Matthew Parris

Gay marriage the easy way

29 December 2012

9:00 AM

29 December 2012

9:00 AM

‘The next time we want to import a horse to Russia,’ wrote Laura Brady, Second Secretary in our Moscow embassy, ‘it will be a doddle.’ I quote her story in an anthology of diplomatic writing, The Spanish Ambassador’s Suitcase, that the BBC’s Andrew Bryson and I have collected for the new book. Miss Brady was giving the Foreign Office an account of her efforts to collect a horse from Moscow’s station. The horse was a present to the Prime Minister, John Major, from the President of Turkmenistan, who had despatched the fierce Akhal-Teke warhorse by train accompanied by a wagon-load of melons to pay the Russian Railways. The point Brady is making is that after a hilarious few days learning her way through a maze of Russian red tape, veterinary bureaucracy and railway obstructivism (and shovelling manure), she now knows the ropes. She smiles that she’ll probably never need the knowledge again.

Well, next time we want to make marriage available to same-sex couples, it will be a doddle. It’s likely that in the year ahead this measure will reach the statute book. But between here and there stretches a painful political road. And it didn’t have to be like this.

In its essentials this legislation could have been so much more painlessly eased into law, with less offence given (and taken) on all sides. We who support the measure should have learned from history. History would teach two things in particular: that words are terribly important to people; and that issues of conscience and party politics don’t mix.

First to conscience. Infinitely the most important piece of homosexual reform legislation was the 1967 Act that decriminalised sex in private between consenting adult males. A Labour home secretary, the late Roy Jenkins, was responsible for the reform.


But Jenkins was canny. This was never government legislation and nor was it formally associated with Labour. Jenkins used the age-old ploy of giving governmental fair wind to a private member’s bill brought in by the late Leo Abse, and a group of supporters from all parties. There was never any question of a whip being applied, and though more support came from Labour, the bill attracted support and opposition in both parties; but passed easily on a free vote of the whole House. Nobody could complain it hadn’t been in their manifesto, or that the government had ‘more important things to do’ than this. Yet Jenkins did get the credit he deserved; and the reform burnished Labour’s reputation as a humane and forward-looking political movement.

We could have learned from this. David Cameron only offered his party a free vote after it became clear they’d take it anyway; it looked like a retreat. In last year’s conference speech when the Tory leader promised this measure, he should have said that he was personally convinced this was a change whose time had come; but it shouldn’t be a party matter, and the government’s role should be restricted to giving the House the chance to decide, by offering time to a private member’s bill — on whose passage he suggested all parties might allow a free vote.

Mr Cameron would still have been seen, as he deserves to be, as the man to thank; the arithmetic of subsequent divisions would scarcely have been affected; and nobody could have complained that the proposal had not been in the Tory manifesto; or wasn’t a priority, or the kind of thing Tories should do.

Now to the other and more serious mistake. As is proved by the obloquy heaped on ‘political correctness’ (the expression can hardly be uttered without a snarl) we’re allergic to being told what we must call things. Any measure that can be smeared as ‘Orwellian’ is off to a bad start. It isn’t in fact true that we’ve all always known what the word ‘marriage’ means; there have been tremendous shifts in its meaning over the centuries, and within modern multi-faith Britain, between the state and the established church, and even between our churches, there are fundamental disagreements about the institution’s demands and bonds. The meanings of words shift all the time, the shifts driven by the way people choose to talk: a sort of cultural democracy. But when politicians try to grab the lexicographic reins, we stop arguing among ourselves and turn on them. Both the pro- and the anti- ‘gay marriage’ brigades have wanted the state to lay down their own preferred definition of the word ‘marriage’, each (correctly) accusing the other of this ambition; and each (correctly) insisting that the other’s definition is unacceptable to many.

And the way through — the way to make it a doddle? Learn from South Africa, where years ago the state decided to withdraw from the dictionary business, leave the old names alone, and give a new title to the civil contract the state offers partners who want civic recognition for their union. South Africa named it civil union, and this is all the civil power offers: to same-sex or heterosexual couples. Of course most South Africans carry on calling it ‘marriage’ as they always have, and an increasing number are becoming easy with the idea that this can apply to same-sex couples too. Churches, meanwhile, remain free to apply their own definitions. Everybody is.

But nobody — not the state nor the church — is commandeering anybody else’s word. That’s surely right. If language is to change, and it will, it will change by a developing informal consensus. I recommended the South African compromise in the Times much earlier last year, to a deafening silence.

I’m unhesitatingly supporting gay marriage now because I know which side I’d rather be with. But I don’t want to force the word on anyone and because of my age and generation I will feel a bit awkward about its new use for the rest of my life. Not so, I predict, the younger generations and those to come.

But that’s up to them. Gay people, many of them, have been earning in their own lives the palpable change in cultural attitudes towards their partnerships. Neither they nor the Church of England should expect the dictionary to do it for them.

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Show comments
  • Hilton Holloway

    I wrote to The Times a couple of months ago with the perfect solution.

    A Mexican girl told me that it was not possible to be ‘married’ in a church in her country. It was a religious ceremony. ‘Marriage’ came after the church service – probably at the reception – when a state representative appeared and a book was signed.

    The answer in the UK is to do the same. Nobody should be able to have their union recognised by the state via a church service. If the Church stops carrying out the role of registering unions on behalf of the state, it means everybody has to have a civil union and we have a level playing field.

    ‘Wedding’ ceremonies can then remain purely religious and, therefore, out of the reach of the zealots who have already said they want to take the CoE to the ECHR…

    • Harry

      This is not quite the perfect solution because most gay couples, just as most heterosexual non religious couples, will want to call themselves married. 69% of the population already have non-religious marriage ceremonies (source: ONS) and it is not fairon that substantial majority to call their status only that of a civil union.
      I do agree that a religious marriage should cease to have any legal effect.

      • Hilton Holloway

        In which case, we use my solution and call the state union ‘civil marriage’

        • Harry

          That won’t work because the 69% are entitled to the term “marriage”.

          • Dr Crackles

            Yes and the trem marriage is intrinsically linked to parenting. So, your non-religious friends can happily be married providing each is of the opposite sex as only this union is capable of yielding children.

          • Harry

            That is simply not right. There are plenty of straight marriages which are no linked to parenting an plenty o gay marriages which are.

          • Dr Crackles

            There is no such thing as a gay or straight marriage. There is marriage. The institution for the joing of man with woman with the intention of bringing children into this world. This is the only meaning. If some married couples choose not to have or are unable to have children this does not change the express purpose of the institution. Homosexual couples cannot yield children from within their relationship and no sophistry or lawless law changes can alter this fact.

          • Harry

            Good luck with all that. The county is moving. Look at the stats for acceptance of gay marriage the younger the voter gets. Anti marriage equality voters are quite literally dying off.
            And for the record a law is a law. We have a sovereign parliament.

  • ChristianDJ

    All this fuss over a word. How petty!!!!

    • Malfleur

      By petty do you mean grand?

  • FifthHorseman

    Numbers Stupid
    Only the State recoazie a union between people since all the laws apply to them. Each religion is different and their rules might mean little to a different religion.
    Think in a religious marriage it is not about the relationship between people as it is about how many children they will have. It is about numbers. Bigger the numbers more power the church has. Once it was that if you could have large armies under the control of the church you could control the nation. God gives the King power who inturn gives it to the church who in turn control the people. Have a large army and you get to go to war with an enemy, once it was man against man, today is is not about numbers is it about be able to kill more of them than they kill of you.

  • paulus

    Not in your life time was gay marriage a meaning of marriage or the understanding of it. If you seriouly can make a convincing argument in its support, i will support it.You cant and you wont. Please dont start with ad hominen attacks … im not a homophobe

    • David Johnson

      I can’t tell if you are a homophobe or not – because you appear to be illiterate.

  • paulus

    I am illiterate I generally just write what I want in any order i want. I have gone past literacy as a means of communication.It is beneath me to consider how you read it. Think of it as akin to a zen master leaving behind form.

    • The Elderking

      May the force be with you paulus. Your life, live it your way.

  • The Elderking

    Why Cameron didn’t say that secular “marriages” are ALL civil partnerships/unions and allowed churches to call them marriage and allow them to only marry man & woman, I do not know. It would have been so much easier and caused far less offence.

    He could have gone further by doing it the French way – a civil ceremony and, if people wish, a church one. To me the civil one would be a simple “sign the register and leave” as I regard church marriage as primary. Others may want the civil arrangement to be the celebration.

    It is a fact that to those of us that still respect the traditional meaning of marriage have been unnecssarily upset whilst gays will still be offended at churches not “marrying” them.

    It’s what used to be called a Buggers Muddle. Aptly in this case.

    The more politicians bang on about equality etc and force change upon our culture and way of life the more it actually divides us.

  • Roy

    If the same sex couples love each other so much why do they need a name to denote their coupling? Just live together and get over it. Why bring the whole wide world into the discussion of their title for unorthodox sexual liaisons? It is as if they wish everybody to know they are man and wife, yet different! Nobody cares a bull fart about it.

  • Eddie

    I know severl gay people who are opposed to gay marriage, and several more who are indifferent (it’s not either/or really).
    Plenty of people in their 30s and 40s I know would never accept a man talking about his husband either. I must admit it does make me giggle somewhat – but then so does the word ‘partner’.
    Isn’t marriage really a religious thing anyway? Legally marriage dates from the 18th century and was put in law in the Marriage Act to clarify inheritance rights to property. Before that, you just said you were married really, and you were – then if there were no children after a year, you could walk away. Male couples had church blessings too in the Middle Ages.
    It is hardly shocking either that not a single Muslims of Hindu priest or imam has to my knowledge come out in favour of gay marriage or even civil partnership. Anyone would think they hated gay people or something…

    • Eddie

      And being opposed to gay marriage does NOT make anyone homophobic either: the usual emotional blackmail used, unfortunately, against both gays and straights and those who prefer not to be defined by a sexual lifestyle.

      Matthew says: ‘I’m unhesitatingly supporting gay marriage now because I know which side I’d rather be with.’

      Does it all have to be so very Manichaean?

      And I really don’t hink it’s just older people who’ll find hearing a man talking about his ‘husband’ a bit odd either. I find it odd (I am 20 years Mr Parris’s junior). When I read articles by journalists who DO refer to their ‘husband’, I tend to tut and mumble ‘show off!’.

      There are very many gay and straight people who really do find it all a bit silly.

      Many gay people who’d rather just NOT ape straight marriage at all, even through civil partnerships. But no doubt all the divorces will be fun (expect lots of pretty bright young things targeting fat old big-house owning queens in London – more than they do already, that is…) Eyes like panthers…

      I have yet to hear a lesbian talk about her ‘wife’ though – still waiting to hear/read my first there. Why is that? Come on Alice Arnold and Claire Balding: TALK to me!

  • MahmudH

    Cameron intentionality chose the most difficult way because he wanted to beat his party into submission. He wants to purge the ranks of old fashioned social/religious conservatives, and instead dedicate it exclusively as a conservative-libertarian cult obsessed with shrinking the state. Like what’s been doing so much damage with the ‘fiscal cliff’ in America.

  • Rolande Tisseyre

    Mr Parris, Do please excuse my broken English, not my native language.
    I do resent gay people destroying what was, for me, for millions of others, and
    for generations before us, a unique institution called “marriage”, a
    blessing and achievement between man and woman, founded with the implicit
    commitment of founding a family. To me, you did not answer the proper questions:
    Why is it that you gay people cannot take responsability for you difference? Why
    cant you create a word (one word !) without perverting a very old tradition,
    dear the the heart of so many of us? Thousands of you are talented artists,
    certainly creative enough to find one word for an immensely important issue to
    your sensibilities?
    The resentment – expressed or untold – of millions of us that will result for the theft (or diversion) of one word,will be very damaging indeed, for years and years to your good cause, when it could be easyly avoided. What a pity! What an unnecessary long and cold war with no winners at the end!

  • Socratella

    Mr Cameron’s proposition that same sex marriage should be put on the statute books as a matter of “equality” is irrational. Two people of the same sex are biologically incapable of making a baby together. Therefore same-sex marriage cannot be “equal” to heterosexual marriage. Mr Cameron’s argument is built on false premises.

  • itakuera

    That angry question resurfaces: “Why should gay people be denied the right to marry?” I suggest it is simply that they are not biologically equipped to marry. No law can change that. We can legislate to impose taxes, to go to war, to prevent people hunting with dogs, but we cannot legislate to enable same-sex couples to procreate. That is not to say that same-sex couples cannot have flamboyant ceremonies. They can, and they do. I have to ask: “What more do same-sex couples want that they do not already have?” I am tempted to suggest that they wish to destroy the institution of marriage simply because that is something not open to them. Same-sex couples who wish to marry want to be uniform. Gay people want, curiously, to abandon their usual wish to celebrate their difference, their Gay Pride, and pretend to be identical with people who are attracted to the opposite sex. That, it seems to me, is very sad.

    Is it the wording? Do gay people long to say “I am married”? But that would mean denying their sexuality, their distinctiveness. I suggest a better way. Let same-sex couples celebrate by coining a new word, equal in status yet different from ‘Marriage’. Gay couples writing to newspapers on this subject seem to have a variety of views about what to call their role in relation to their partner. One hears of partnerships between ‘husbands’ for example. But that suggests an ache to be uniform with the other type of person, the other type of union that is not desired. This sort of unhappiness has been manifest before, and a solution was found. People who didn’t like being described as homosexual (or with more unpleasant words) are now comfortable with their own chosen word: “Gay”. Gay people are now proud to be Gay.

    It’s not my place to impose terms, but perhaps I may suggest an idea: What about ‘Bonding’? Two people would be ‘bonded’. They would refer to each other, if they wished, as ‘my bond’. It’s just a thought. I’m sure that someone will come up with a better idea.

    What now?

    It seems to me important from the point of view of societal stability that:

    first, we recognise the value and contribution made to our lives and pursuit of happiness by people in same-sex partnerships,

    second, that we celebrate difference as much as ensuring equality, and

    third, that we avoid upsetting the still considerable majority of people who are married and see marriage as a valuable, indeed essential part of our world.

    In short, we should build confidence in diversity without destroying marriage. Drain the bath but keep the baby.