Sarah Teather, Liberal Democrat MP for Brent, shocked many progressives with her vote against same-sex marriage in the House of Commons last night. Calling it “one of the most difficult decisions I have ever taken”, she published what some have suggested is a thoughtful explanation.
I wonder if Teather would remain comfortable with her statement if “marriage” was replaced with “white marriage” and “gay” with another minority, racial, religious or otherwise. Food for thought. Let’s see how it reads, shall we?
***This evening I voted against the second reading of the [black marriage] bill. It was one of the most difficult decisions I have ever taken. As a life-long liberal and a committed Catholic I spent many months reflecting on this issue in the lead up to the vote. I wanted to explain to people why I took this step.
I have previously taken a very public stance in support of [black] equality in a whole range of areas, including supporting civil partnerships legislation in 2004 (which I was very proud to do), voting for all stages of [black] equality legislation passed in the last two parliaments, working with schools to address [racism] and lobbying the Home Office for fairer treatment of [black] people seeking asylum from countries where they fear persecution. I feel strongly about these issues and have devoted considerable time to campaigning on such matters over the last ten years.
However, changing the definition of marriage [to include black people] for me raises other more complex issues.
I believe that the link between family life and [white] marriage is important. We know that permanent stable loving relationships between [white] parents are very important for children. [White] relationships make it much easier to offer the kind of consistent loving parenting that enables children to grow into healthy happy adults able to play their part in society. I recognise that this kind of stability can exist outside of [white] marriage, but the act of [two white people] giving and receiving vows in front of others and making a commitment for life is an aid to stability. It is precisely the reason that [white] marriage has formed the basis of family life for thousands of years, and is the reason that the state has historically tried to encourage it.
I also recognise that not all [white] couples who get married have children for a variety of reasons, and similarly that many children are now born outside of [white] marriage. My concern, however, is that by moving to a definition of marriage that no longer requires [two white people], we will, over time, ultimately decouple the definition of marriage from family life altogether. I doubt that this change will be immediate. It will be gradual, as perceptions of what marriage is and is for shift. But we can already see the foundations for this shift in the debate about [black] marriage. Those who argue for a change in the law do so by saying that surely marriage is just about love between two people and so is of nobody else’s business. Once the concept of marriage has become established in social consciousness as an entirely private matter about love and commitment alone, without any link to [two white people], I fear that it will accelerate changes already occurring that makes family life more unstable. (I should add, that I also suspect it will make marriage ultimately seem irrelevant. After all, how long before [black] people begin to say, as many [white] couples of my own generation have begun to say, “if marriage is just about love, why would I need a piece of paper to prove it?”)
If I felt that the current legal framework left [black] couples unprotected, I would be much more inclined to support the proposed legislation. However, the civil partnerships legislation, which I voted for in my first parliament, equalised relationships [for black] couples before the law, providing the same protections as offered to [white] married couples. I felt strongly that it was right to support civil partnerships to ensure that [black] people in committed long term relationships are not discriminated against financially and legally and can take part in decisions about their partner’s health care. Virtually no new protections are offered to [black] couples on the basis of this legislation on marriage, and any that are could easily be dealt with by amending civil partnership legislation.
The argument in favour of [black] marriage has mostly centred on rights. But this isn’t the only liberal philosophical perspective on the legislation. The more I considered this bill the more I was unsure about the state’s role. If an important reason for marriage is that it is a space for having and raising children, I can see the relevance for the state being involved in regulating it and encouraging stability for the good of society and for children’s welfare. Similarly, if there is a need for protection of rights to property and rights to make decisions, there are good reasons for the state to provide regulation. But neither of these things is what this legislation is trying to do. In this case, the state is regulating love and commitment alone, between consenting adults, without purpose to anything else. That feels curious to me, as I would normally consider very much a private matter.
I have found this a difficult decision because of my work previously on [black] rights issues, and my judgment is finely balanced. I recognise that others may reflect deeply on these issues and come to a different view, in good faith. But it is my view that where the extra protections offered to [black] couples are marginal, and where the potential negatives to society [with black marriage] over a period of time may be more considerable, I am unable to support the bill.
Although the vote today was subject to a free, unwhipped vote, I understand that my views place me out of step with most of my liberal democrat colleagues and party members [who support black marriage]. I have not often found myself out of step with party members over the last twenty years. But one of the things that always impresses me about our party is that we are liberal enough to accept that others may hold different views. Our party members hold strong views, but recognise and cherish the space for difference. I am proud of that. ***