Friday, 28 March 2014

Marriage: Thanks For Nothing

It is a rare law that costs nothing to enact and which increases the sum of human happiness. This weekend one such law will pass into statute when it becomes legal for gay people to marry. A process that began in 2005, when the first civil partnership was signed in Belfast, has moved quickly on to its next stage.

Social legislation of this kind is usually a confirmation of a change that has already happened rather than a prelude to it. The set of liberal measures that made the name of Roy Jenkins as Home Secretary between 1965 and 1967 were largely of that kind. Government legislation set the seal on a flowering of a more tolerant attitude towards abortion, divorce and homosexuality.

The virtues of the estate of marriage are clear and well-known. The stable union of two people is a social good that it seems wrong to deny on the ground of sexual orientation. However, there are not many laws that gain the consent of everyone and the Government has been appropriately sensitive to the objections from religious institutions that have been granted exemption from discrimination laws should they not wish to conduct homosexual marriages.

In strictly legal terms, gay marriage does not extend much beyond the existing legislation, which confers civil and social benefits on civil partnerships. The point, however, is the symbolic commitment to equality before the law, which means the legislation will sit alongside the reforms of the Jenkins years as a testament to the more pervasive liberalism of British social attitudes.

This has been a difficult period to be in government. Money has been scarce and the task of clearing the deficit has been harder than originally thought. Gay marriage was not a popular cause for David Cameron to pursue within his own party. He deserves praise for doing so.

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