That was the lop-sided majority in the House of Commons today. The debate allowed for a free vote, meaning no partisan pressure or whip. How civilized – not to turn a question of conscience and prudence into a wedge electoral issue as Karl Rove cynically did in 2004. And it was a largely civil affair that went on for five hours:
Sir Tony Baldry, Tory MP for Banbury, and also Second Church Estates Commissioner, spoke respectfully against the bill. “I am confident that we are all created in the image of God, whether we be straight, gay, bisexual or transsexual. We’re all equally worthy in God’s sight, and equally loved by God, and I’m also sure that we are, and should be, equally welcome at God’s table. But equalness does not always equate with being the same.”
Some speeches were deeply personal. Mike Freer, Tory MP for Finchley and Golders Green, said entering his civil partnership had been the proudest day of his life: “It was our way of saying to my friends and my family, ‘This is who I love, this is who I am, this is who I wish to spend the rest of my life with’.” But he wanted the right to marry, too. “I’m not asking for special treatment. I’m asking for equal treatment.”
Notice the vital presence of openly gay Tory MPs. The bill now goes to the House of Lords, where it will face some resistance – but the fact that the margin was so decisive in the House and that all three party leaders back the measure – means that the UK remains poised to join the many countries and states that allow gay people full and equal citizenship. One Tory MP, Margot James, raised the specter of the US GOP in a warning against Conservative MPs who were opposed:
“I believe my party should never flinch from the requirement that we must continue this progression, otherwise we may end up like the Republican party who lost an election last year that they could have won were it not for their socially conservative agenda.”
It got personal at times:
Stephen Timms, the shadow employment minister, was interrupted by his Labour colleague Lyn Brown when he said that the bill would undermine the central basis for marriage – raising children. Brown, 52, said: “[He] was at my wedding and I was not young when I got married. It was highly unlikely that I was going to be able to, after all that time, procreate. Is he telling me that my marriage is less valid than anybody else’s?”
Timms said: “No, I certainly am not and I was delighted to attend [her] wedding…Children are the reason marriage has always been so important. If it was purely about a loving relationship between two people then it would have been much less important than it has actually been.”
The Tories disappointingly split – with a narrow margin against the bill:
The result meant that the prime minister, who won the support of an estimated 126 Conservative MPs, failed to win over half of his 303 MPs.
Cameron seems to have screwed up the politics of this:
A promised statement by the prime minister was hurriedly recorded for television cameras late on Tuesday afternoon four hours after Maria Miller, the equalities minister, had opened the debate.
One reformer said: “The prime minister couldn’t even be bothered to turn up in the chamber. That is so fucking rude. This will have a corrosive effect. The politics around this have been so bad.” … Tory modernisers were horrified by the speeches by opponents of reform. One minister said: “Yes we can confidently say that the Tory party is divided – and divided right down the middle on this one. And with the help of four or five speeches we have been taken back more than 50 years to the horrors of the 1950s.”
Well, as George Will recently pointed out, those who still harbor the attitudes of the 1950s are literally dying. And this was a momentous day. In the 1950s they were still injecting one of the greatest English minds of all time, Alan Turing, with hormones to cure him of himself. Now, gay Brits will soon have the fundamental non-negotiable right to marry the person they love; and if that person is an American, even live together in the UK. One day, maybe America, where this whole question was kick-started, will catch up. And so will the GOP.