I was intending to write something about Macedonia, as it’s the next country on the Balkan List, but something rather more interesting is blowing up back home in London which makes me so furious that I can’t resist commenting on: the same-sex marriage bill currently being discussed in Parliament.
Now, the main problem with same-sex marriage is that most politicians seem to regard it as a way of getting votes rather than an issue of principle. Because of this, same-sex marriage bills often get dragged into the middle of pre-existing political squabbles: this happened in France, where the UMP decided to oppose same-sex marriage on the reasoning that Hollande was doing it, he’s wildly unpopular, and it would be a good way of mobilising opposition to him.
In the UK, the legislation has fallen into the middle of the Conservative Party indecorously tearing itself apart over exactly how far to the right they want to position themselves. (By 2015 the party will be unelectable, which I would find funnier if there were any parties I trusted to run the country at all; as it is I shall probably write my own name on the ballot paper.) This has been playing out in force since the beginning of the year, mostly over the issue of Europe, but the focus of attention has – temporarily, I suspect – shifted to the same-sex marriage bill. Everything was swimming along fairly blandly, with the standard ruckus about the involvement of the church and trying to ensure that religious representatives wouldn’t be forced to do something sensible if they didn’t want to. But over the last few weeks, the Tory die-hard wing has been screaming that pushing through the same-sex marriage bill will lose them the next election. This is also business as usual. Then things went a bit odd.
There is a thing called the Loughton Amendment (named after MP Tim Loughton, who introduced it). The Loughton Amendment to the Bill would not only make same-sex marriage legal, but also make civil partnerships legal for everyone. This is quite an exciting thought, really, because it’s what the UK Equality campaign has advocated for years: total equality – everyone gets to choose between marriage and civil partnership. Unfortunately, it’s being proposed for the wrong reasons: Loughton, and many of the MPs who are planning to vote for the amendment, have vociferously opposed the same-sex marriage legislation on religious grounds – Loughton himself even referred to it as an ‘infestation’. It is difficult to claim that the Amendment, for all the good it would achieve, is based on the purest of motives. A number of other MPs, mostly Labour, have announced that they are planning to support the Amendment for the radical reason that they actually support what it does rather than because they want to derail the whole legislation.
The Conservative government sees the Amendment purely as a matter of back-bench rebellion, and they are determined to crush it. To this end, Ministers – particularly the Equalities Minister, Maria Miller – have been pouring out idiocies at anyone who will listen. My favourite of these is the claim that the Amendment will make the legislation cost £4 billion (quite how is unclear). But here is another quote from Ms. Miller:
Let me give you two very practical examples – issues around the way pensions would work. If you create a whole new cadre of individuals called civil partners who are in opposite-sex couples, we have to consider in detail how that would work for pensions.
Equally, the issue of marriage is not an issue that we dictate from Westminster for Scotland and Northern Ireland. There are considerable issues; indeed, Northern Ireland have decided not to go forward with same-sex marriage. Therefore, we would need to open up those negotiations.
The issues around international recognition of heterosexual civil partnerships is also something we need to consider.
Of these three objections, only the first is an actual objection. The second one is going to be a problem so long as any part of the legislation passes, and the third one is wildly hypocritical considering the number of countries which don’t recognise same-sex marriages. Even on the pension issue, she’s talking as if there are no civil partnerships in force already. If marriage equality can be achieved with some choice additions into the Marriage Act, I fail to see why the same could not be achieved with civil partnerships. The pension legislation already exists: it would just need broadening.
But the most infuriating thing is the incredible delay which this will almost certainly impose on same-sex marriage actually coming into force. Earlier today, Maria Miller (again) threatened that the passage of the Amendment would delay implementation for two years. About an hour ago, a Downing Street source confirmed that if the Amendment passed, the government would use it as an excuse to drop the bill entirely and wait until after the next election (2015) to teach the rebels a lesson.
Even if the bill survives the maelstrom of Tory self-loathing, Ms. Miller’s charmingly optimistic prediction was that “[she wants] to see marriages being undertaken under this new bill as early as next summer”. “As early as next summer”? What the hell can cause this sort of hold-up? It would be genuinely unprecedented in the history of same-sex marriage legislation to impose such a delay. New Zealand, which passed legislation on 17th April of this year, brings it into force in the middle of August. That’s a four-month delay, which is on the long end of things. Norway took six months. Most other countries take between 10 days and a month; Canada and South Africa allowed one day. In Brazil – the world’s fifth most populous nation – same-sex marriage was legalised last Tuesday, and it came into effect on Thursday. Yet the UK government is seriously considering a hiatus of over a year.
I don’t know what the result of all this will be, but it has confirmed two things for me:
1. The government is profoundly conservative in its outlook. No longer will I have to suffer through people telling me that the same-sex marriage bill indicates a new, progressive Tory party. Even those pushing for the bill don’t want genuine equality – they just want marriage for everyone. The level of panic about opening up civil partnerships should be proof enough for that.
2. The government looks at same-sex marriage legislation from a purely political and tactical perspective, separated from its effect on actual people; it is a (backfiring) way of making the party look modern. The passage and implementation of this bill will have a huge effect on the lives of many hundreds of thousands of people, not only same-sex couples but married trans* people who currently have to choose between divorce and official misgendering. To delay that for a month would make people impatient. To delay it for a year, or until after the next general election, betrays a purely theoretical outlook which cannot comprehend that government policies have effects on ordinary people.