislation. How David Cameron deals with these detractors will be a litmus test for his leadership as he tries to re-establish control over his fractious party.

I don’t doubt the Prime Ministers personal commitment to delivering equal marriage. My concern is that Cameron is in danger of being buffeted by the storms raging within his disunited party. Let’s be clear, Cameron’s party is at war – the Compassionate Conservatives versus the Toxic Tories. They seem unable to agree a narrative in response to the threat, as they see it, from the rise of UKIP and the “swivel-eyed-loons” inside and outside the ranks of Conservative MPs are pushing for an ever more right-wing agenda – like the ditching of equal marriage and an immediate referendum on membership of the EU.

The Conservative Party of 2013 is not the same party that entered the Coalition Government in May 2010. David Cameron promised the British people a centrist approach – a compassionate Conservative Party that was outward looking, internationalist and environmentally savvy. Three years later we have a Tory party that reverted to type, turned inward and speaks to its own shibboleths. Today’s Tories seem ungovernable and reluctant to govern.

It would be a tragedy if, as the rest of the world makes progress on equal marriage, the internal machinations of a Conservative Party at war cause the Equal Marriage Bill to be derailed in Britain. To avoid this outcome the Prime Minister may have to accept that there are likely to be majorities in the House of Commons for opposite sex civil partnerships, humanist weddings as well as equal marriage for gay and lesbian people. He should welcome these changes.

David Cameron now faces a fundamental choice. He can continue to allow his party to lurch to the right and further diminish his chances of spending another five years in Number 10 or he can deliver the Conservative Party that he promised the British people in 2010.

What the Prime Minister does over the next three days will make a huge difference to the millions of gay and lesbian people in Britain, but it will also tell us a lot about the direction of his party.

* Stephen Gilbert is Liberal Democrat MP for St Austell and Newquay and chairs the Regional Aviation All Party Parliamentary Group

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  • Paul Pettinger 20th May '13 - 1:01pm

    I hope the humanist marriage amendment is passed – legal humanist marriages have worked well for several years now in Scotland.

  • Instead of allowing particular humanists to perform marriages, we should be requiring ALL marriages, including Christian ones, to make declarations to a professional registrar, as humanists and some others currently do. The idea that the churches or the BHA should act as the gatekeepers for civil marriage is outdated and potentially open to abuse.

  • Helen Tedcastle 20th May '13 - 10:01pm

    @ Stephen Gilbert MP – ” David Cameron promised the British people a centrist approach – a compassionate Conservative Party that was outward looking, internationalist and environmentally savvy. ”

    How naive is this statement. The Tory Party was never centrist – Cameron did a great makeover job on it – the party has been rabidly anti-European for more than twenty years and only a few understand the environmental argument. We were all taken in – some more than others, especially in the Leadership of this Party.

  • @ Helen Tedcastle
    I though you were lining up with UKIP and the Tory right on equal marriage?

  • thought not though!

  • Helen Tedcastle 20th May '13 - 11:10pm

    @ Mark Inskip: On gay marriage, my view happens to align with Tories, some Lib Dems (actually) some in Labour. On the vast number of policy issues, I am no where near the Tory Party or New Labour. I have never claimed to be a pure and thoroughly secular liberal who longs for a thoroughly neutral society and privatised belief.

  • The BHA amendment is a bit of a mess, actually.

    English law grants the right to conduct marriages to buildings, not to people. There is a minor exception for people who can’t go to an authorised building (so-called “deathbed” marriages) and there are two general exceptions, one to the Society of Friends (Quakers) and the other to Jews. Both of those are, in practise, marriages conducted in a list of authorised buildings, it’s just that the two faiths are, for different reasons, not comfortable about having their premises on a list of places of worship and have been given exemptions.*

    I’d much prefer it if we rewrote the law to be celebrant-based, like Scotland, rather than location-based, as at present, but that would be a major legislative change that should not get tangled up with same-sex marriage; put it in a non-controversial technical bill, like the change that permitted night-time marriages a few years ago.

    While we have a building-based law, it seems wrong to me that the BHA (and, let’s be clear, the amendment is drafted to make sure that no-one else can qualify) should get a special ability to conduct marriages anywhere it likes, when everyone else has to stick to a list of approved premises. We already have a long list of non-religious premises where you can get married, why not just restrict the BHA to them?

    You could then have non-religious celebrants in all the approved premises. Indeed, we should probably let religious celebrants use those locations too – they’re the only places you can have an outdoor wedding in England and Wales, and you can’t have a religious wedding in the approved premises. If you want a neopagan wedding in a sacred grove, then you’re a bit stuffed – you can’t register the grove as a place of worship, because it’s not a building. You can register it as approved premises, but then you can’t have a religious ceremony.

    * For the Jewish religion, it really should be obvious why a government-run register of synagogues is going to provoke some real problems; for the Society of Friends, the problem is that Friends’ Meeting Houses are not places of worship, and writing an exception that included them and didn’t include every public meeting place in the country would be nigh impossible, so they just exempted them by name.

  • Matthew Huntbach 21st May '13 - 1:09pm

    The rubbishing of all concern about this issue as if anyone who expresses it is a supporter of all that the right-wing of the Conservative Party is about is insulting and illiberal. The leaders of the Roman Catholic church, for example, are constantly putting out comments extremely critical of right-wing economics, can people like Stephen Tall at least acknowledge that even if they do not understand their position on this, it is a distinct viewpoint?

    The hysteria about this issue and the obsession with it amongst the political elite seems to me to be very damaging, it comes across to most people I know as an indication that the political elite is out-of-touch and cares nothing for how people on moderate incomes are struggling and how they are being damaged by the policies of this government. The reality is that this is a token issue on BOTH sides. Ultimately BOTH sides are making points which are really about the message this is supposed to be sending out than about real rights and restrictions. It seems to me the better way to have tackled it would have been to gradually move civil partnership and marriage closer together so that in the end the only difference would be a tick of a box on the certificate “Marriage or Partnership?”. Just do this without fuss and hysteria.

    When such a big thing is made out of it it just serves to stir up resentment about it from the great majority of the population who really don’t care one way or the other about it. If our party is throwing away concession after concession to the economic right in order to be able to push through this one thing as a sort of leftish move, which I thin is the case, we are digging our grave. There are more important things we should be arguing with the Conservatives about. I’m afraid this does look very much like a cost-free token left issue pushed and made into a fuss abut in order to disguise our party’s surrender to the political right on almost everything else.

  • Malcolm Todd 21st May '13 - 1:13pm

    Finally got around to googling “difference between marriage and civil partnership” and found this: The seven ways civil partnership isn’t the same as marriage. The differences are largely underwhelming, and insofar as they are substantial are clearly an argument for allowing same-sex marriage; they leave it quite impossible to imagine why anyone should choose civil partnership over marriage if they had a choice. So as Stephen W says, let’s just roll them all up together and call it marriage.

  • Matthew Huntbach 21st May '13 - 4:52pm

    Matthew Huntbach

    can people like Stephen Tall at least acknowledge that

    I meant Stephen Gilbert there – too used to article here by the other Stephen.

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