Coffee House

Why conservatives should welcome gay marriage

5 October 2011

4:02 PM

5 October 2011

4:02 PM

David Cameron just told the Tory conference that he supported gay marriage
"because I am a Conservative". In last week’s issue of the Spectator, Douglas Murray said that the best arguments in favour of gay marriage are conservative ones. For the
benefit of CoffeeHousers, here is Douglas’s piece.

In America a new generation of Republicans is challenging the traditional consensus of their party on gay marriage. They — as well as some of the GOP old guard like Dick Cheney — are
coming out in favour. In Britain the subject is also back on the agenda with the coalition government, at the insistence of the Prime Minister apparently, planning a ‘public
consultation’ on the matter.

Though not exactly political leadership, this nevertheless constitutes a change — not least in stealing the mantle of gay equality from the left. For decades it was presumed that
conservatives could only oppose such moves. But as young Republicans like Margaret Hoover (author of American Individualism) are showing, that needn’t be the case. Indeed the best arguments
for gay marriage are conservative ones.
But first there are the non-arguments. Among them are those claiming that giving gays the right to marry somehow destabilises heterosexual marriage. But divorce and adultery are the biggest
underminers of marriage. Has any man abandoned his wife because of gay marriage? Then there is the slippery-slope argument. Tory MP Edward Leigh worries that if gays are allowed to marry,
‘There is no logical reason why the new alternative institution should be limited to two people. Why not three?’ he asks. ‘Or 33?’ All of which tells us more about his
imagination than his logic.

Few sights in politics are quite as risible as the male politician in full, puffing flight from an issue of basic gay equality. As the campaigning lawyer Elizabeth Birch said when arguing with the
three-times-married conservative representative Bob Barr in 1990, ‘Which marriage are you defending? Your first, your second or your third?’


The idea that marriage is solely for the procreation of children is equally dismissable. Plenty of straight couples, particularly older ones, do not marry to have children. They marry to form a
deep, committed and publicly respected bond. In any case, if protecting the special nature of marriage were the true drive of anti-equality activists, then they might focus instead on those
celebrity and ‘reality’ stars who transparently marry for the publicity. Perhaps campaigners should picket Katie Price’s weddings?

But true conservatives should welcome gay marriage. For its increasing acceptance across civilised countries represents not the making gay of marriage but the making conservative of gays. The
desire of an increasing number of gay men and women to have their stable and lifelong relationships recognised equally by family, friends and society as a whole demonstrates the respect of
individuals within, and towards, an important institution.

Those who fear or dislike perceived aspects of gay life should particularly welcome gay acceptance into the marital fold. An aspect of male ‘gay life’ some heterosexuals claim to have a
problem with is the perceived promiscuity. Whether this is in reality any more distinctive than among straight people, gay marriage offers a remedy, giving gays, like straights, a public and
private path towards commitment. At a time when many heterosexuals are spurning the idea of marriage, here is a section of society positively lobbying for the right to respect and continue the
institution. Perhaps gay marriage will encourage more straight people back on to the marital path?

Of course the argument most commonly made against gay marriage is the worst of all: the religious argument. Ignoring for a moment whether anyone really wishes to reinstate the practice of
consulting ‘holy books’ for the specifics of law-making, the lack of consistency is extraordinary. A few months back I found myself debating a lady from the General Synod. The presence
of a verse in the book of Leviticus was her justification for arguing against any rights for gays. ‘What about the imprecations against all sorts of dietary laws in the same book?’ I
asked her. ‘What of the warning against the mixing of fabrics? What about that verse in Exodus, “Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live?”’ ‘Well, I don’t know
anything about that,’ she said. Citing scriptural authority raises not only problems of source, but problems with the reading of a verse.

Nonetheless, if gays are allowed to marry there should be give and take. Marriage equality should not be forced on religious institutions. Religious people of all denominations might keep making
the argument within their faiths. But there is no more justification in the religious being forced to accept things they claim to be against their beliefs than there is in the religious forcing
their beliefs on everyone else. That should be the quid pro quo. If the religious want to enjoy freedom from the secular, then the secular should be able to enjoy freedom from the religious. But
the reasons for denying basic equality on religious grounds is not only inconsistent, it has become desperate. Some people will seize any boomerang they can to resist the case.

For instance, in 2004 the former Conservative MP Paul Goodman voted against the introduction even of the halfway house of civil partnerships, fearing their introduction would ‘compromise an
institution which is an integral feature of our social ecology’. Mr Goodman, now executive editor of ConservativeHome, is a married convert to Catholicism. Six years on from the Civil
Partnerships Act becoming law, there is no word on whether it has compromised the ‘social ecology’ of his own marriage. But like so many other opponents of equal rights, he has now
shifted his case. This time around, in opposing the government’s equal-marriage proposals, he cites among other things the importance of canvassing Muslim opinion in any plan for equality. To
call this disingenuous is to state the situation too generously.

The religious case against equal rights can — and probably will — be argued till the end of time. But the effort to deny equality to members of society on shifting religious grounds and
nonexistent practical ones is a war on decency as well as on conservative sense. The government should lead the way against this, not with a drawn-out consultation but a clear demonstration of what
belongs to the secular state and what belongs to the religious conscience. Future generations of married people, straight and gay, will thank them for it.

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Show comments
  • Neideen

    I fully support gay marriage and I am straight. And I cannot wait for the day were homophobia and misogyny are considered just as bad as racism.

  • Robert

    “So marriage exists purely because we want it to.”

    Ok, so why make it only for couples? Why only for those sleeping together? Lets make it for anybody who wants it: couples, treesome, students, siblings…


  • Richard Griffith

    Mr. Treadwell,

    Yes, we agree on most of your last post for sure. Heterosexuals are destroying traditional marriage. As as sex as viewed as primarily for recreation and nothing else, well, there you have it. AS for heterosexuals pretending it is a precious, holy sort of arrangement, that is of no interest to the State. That is a religious interpretation often made by very NON religious people, which indeed makes it hypocritical. Ultimately, the Religious interepretation has to do with Creation and the Father in Heaven. Priests are “married” to the Church, the Handmaiden of God. That is a far more “precious” relationship than man and woman in conjugal “bliss” shall we laugh here? The real sin is in thinking that a single gay man has anything other than complete equality before the Father no matter what he does, and yes, complete equality before the State in matters of Law. That does not mean that the Law has to favour or disfavour them; only that all are obligated to follow the Laws of the State.

  • Peter Treadwell

    Richard Griffith

    “So the argument that marriage is being destroyed already anyway by misbehaving rich people is a good argument for gay marriage?”

    Not at all. Firstly, it isn’t only rich people who destroy marriage. Secondly, the reasoning is a bit different: since heterosexuals have shown that marriage is not some sort of ultraprecious, treasured state, why do they go on about it as if it were?

    Do those states which promote marriage (ours doesn’t) do so in order to ensure a supply of well adjusted children? I see no evidence of that. Anyway, the tragedy of fatherless children is about stable relationships, not about marriage. If it’s all about stable homes for children, then divorce will have to get a lot more difficult, and absentee fathering will need draconian punishment.

    You are completely right to distinguish between civil and religious marriage, and to want the state out of our bedrooms. The religious lot wanted it in there until very recently of course. Some still do.

  • Peter Treadwell


    Welcome to the debate. You are considering not whether same-sex marriage can exist (fact: it can) but whether it should (a matter of opinion).

    Last time I looked, 19 legislatures had introduced same-sex marriage. A small number, and a very recent reform in all cases.

    But we do not know why marriage was invented. Perhaps it was in order to shelter children? Perhaps to establish who owned which females? Perhaps to discipline our animal urges? Perhaps for mutual companionship and support? It is posssible to think of countless other reasons. I don’t know why it happened, and neither do you. What is clear is that it answers some strong need, since all societies have developed it in some form (as far as I know).

    If it was to shelter children, it has not been much cop. When marriage was far stronger than it is now there were far more orphanages and they were full. Traditionally married societies teem with street children. And any number of extremely screwed-up people came from married parents. Children produced outside marriage do not necessarily turn out any worse than the traditional variety.

    None of the other reasons above holds water either, now that women have independent incomes (nobody owns them) and divorce is easy to get (companionship can vanish almost overnight). A cshow commitment to each other by taking out a mortgage, which is far harder to wriggle out of than a marriage.

    So marriage exists purely because we want it to. For young couples it tends to be about romantic commitment; for old people about companionship; for other ages it can be anything (starting a family, simplfying admin, making the parents happy, inheritance law, religion, all their friends are doing it…).

    As you correctly point out, the idea that marriage leads to stability is laughable, however much we may wish it did. If the state wishes to impose more stability on our private lives, it will need to ban cohabitation and divorce. Good luck in the elections.

    As you also point out, the people who have smashed marriage to smithereens are heterosexuals. The idea that it should be closed to homosexuals who aspire to it, but open to heterosexuals who openly despise it, is illogical.

    Since your wish, in the most civilised and thoughtful way, is for people to continue being orevented from doing what they want, I suggest you need a more cogent reason.

  • Richard Griffith

    Mr. Laird,

    why is a marriage license a civil right?

  • Richard Griffith

    “In any case, if protecting the special nature of marriage were the true drive of anti-equality activists, then they might focus instead on those celebrity and ‘reality’ stars who transparently marry for the publicity. Perhaps campaigners should picket Katie Price’s weddings?”

    –So the argument that marriage is being destroyed already anyway by misbehaving rich people is a good argument for gay marriage?

    “The idea that marriage is solely for the procreation of children is equally dismissable.”

    –No, the STATE’S primary interest has to do with its future citizens. The lack of fathers in the home has destroyed millions of lives in the US, and created unbelieveably high cost to the nation and the culture, particularly in poor neighborhoods. “Knocked up, get a flat!” it used to be in Britain. This is why the State is involved in Marriage, and has been for thousands of years across all cultures. Things like Romantic love, a renaissance construct, and spiritual commitments have nothing to do with it. Strictly spiritual Marriages are the province of the Church alone. If Gay couples want spiritual acceptance and closure they can seek it from their Religious masters, whatever religion they are. The state cannot grant that. As to barren couples, it is also up to the State to determine whether or not a male and female procreative act which produces no issuance is legitimate or not; but certainly a male/male act with no intent or possiblility of procreation is completely out of the State’s interest.

  • griffcats

    Mr. Treadwell,

    Yes, you are right, marriage is exactly what the State says it is, nothing more. However all of your varying examples were between a male and a female(s), which at some point may have been capable of a procreative act which would produce future members of society, hence the state’s interest. You didnt name any cases where male/male marriages are sanctioned by any state, and if they were, for what reason? Of course non Christian cultures have different definitions, but the essential reason states (and cultures) are involved is because their future is at stake. This could mean both the non-issuance of future citizens (family members), or the issuance of future citizens who are defenseless and uncared for, bringing harm to the state. It also for this reason that the state would not wish for a destruction of the institution of traditional marriage, and could see gay marriage as a threat, having disolved the notion of the care of children as an implication; however, this “harm” is already being done in the heterosexual world by divorce and live-in relationships, which, in the US, take a tremendous toll on the social fabric and economy; hence the State should, for self preservation, attempt to restore the tradtional concept of marriage which it has already nearly lost, enabling these spurious arguments in the first place.

  • Peter Treadwell

    CS “Inheritance rights can be secured by making a will. Hospital visiting rights can be secured by a power of attorney”

    If only. Wills made by gay couples were routinely thrown out by the courts, and families could (and often did) also challenge Power of Attorney for issues such as hospital visiting. Prison visiting was, presumably, at the whim of the governor.

    That is why gay partnerships were so vitally important. Not for romantic reasons (valid though they are), but for the practicalities of life.

  • David Jones

    Stephanie Tohill

    That’s how it works here in Holland. There is marriage, and there is civil partnership, and both are open to any couple. There is no difference between them at all apart from the name (as far as I can find out).

  • CS

    @Stephen at Christian Voice:

    I’d have thought you would have had more respect for Jesus than to accuse him of writing the whole Bible. Whole chunks of it are barbaric lunacy advocating slavery, gang rape, the slaughter of neighbours, child sacrifice and the burning of witches.

    No-one seems to have questioned why civic law should get involved at all. Inheritance rights can be secured by making a will. Hospital visiting rights can be secured by a power of attorney. If a couple have a child, they could be granted tax relief. The state should no more get involved in marriage than in morris dancing.

    I suppose it ought not to surprise anyone to read the reactionary nonsense of many of these comments from readers of a magazine which has regularly urged us to be less condemnatory of child abuse by priests.

  • Stephanie Tohill

    If some people object to the term marriage being used to denote anything other than legal commitment between male/females, then why not give straight couples the right to have a civil partnership.

    In that way those of us who don’t wish to support the notion of some special sacred institution, reserved for those of a particular sexuality, can show our commitment without being labelled with the term ‘married’.

  • Peter Treadwell


    Repeated assertion is not argumentation. Nor is it convincing. If you want to persuade someone that you are right, you must do more than repeat what you have already said (or, in this case, repeat what someone else has already said) and which failed to convince them the first time. Not even using CAPITALS will make you more persuasive. Repeated assertion also makes for a very tedious debating partner, which is very obviously not what you seek to be.

    “And I still haven’t heard one real argument on this point” Yes you have, I invite you to read my post of 6 Oct, 9.30pm. Since I may not have made my reasoning clear, I will try again.

    Marriage is not always the union of a man and a woman. Very often, it is a man and several women, as you know. Very often, it is a man and a little girl, as you know. Not infrequently, it is a little boy and a little girl, As you know. Do you wish to explain to the world’s muslims (and others) that they are not in fact married, but only think they are, and that you know more about it than they do? Of course not. You therefore must see that mnarriage takes different forms in different states and eras. Who decides this? The state does. Not you or me. Apartheid South Africa ruled that marriage could only be a man and a woman of the same race. UK law rules that it is a boy or man plus a girl or woman both aged 16 or over and both consenting. You and I do not decide that. The state does. The state can (and does) change its definition of marriage whenever it chooses. Thus, if the state decides that marriage can only be, say, for a man and woman aged over 21, then that is so. If the state rules that marriage can be for two people regardless of sex, then that will be so. It would, of course, be an extraordinary and almost unprecedented decision. But it would be the law. And marriage is defined my law, not by you or me.

  • Archibald

    Libertarian Lou,
    Surely they are called different things now because of the factual definition of what marriage is. I don’t accept the assertion the state is making it illegal, it is simply following what the correct definition of marriage is. Peter Treadwell states that Frank Sutton is utterly convinced that marriage can only be a man plus a woman but that repeated assertion is not an argument. I’m afraid that this is factually wrong. That IS what marriage IS. So your argument that suggesting what does it matter what people call it doesn’t stand, neither does the assertion that the state are preventing something (especially if giving the same benefits to a civil partnership), they are surely just following the factual definition. Surely the issue isn’t about personal freedoms, sexuality or anything else no matter how much you shout about freedoms and the right for people to do what they want. We’re pretty much agreed on all these points. It’s about language, not laws. And I still haven’t heard one real argument on this point.

  • Peter Treadwell

    Verity to LibLou: “Gay marriage is not illegal’.” If two people of the same sex roll up to the registry office and ask to marry, the registrar will tell them they are not allowed to. Illegal.

  • Peter Treadwell

    Frank Sutton: You are utterly convinced that marriage can only be a man plus a woman. But repeated assertion is not argumentation. This is how it works: marriage is a contract with the state, and the state defines it. That is why marriage is different in different states. If the state decides that, for example, marriage is impossible under the age of 16, then it is so. If the state decides that, say, marriage can be any two people irrespective of sex, then it will be so. The state also defines what is meant by plenty of other arrangements, such as “property”, “justice”, “unemployment”, “adulthood”, etc., and these, too, are therefore different from state to state.

    You add, “it it is not at all clear to me what supporters of gay marriage actually want that isn’t already available anyway”. My suggestion: ask your married friends whether they would have been just as happy/less happy/more happy with a civil partnership instead of a marriage. Those who reply “less happy” and explain why will answer your question. It isn’t a gay vs. straight issue

  • Peter Treadwell

    Verity: “Not even very many gays, in my experience, have the slightest interest in “gay marriage”. Here we go again. Your friends, even if you are phenomenally sociable, are a handful of people. What they think is relevant to nothing. It’s as daft as that BBC journalist who announced that Kinnock was going to win because all her friends were voting for him.

  • Frank P

    *ndy C*r P*rk

    ******** **** ***! Not in my marriage anyway.

  • Frank Sutton

    Peter Treadwell, in answer to me:
    “The same things that are attractive about straight marriage. Obvious, really.”
    Not really an answer, as I asked what was attractive about marriage itself, not the straight or gay versions that you suggest.
    But anyway, the concept of gay marriage is plainly nonsensical unless you remove the requirement for it to be the union of a man and a woman. And if you removed that, it would no longer be marriage – a point which is perhaps too subtle for supporters of gay marriage.
    Of course there would no logical problem if instead of campaigning for gay marriage, they went for some other form of union – civil partnership, perhaps.
    You could always call it a marriage… civil partnership ceremonies are regularly referred to as weddings, so it it is not at all clear to me what supporters of gay marriage actually want that isn’t already available anyway.

  • Andy Carpark

    Frank P – This thread is really too good to pass up. W*G*D*I?

  • LibertarianLou


    Yes I think there are differences between marriage and civil partnerships. If not, why bother to call them different things? If it’s all just marriage then let’s just call it all marriage! Either way I don’t see a reason why the term “marriage” cannot apply to same sex couples.

    My position though is more that whether or not I personally understand why “marriage” is so important as opposed to a “civil partnership”, is not the point. It harms nobody. So why is the state making it illegal?

    It really has nothing to do with them, me, you, or anybody else.

  • Verity

    Libertarian Lou 10:00 … Your obfuscations are worthy of a nursery school argument. Gay marriage is not “illegal”.

    It doesn’t exist. It is not legal. It is not written into law. Therefore, as there is no such construct, there can be no such thing.

    Do not over dramatise. Not even very many gays, in my experience, have the slightest interest in “gay marriage”. They’ve got their civil partnerships, if they want one, and many long term committed couples do.

  • Peter Treadwell

    Augustus: thanks.

    Many contributors do feel threatened. Glad to hear you don’t.

    The problem with your recourse to ancient traditions is that we’ve turned our backs on them in other fields. Anyway, how ancient is the modern marriage (married by consent, only one wife per husband, living together first, two partners earning, easy to exit from, etc.). Not very.

    “The institution of traditional marriage was developed over millennia to meet basic needs central to opposite sex couples” Was it? Plenty of people will tell you that it was invented in order to keep women under control. And many, many cultures, including Abrahamic islam, regard marriage as a group thing, not a couple thing.
    “I fear that [] far more gays have sex outside their relationship, with the knowledge and approval of their partners
    than straight people do”. Unless there is some evidence of this, I won’t believe it. Evidence there cannot be: how on earth could such a thing be researched? Would _you_ reply to a nosey parker with a clipboard asking you? I wouldn’t. Just supposing it is true (which there is no reason to suppose), is it better to sleep around with the consent of your partner, or to sleep around and lie to them about it? A nice question.

    The children thing is different, as there is a non-consenting third party involved. But the children of straight couples are non-consenting, too. And, looking around me, I see no evidence that straight couples are particularly good at producing well balanced children. Nor that married couples are better at it than unmarried heterosexual couples.

  • George Laird

    Dear All


    What does it mean?

    In society we recognise that everyone should have the same rights if they are a law abiding citizen.

    Seems fine?

    Civil marriage is a function of the State which is provided to those people who aren’t religious or can’t afford a church service plus all the trimmings.

    Ergo, if we accept that civil marriage is a function of the State then there is a legal and moral argument to provide the same service to same sex couples.

    Some people will not like that but that is what equality is about.

    So, I support same sex marriage because there is a legal basis for it.

    And although others might not like it, that isn’t a reason to deny human rights.

    However, there isn’t a legal right for same sex couples to be married in church.

    And also this cannot be enforced by government; you can’t have a human right on that which tramples on others people’s human rights.

    That isn’t how human rights work.

    No one can be forced to marry someone in a church.

    Yours sincerely

    George Laird
    The Campaign for Human Rights at Glasgow University

  • Augustus

    Peter Treadwell – To take your last point first. It’s not really a question of marriage being ‘threatened’, rather the fact
    that the concept of homosexual marriage is absurd to a great many people, for reasons of entirely-valid biological obviousness.

    The institution of traditional marriage was developed over millennia to meet basic needs central to opposite sex couples. The pervasive universality of traditional marriage attests to the essential role of this institution in human existence and human progress. In Western civilization, developing from the Code of Hammurabi and the Abrahamic religions, the condemnation of adultery became ingrained, along with the importance of fidelity in the marriage vows. Thus, the concept of fidelity is of central importance in traditional marriage.
    IMHO The gay view of marriage is different from the traditional view. I genuinely fear that, whilst gays may consider marriage to be a state of recognition and approval of a couple’s choice to live with each other, to remain committed to one another and to form a household based on their own feelings about one another, and to join in an economic partnership and support one another and any dependents, far more gays have sex outside their relationship, with the knowledge and approval of their partners
    than straight people do. That consent is key. With straight people it’s called affairs or cheating, but with gay people it does not seem to have such negative connotations. Furthermore, gay marriage has only existed as an institution since 2001 (in the Netherlands) and it will take more than a generation to determine the ultimate impact of the reality of gay marriage on societal attitudes towards traditional marriage. And who today can say with absolute certainty that the gender of a child’s parent is not a factor in a child’s adjustment, and that having both a male and a female parent does not increase the likelihood that a child will be well-adjusted?

  • Archibald

    Libertarian Lou,
    Sorry, this blog is so slow to post so my last comment wasn’t very relevant, as you had responded to me but it either wasn’t up or I missed it.

    So is your argument then that there is something implicit in the term marriage that you don’t feel is implicit in the term civil partnership? That is, if both have the same benefits, is the name such an issue give what marriage is defined as?

    Incidentally, I’m all for labels when it stops false claims being made about what you’re getting, but then would also say some of the best ‘champagne’ I’ve ever had comes from Kent and Cornwall. Just because it doesn’t have the same name, it doesn’t make it inferior.

  • Ken Bishop

    Just a thought: why are some contributors quoting a percentage of the population as gay? What makes them think they know? A couple of seconds on google reveal that researchers make wildly differing estimates (and that’s before we even consider that there could be several different definitions of “gay”).

  • Peter Treadwell

    Frank Sutton: “What is it about marriage that supporters of gay marriage find so attractive?” The same things that are attractive about straight marriage. Obvious, really.

  • Peter Treadwell

    Pete from Maidstone: “the vast majority of people believe that homosexuals should be able to take care of the necessary legal contracts to protect their homes and health etc” Do they? I seem to remember a lot of opposition to partnerships in the press and parliament. Perhaps you are making the mistake of imagining that everyone tends, on the whole, to agree with you? It’s a very hard mistake to avoid.