I'm writing this before the voting on the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill takes place in Parliament, but after some anti-Bill MPs have very publicly stated what they will do, after the new Archbishop of Canterbury has affirmed his stance on same-sex marriage, and also after renewed mutterings from some Conservative backbenchers that passing the Bill will damage their party's chances in the next general election.
Clearly, even after years of debate, there are a lot of politicians and establishment figures still opposed to this Bill for what they regard as immovable traditional or religious reasons, or for practical reasons connected with the mood of the voting public. I'm not going to discuss marriage as an historical institution, nor as something ordained by a deity and therefore beyond human interference. I want to look at its actual social function today, and what impact the passing of this Bill might have.
It's one of those basic questions when you meet somebody, isn't it: are you married? And if you can say that you are married, then all kinds of further explanations are unnecessary. Most people know (or can imagine) what a marriage is like. It's much more than a set of legal rights and obligations. It's a particular way of life, a particular type of togetherness, an unreserved pooling of resources, a serious promise to care and give comfort, to respect and tolerate. 'Marriage' is a commitment that is meant to last, even if it often doesn't. It is a status that affects other people's attitudes. How you will be treated in public places and public situations, and in dealings with officialdom. How your neighbours will relate to you. How your child's school will treat you. It's a basic feature of society, and if you are 'married', then you feel that you are truly part of the cement that holds society together. You are doing your bit to keep civilisation going, giving it an important reason to develop and improve.
I'm not saying that single people are freeloaders. I'm divorced, and likely to stay unmarried till I die. I still feel valuable to society, and I aim to contribute in my own way. But the old cliché that a marriage is a team, and more than the sum of its partners, has obvious validity. Marriage needs to be encouraged for the good of society, as a state to aspire to. It won't suit everyone, and there should be no penalties for braving out life alone; but even though I revere the independent life, and see it as full of personal opportunities, I also see that every good marriage is also good for society as a larger living organism.
As a responsible citizen, you want both the privilege of marriage, and the responsibility that goes with it. It makes you bigger. You want to play your part in edging everything forward in a good way, and to contribute to everyone's good by making a good marriage. And in return, to have your union recognised with a proper name.
It's the name that matters. How the official bond is achieved is secondary. I never thought, for instance, that my register office wedding was inferior to a church wedding. But once married, I instantly acquired a fresh outlook and resolve that radically altered the effort I was prepared to put into this new joint endeavour. Simply because our bond was called a marriage.
So I can easily see how irksome it must be if you have to settle for something else, something that is legally equivalent, but is not called a marriage.
For this reason I think that those MPs who insist that this is a vote-loser are very wide of the mark. If they vote against calling every official union a marriage, then they are voting for social discrimination, disincentive and disengagement. Do they really wish to alienate the voting power of people who would like to be married, or to upgrade their Civil Partnerships to the name of marriage? Or indeed to dash the hopes of trans persons who want their Gender Recognition Certificates, but refuse to annul a happy marriage to get one? Who do they really think shares their point of view?
The Bill is expected to get passed, albeit with opposition from a some unprogressive diehards mainly within the Conservative Party. I do not understand why anyone who claims to have their finger on the country's pulse could form the view that this is an unpopular measure. It won't debase the significance of marriage for different-sex couples; it will simply end a form of legal discrimination.
Some labels matter.