The conservative case for gay marriage
16 July 2012
The current debate on legalising gay marriage was sparked by one of the more memorable speeches of this Government, when Prime Minister David Cameron said “I don’t support gay marriage in spite of being a conservative. I support gay marriage because I am a conservative.”
What has been missing from the debate since that speech has been a convincing, measured discussion from the political right on what he meant. Until now, that is. Today the Policy Exchange, a leading conservative think tank thank, has published What’s In A Name? Is there a case for equal marriage? Don’t be fooled by the question mark in the title. This report represents the best and most carefully considered case for equal marriage from a conservative (with a small ‘c’) perspective so far.
I highly recommend the report, which is full of interesting historical context and subtle (as well as not-so-subtle) cues for the political right. In essence, the report’s case is that marriage is good for society as it encourages a stable family life, which is itself good for all sorts of reasons. Empirical evidence strongly suggests that this applies as much to homosexuals as it does to heterosexuals. With such a clear social benefit (and one which fits well with conservative championing of ‘family values’), the only real case against legalisation is the distaste of others. And there is no law against offending others.
Here are some highlights:
On recent advances for homosexuals in the UK:
Only a handful of Conservative MPs voted to legalise homosexuality in 1967 – amongst them were Nicholas Ridley, Enoch Powell and Margaret Thatcher.
On less recent advances for homosexuals in the UK:
1785 – Jeremy Bentham is one of the first people to argue for the decriminalisation of sodomy in England
On Conservative radicalism through the ages, and the radicalism of modern conservatism’s founding father:
Disraeli’s support for the Second Reform Act, as well as his legalisation of trade unions and substantial social reforms, such as slum clearance, can also be seen as examples of this tradition, as were the 1918 extension of the vote to women, and social reforms instituted by Joseph Chamberlain and Harold Macmillan. In many cases, Conservative Governments made ‘progressive’ changes because they felt that they were the right thing to do
On public support for change:
In the late 1980s… the proportion of people who regarded sexual relations between two adults of the same sex as “always or mostly wrong” stood at more than 70 per cent; now it is just under 30 per cent…. A 2012 Populus poll showed that 76 per cent of people agreed that gay couples should have “exactly the same rights as heterosexual couples.”
On the remaining arguments for opponents:
The burden of proof is on the opponents of marriage equality to say, in the language the law understands, why gay people do not deserve the same liberties as their fellow citizens. The only justification for such a restriction of liberty is if harm is done to others. The only possible ‘harm’ remaining is the harm of offence caused. There is no right to freedom from offence in this country.
On the vexed question of whether human rights law will ultimately force religious authorities to perform gay marriages against their will:
Some have suggested that a change in the law will require religious institutions to marry gay people, contrary to the beliefs of that religion. This is not what a change in the law would do.
There is therefore no obvious legal case for marriage equality to be found in human rights law… Religious groups should be able to exclude gay people from marrying as part of a religious ceremony on their premises if they wish. On the basis of the rule of law, they should not be able to exclude gay people from entering into a civil marriage elsewhere.
The Government has recently consulted on equal marriage and is considering the responses. Meanwhile, a number of religious organisations, notably the Church of England and the Chief Rabbi, have expressed their disapproval for the plans. It is a shame that following the early support from the Prime Minister, the contribution from the right has been somewhat muted. The Policy Exchange report is therefore well-timed and should be read by anyone who is concerned about the potential effects of legalising gay marriage.
With the left and right of the political spectrum aligning on the case for a particular social change, it is increasingly hard to take seriously the arguments against that change. Hopefully, this Government will follow through with the Prime Minister’s early commitment. Even the White House supports the case for change, in a country where social conservatives are much fiercer than our own. Perhaps social attitudes really are aligning, and the New Yorker’s recent prediction will ultimately prove true:
One day, not long from now, it will be hard to remember what worried people so much about gay and lesbian couples committing themselves to marriage.
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- Will the European Court force churches to perform gay marriages?
- Should gay marriage be legalised?
- Gay marriage on the way… but not quite yet