A Very Civil Compromise

Opening Civil Partnership to all citizens would present a clear choice between religious marriage and civil partnership with equal legal rights bestowed by the state for each

A very civil compromise?
Benjamin Harris-Quinney
On 15 November 2012 07:46

Perhaps the greatest politician of our generation, Bill Clinton, began his Presidency with what many consider to be his most naive political mistake.

New arrivals on the most contested of hills, the Clintons swept into Washington as the great reformers, the vanguard of the youthful 60s generation grown up, ready to instil their progressive vision into American politics and society.

Clinton made a campaign pledge to allow homosexuals to openly serve in the US Military, and when pressed on the issue following his election by an errant journalist, he stubbornly insisted that he and his administration would make the issue a policy priority in his first term.

The resulting fallout from a divided Congress, Senate, and Military was profound, and Clinton was faced with a rebellion from all sides, in and out of politics, that threatened to completely overturn his attempt to maintain the crucial laser focus of government on economic recovery. Clinton had overestimated his charm and ability to unite and garner the support of nation, and underestimated the strength of feeling among a predominantly socially conservative country over issues relating to homosexuality and society.

Despite the political capitol he lost in the process, and the resultant hounding he faced from social conservatives for the rest of his career, Clinton managed to use his considerable political skill to find his way out of the mire, and present a solution that both the homosexual community and American conservatives could accept.

For many “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” represented the worst of Clinton’s disingenuity -- a populist politician trying to keep everyone happy while truly satisfying no one, and this assessment is perhaps accurate in pure policy terms. From the perspective of the Clinton administration in the middle of the “gays in the military crisis” however, that he was able to find his way to a compromise and return the support he needed on economic reform to bring focus back to the most pressing and important issues was remarkably fortunate.

For David Cameron, clearly there are parallels to learn from Clinton. In Parliamentary terms Cameron’s problems are far less severe than those that were faced by Clinton in the US Capitol. Even if relations with the Liberal Democrats decline to a confidence and supply arrangement, Cameron has the votes to pass gay marriage with all major Party leaders, and the Mayor of London, being supportive.

In real terms however, his position is far more critical. It has been a surprise to all parties in the debate, just how evocative the issue of gay marriage has become; it has been a greater motivator, or de-motivator, among conservatives than even the perennial issue of Europe.

“Gays in the military” could have severely hampered Clinton’s ability to govern in his first term and achieve what he wanted to do with the economy, but despite its acute severity, it was never going to threaten to unseat him from office in the immediate term; his party remained largely supportive.  

The Democratic Party is not, however, predominantly made up of conservatives. If Cameron passes gay marriage he faces dissent from within his own party that he may not have the political capitol to survive; and survive or not, though they may forgive the party, the grassroots membership would never forgive him for gay marriage.

Far more severe is that both the Catholic Church and the Church of England have made their strong protests against state legislation for gay marriage abundantly clear. For the Church, if they don’t stand up on issues of this moral and religious significance, they realise that they may as well fade away from all relevance in society. The Church of England’s pledge to secede from the United Kingdom in the event of the passing of gay marriage into law should terrify any Prime Minister, especially one of Conservative, Christian, and Monarchist doctrine.

Such has been the strength of his pledge to pass gay marriage, Cameron is therefore caught between the prospect of another humiliating u-turn, or a vitriolic mutiny boiling up from within the grassroots of the Conservative Party and the succession of the Church of England from the British State, triggering perhaps the most significant constitutional crisis for a century.
Anything faintly resembling “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” would seem to be a gift for Cameron at this point; only compromise can allow him move past the issue relatively unscathed.

Many have argued that gay marriage is an unnecessary policy in light of the 2004 Civil Partnership Act, but if equality is the aim Civil Partnership offers nothing other than further segregation. Civil Partnership is only open to same sex couples, other couples, if wishing to form a union before the state and community, have no other option but to marry. 2010 saw the first legal challenge to this ruling when a straight couple appealed for the right to unionise in civil partnership; it gave rise to the “Equal Love Campaign”, led by Peter Tatchell, to lobby for civil partnership to be extended to all.

Marriage has always been a religious institution, whereas love and union of two people is of an entirely human foundation. Many atheists, and also those who wish to unionise in a purely platonic relationship, believe that they should have the same rights as same sex couples to join before the state alone, and enjoy the resultant legal and tax privileges without having to enter into the formal traditional institution of marriage.

Opening Civil Partnership to all citizens would present a clear choice between religious marriage and civil partnership with equal legal rights bestowed by the state for each union. It is a compromise that, in light of the alternative extended vitriolic social and political battle, would be unlikely to face significant opposition in or out of Parliament. It might also just be enough for David Cameron to get the chance of going down in history alongside Bill Clinton as his party’s “comeback kid”.

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