Dozens of MPs and peers have signed up to a new cross-party alliance protesting the Government’s plans to redefine marriage. In their letter to the Telegraph, close to 60 parliamentarians write:
SIR – As parliamentarians from different political parties and none, we are united in supporting the institution of marriage defined in law as a union between a man and a woman. We recognise the value of a loving and committed relationship and we respect civil partnership, but affirm the distinctive value of marriage reflecting the complementarity of a man and woman often evidenced in parenthood.
At the last election, none of the three main parties stood on a platform to redefine marriage. It was not contained in any of their manifestos, nor did it feature in the Coalition’s Programme for Government. These facts alone should have led to extreme caution on the part of those calling for this change to be made.
Instead the Government is ignoring the overwhelming public response against the plans. The consultation has ignored the views of 500,000 British residents in favour of anonymous submissions from anyone anywhere in the world. We believe that the Government does not have a mandate to redefine marriage.
We recognise these are issues of conscience which will be given free votes in Parliament. We will be seeking legal guarantees of the same freedom of conscience for our constituents and religious organisations to teach, preach and express a traditional view of marriage.
We are sceptical that the proposed protections will prevent the erosion of liberties of religion and conscience. The proposed redefinition of marriage is unnecessary, given the legal rights established through civil partnerships. We understand some parliamentarians support freedom for same sex couples to marry, but we support a freedom from the state being able to redefine the meaning of marriage.
According to John Bingham, supporters believe that many more will vote against when the bill comes before the House at the end of January. Based on letters sent to constituents, it is reckoned that 137 Conservative MPs — about half of the parliamentary party — will reject the bill. But with majority support in the other two parties the prime minister, David Cameron, is still likely to succeed. But at what cost? Many Tory grassroots activists are deserting their party over the issue; and UKIP is already soaking up disgruntled Conservative voters for the same reason, taking the anti-European party into third place, ahead of the Liberal-Democrats.
Supporters of marriage who object to the death penalty and UKIP’s anti-European stance now find themselves politically disenfranchised.
Saturday’s Times, meanwhile, for once allowed an articulate opponent of gay marriage to puncture that newspaper’s consensus in favour of the change.
Under the title, ‘Don’t sacrifice marriage on equality’s altar’, the philosopher Roger Scruton (pictured) points out that, rather than a contract of cohabitation, marriage is a particular kind of bond between a man and a woman in which society has a strong interest because of the offspring that result:
Marriage rites celebrate both sexual union and sexual difference, conferring on the bridal couple the sacred obligation to be fruitful on behalf of the collective future, and also to produce children who will be compliant members of society.
Times change; we no longer live in tribes; yet the existential significance of marriage remains:
Even for us, however, marriage is the primary way in which social capital is transferred from one generation to the next. Even for us marriage defines a path of sacrifice and dedication. Even for us the bearing of children and the preparation for family life lie at the heart of the marital tie. And we experience this in the enhanced sense, during the marriage ceremony, of the otherness of the other sex and of marriage as a “threshold” into that sex’s territory.
That does not mean that marriages do not fail, or that often children — despite or as a result of the couple’s intentions — do not result. Yet
marriage is built around a norm against which our many ways of falling short are measured. Take away that norm and the institution will surely begin to unravel. It will no longer be a bond across generations with the nurture of children as its goal, but a contract for cohabitation as temporary and defeasible as any other such deal.
The unease that people feel at the prospect of redefining marriage, says Scruton, reflects an instinctive awareness that it will lead to the unravelling of the institution over time.
Until now we have acquiesced in the idea that the State can solemnise marriages and secure them through legal privileges. And we have accepted that the State can use the criminal law to retain some version of the Judaeo-Christian conception of the marriage vow. Thus our laws against incest, bigamy and child marriage reflect the belief that marriage, as defined by the State, is to be judged in terms of another and higher standard. But as marriage is rewritten as a contract between partners in which future generations have no voice, those laws lose their underlying rationale.
People have always had in the back of their minds, Scruton adds, that “the bond between husband and wife, like that between parent and child, has a moral nature that transcends the sphere of contract.” That is why “they wonder what business it is of the State” to set aside the nature of that bond with no clear mandate for doing so.
And some of us are troubled by the shallow reasoning that has dominated the political discussions surrounding this move, as though the threadbare idea of equality were enough to settle every question concerning the long-term destiny of mankind and as though the writings of the anthropologists (not to mention the poets, the philosophers, the theologians, the novelists, the sociologists) counted for nothing beside the slogans of Stonewall. Are we entirely wrong in this?
Polls on the issue continue to show conflicting results, depending on the questions asked. Between 43 per cent and 65 per cent of the population say yes if asked if they support allowing same-sex couples to marry — a day after the Government announced their plans to legislate, for example, a YouGov poll logged 55 per cent support for the move. Yet add in a question about civil partnerships and those numbers drop; and ask, as Catholic Voices did, about support for the current definition of marriage, and you find more than two-thirds of the country favour it. The best that can be said is that people are confused and uneasy — and unaware that ‘gay marriage’ is not a parallel institution, but requires the redefinition of all marriage.
It may be, in fact, that the more people are given the chance to consider the redefinition of marriage, the more they turn against it, recognising that the shallow equality arguments used to bludgeon opponents simply do not wash, and that what is at stake is nothing less than a state-sponsored destruction of the foundation cell of civil society.
Could that be why the Government is so keen to rush this through?