The spectacle before, during and after last Tuesday’s debate on gay marriage was a bizarre one. On the one side we have the ‘equality-obsessives’ proclaiming that anything that could be considered unequal in society must therefore be bigoted and eradicated; on the other a small band of homophobes who consider Britain to be imprisoned by a merciless prism of egalitarianism.
In fact in their current form the measures that will be passed do little to enhance equality, but nor do they undermine marriage. There is no legal enhancement gained from the apparent upgrade from civil partnerships to marriage: any inequality in status has been primarily caused by those campaigning for the change themselves. When it is they who claim that marriage is ‘normal’ and that civil partnership are ‘inferior’, only then is the difference invented. Phillip Blond argued in a paper recently that gay marriage is homophobic because it judges gay people by hetronormative criteria, and the way that the discourse has been from the pro-equal marriage lobby has been conducted there is no doubt he is right.
Where he is wrong, though, is that the introduction of gay marriage will undermine the heterosexual institution of marriage. Blond fails to explain why the institution hasn’t been crushed entirely in countries like Spain, for example, but he also falls into the trap of attempting to take on the so-called equality obsessives on their own terms. He and other conservatives are right to say that if we justify gay marriage in terms of equality alone then it would become a meaningless institution, for it would indubitably descend to the status of private contract, with no social role prescribed – but then that is to ignore how trampled by a generation of hyper-individualist radicals heterosexual marriage has been.
What is a more of a threat to marriage – the fact that a small minority will now be able to take part within the institution, or the push from the top of the legal profession for easier divorce without a breach in the marital contract? The latter will shred it to pieces; the former has the potential to raise it from the ashes. There is an opportunity for conservatives to be counter-revolutionary, yet their short sightedness means the chance has been frittered away.
Social conservatives have stuck with traditionalist line and been sunk with it. Perceived as backwards, gay-fixated, their wider arguments have been lost. There’s a solid case for gay marriage that says enlarging the institution of marriage to allow gay people means spreading benefits more widely, but that case is bluntly secular (render-unto-God-that-which-Caesar-permits). Better or worse, though, that’s the society we now have.
The state may be completing its hijacking of a traditional religious institution, which it did when marriages were first enforced by the state, but that has allowed them to develop for the better. As Stephanie Coontz says in her Marriage: a History the 1950s nuclear family that social conservatives so crave was unique. But it was a natural progression and evolution of marriage since the state had taken over its functions. Since the social revolution of the 1960s, marriage and the restrictions carried with it have been unravelled by the forerunners of that revolution. They went too far leaving the state of marriage as we have it today. It is also irreversible; not just because of the liberation of women and their entry into the workforce, but because of the economic revolution of the 1980s where other traditionally conservative institutions were dismantled by the economic radicalism of those only conservative in name. They ignore that marriage is a class issue.
Statistics show that 70 per cent of young people today still aspire to be married, but feel that they cannot because of economic fragility as research from Anastasia De Waal has shown. Marriage is primarily now for the middle classes and out of reach for the poor, and this has had a devastating impact on their lives.
Most self-styled conservatives ignore or embrace completely the impact that recent history has had upon the institution. They are then are entirely stupid, or entirely disingenuous. If they had their wits about them then they would realise that the state has both a role in creating and promoting as well as conserving them.
They would have linked support for gay marriage for a tandem introduction of marriage tax breaks. They are only symbolic – after all, the money involved is only a nominal sum. However, just as the symbolism of marriage is important for some of the gay community in regards to whether they consider themselves equal, these tax breaks are symbolic in creating a real campaign for marriage. Not one based on religious anachronism and homophobia, but one based on universal aspirations about how we, as people, should live.