Gay marriage: It's not that simple, Tim

Tim Montgomerie has come out in favour of same-sex marriage. In an open and frank riposte, Peter Smith argues that it is legitimate for conservatives to beg to differ

It's time for us to debate policy matters in an open and frank way
Peter Smith
On 15 February 2012 10:21

It is easy to agree wholeheartedly with Tim Montgomerie, the well-known Conservative commentator who gave life to ConservativeHome. Tim has an established pedigree as a thoughtful and eloquent social and economic conservative. He was instrumental in the creation of the Centre for Social Justice and has been a steady supporter of Iain Duncan Smith, with whom he has worked closely for many years. Tim was also a co-founder of the Conservative Christian Fellowship and has long been a flag-waiver for intelligent, compassionate conservatism.

In a short recent article on ConHome, Tim recently set out his conservative case for gay marriage (prompted by a newspaper interview), as part of his welcome drive for the Conservative Party to debate policy matters in an open and frank way.

Tim starts from the position that family, work and education are the essential ingredients of the conservative vision of society, and, subsequently, are spheres of life the state can legitimately promote and foster. He also identifies marriage as a crucial social institution for each of these frameworks.

Marriage is certainly a fundamental and highly-beneficial part of human life: for instance, it brings stability to child-rearing, and thus leads to better mental health and life outcomes for children. It is beneficial to adult mental and physical health too, and reduces the risk of domestic violence and abuse.

But note that the measurable, objective benefits of marriage are so often described by way of the fruits of marriage: children. Heterosexual marriage leads, more often than not, to the creation of children, and it is by far the best way of bringing up children to be healthy, stable adults who contribute to civil society, look after the preceding generation when they are too old, poor or infirm to do so themselves, and in turn become mature parents to the next cohort.

In short, marriage is a brilliant mechanism for ensuring biological replication and cultural guardianship. That’s its function and purpose, and why poetry, music and art celebrate it, laws and policy promote and protect it (to lesser and greater extents), and religions make it sacramental. 

In this context, it has to be pointed out that homosexual relationships by their very nature cannot lead to procreation. If marriage is rooted in biology, and that biology is necessarily absent from same-sex relationships, then it follows that this concept of marriage cannot be applied to same-sex relationships as ordinarily understood by that paragon of reason, the man on the Clapham omnibus.

There are corollaries to this common cultural understanding of the essence of marriage, a phenomenon that has existed not only in contemporary Britain but across nearly the whole planet for thousands of years of human history.

Remember that the formative years of a person are those very first ones: this is when the plastic, malleable brain builds cognition and acquires language, the bedrocks for educational and emotional attainment in later life. The tools for relating to others are also developed in these years, through attachment to siblings, playmates, and to parents.

Having two opposite-sex parents provides the child with the capacity to relate intimately to both males and females, and to adopt an engendered role from both influences. It is wrong to deny this incredibly close exposure to both sexes; when it happens through bereavement or divorce it is simply tragic. It is not in any child’s best interests to choose, through a redefinition of marriage, deliberately to deny these facts and then to institutionalise this denial.

As Matthew Parris has put it, “I’m glad I had both a mother and a father, and that as after childhood I was to spend my life among both men and women, and, and as men and women are not the same, I would have missed something if I had not learned first about the world from, and with, both a woman and a man, and in the love of both.”

Tim continues in his article to quote from Andrew Sullivan’s Virtually Normal. It seems that in this text that Mr Sullivan did not actually mean marriage in the way commonly found and understood. His model of adult love is about reciprocal self-giving between two people solely for that relationship’s own sake. It is actually a form of partnership (and one, incidentally, that has full rights and benefits equivalent to marriage in the Civil Partnership Act’s provisions).

In so far that Mr Sullivan and Tim seek to call these partnerships ‘marriage’, that’s fine; but it doesn’t require any Act of Parliament for them to do this. Indeed, it is beyond the purview of the Prime Minister or Parliament to redefine the word in this way.

Look at the way the law reflects the common understanding of the position of marriage. It appears that marriage in English law has no statutory or common law definition. It is the processes of getting married and divorced, and the consequences for children and property, that have principally been regulated by the state.

Like the concept of murder (wags might suggest the two are related), the idea or marriage has always been thought so widespread and well-known within the jurisdiction that any definition would be simply pointless.

International consensus has provided a consistent meaning too: the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (article 16), the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (article 23) and article 12 of the European Convention on Human Rights all contemplate marriage as being between a man and a woman, again reflecting global mores.

Tim concludes by writing that marriage needs to be “embraced as an institution of relevance to all people” in a society that embraces “gay people as full members of social institutions”. But remember that although the technical form of marriage can be tinkered with by the state, its substantive social and biological function cannot. Don’t cut it away from that purpose, which echoes so loudly in our culture.

Civil partnerships are the way modern Britain gives “relevance” to deep, exclusive and sincerely-held affection between people, and if the Government wants to expand that franchise further, let’s open it up to all people, including to elderly siblings like the Burdens. It is only just that a surviving sister should have the right to stay in the home she has shared for over 80 years (as it stands, death would force the sale of the property, as liability for inheritance tax would accrue).

It would be a simple matter to end this real inequality – and would be much more likely to win over those outside the metropolitan elites to whom, as Tim rightly diagnoses, the Conservative Party has not sufficiently reached out.

Peter Smith was formerly research assistant to Edward Leigh MP and now works as a lawyer in London

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