The Government’s commitment to introducing gay marriage in England and Wales is to be welcomed. In fact, it is to be celebrated, as much for bringing an end to a shabby compromise as for its liberalism. Civil partnerships were a huge step towards equal rights for gay men and lesbians, but it was hard to escape from the reality that, at their heart, they also represented an illiberal stitch-up – an effort to placate narrow religious and political interests, rather than a full-throated commitment to equal rights. In announcing its commitment to full gay marriage, the Coalition has committed itself to a greater principle: that no special interest should be able to hold down and discriminate against millions of people in flagrant breach of the spirit of equality laws.
That, however, remains precisely what religious leaders wish to do. Strong words have been fired at Alex Salmond’s nationalist government in Scotland, which also hopes to introduce gay marriage; words to which English and Welsh politicians should pay close attention. The leader of the Catholic Church in Scotland, Cardinal Keith O’Brian, has attacked the Scottish Government for attempting ‘to demolish a universally recognised human right’ – by which we presume he means the right to marginalise and discriminate against a large number of perfectly innocent people. If so, it’s a ‘universal right’ that Salmond – and, in London, Nick Clegg and David Cameron – have seen fit to reject, opting instead for a more equitable right: to celebrate one’s identity and position in society with dignity, and in full equality with fellow citizens. We hope they continue to do so.
However positive the news, though, doubts remain about the extent of the Government’s commitment to full equality. As we highlighted in our exclusive interview with Peter Tatchell some months ago, civil partners are currently at a distinct disadvantage in their rights to inherit deceased partners’ pension benefits. Unless this deeply unfair disparity is to be eliminated, campaigners must continue to say that the Government’s plans do not go far enough.
We hope, however, that the Government will make provision for that in its consultation on the issue; what is the point in having marriage equality, after all, if we can’t have genuine, true, full equality? In recent years, that has seemed like a realistic prospect. We have an equal age of consent, equal rights in the workplace, equal protection from crime and bullying, and as you read this, lesbian, gay and bisexual soldiers, sailors and airmen are serving and protecting our country with the Crown’s full legal support. Proper gay marriage could just prove that Britain’s liberal heart continues to beat strongly. Now we have only to hope that bigotry, religious intolerance and petty political manoeuvring don’t put an early end to a long-overdue step towards a properly decent society.