David Cameron’s same-sex marriage bill was voted on for the first time in the British Parliament on Tuesday. Confusingly, the debate and vote were called the “second” reading, as the first “reading” took place when the draft bill was laid before Parliament, giving members and everyone else their first opportunity to read the proposed legislation.
At 50-odd pages long, the bill amends dozens of acts of Parliament stretching back to 1533. One would have thought that, for such a complex document with profound legislative consequences and social effects, not least for the established Church of England, parliamentarians would have had plenty of time to comment on the proposals, but no: it only came out on January 25. The usual process of green paper and white paper consultations were short-circuited by a Government bent on pushing through the creation of same-sex marriage.
Why the rush?
Probably for a quick win. Cameron is guaranteed to get it through the House of Commons because most MPs are socially liberal city-dwellers who take what they see to be a Whiggish interpretation of history (the House of Lords will be a different matter). It is likely too that Cameron sees same-sex marriage as being a way of “detoxifying” or “decontaminating” the Tory brand, whereby he stares down the traditionalist Taliban of backbench social conservatives and what Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, a Liberal Democrat, thinks of as petty-minded religious bigots in the Shires, in an effort to show that the Conservative Party has “really changed” to become a trendy group of chilled-out mates who are down with the Tweeting Facebook masses.
Matthew d’Ancona, an “arch-moderniser” pro-Cameron journalist, chided Tory opponents of gay marriage for failing to grasp the historic moment, and for pulling the party away from “openness, equality… and ‘the centre of gravity of social attitudes’.” And finally, Cameron – to his credit – believes in the justice of his actions, and is acting in accordance with his conscience.
I won’t quote from MPs’ speeches here, but suffice to say, the supporters of gay marriage cited equality and love whilst its opponents pointed out the meaning of marriage rooted in complementarity of the sexes and the creation and raising of children.
The Catholic Voices website has a good selection of the views of some traditional marriage supporters from across the political parties. A friend summarised the positions thus on Twitter: the pros had an adult- and wedding-centric view of marriage; the antis, a child- and family-oriented view.
Two interesting aspects of the vote stand out. First, 400 MPs voted for the measure and 175 against it. Of the opponents, 136 were Tories. In contrast, only 127 Conservatives voted for same-sex marriage. This marks a substantial split in the Conservative Party. It isn’t just about the nature of marriage, but also about the direction in which David Cameron and his faction are taking the Party. Newspapers in the weekend before the vote were full of talk of a coup against Cameron, as the economy remains in the doldrums. Cameron did not have a clear mandate for his actions either. A black MP, Adam Afriyie, the representative for well-heeled Windsor electorate, was named as a potential contender. The scuttlebutt has gone as fast as it came, but it didn’t hurt his chances for Afriyie to oppose gay marriage prominently.
With the problems over legal protections for teachers and clergy still in the air, some expect a bigger revolt at the third reading. What I will be interested to see is, by that stage, whether the voting habits of Catholic MPs from across the parties have changed. The liberal British Catholic publication, The Tablet, analysed their votes: out of the 82 Catholic MPs, 47 – almost 60 per cent – were in favour of same-sex marriage. Of these, 32 were Labour members, which indicates that they likely chose the party line over faith to some degree (Labour MPs would have delighted in Cameron’s motion being defeated by his own party). Tory Ministers Iain Duncan-Smith and Patrick McLoughlin, the Work and Pensions Secretary and Transport Secretary respectively, voted with the Government; the best they could have hoped to do was abstain, given the three-line whip imposed by the Conservative whips.
What makes this surprising is that the Catholic Church usually influences the votes of its confessional parliamentarians quite well. As the Church was the principal opponent to same-sex marriage, this should have been especially true in this case. By the third reading, expect some quite pointed words to be spoken softly into the ears of supporters of the Government plan.
Now the bill goes to a committee of MPs who will go through it, line by line, for a number of weeks. It then comes back to Parliament for its third reading in the Commons for a final set-piece battle. Then the process moves to the House of Lords. As they say in Hollywood, stay tuned, folks.
Peter Smith is a lawyer living and working in London.