There are many things that make me proud about having been a Labour Minister – being the Bill Minister for the Civil Partnerships Act is well up the list. Compared to some of the other legislation I was responsible for, the Bill had quite a smooth passage through the House of Commons. There had been some pretty lively arguments within government about issues such as equal pension rights – which were finally settled in favour of equality. However, by the time the Bill was introduced to Parliament, I could confidently say that there was no substantive legal difference in the rights offered within a civil partnership to those within a civil marriage. The Civil Partnerships Act 2004 ensured equal rights and recognition. But it wasn’t gay marriage. It was an important and right step, but I now understand that in marriage and in ensuring equality, symbols can be as important as hard legal rights.
The Government is right to propose that civil marriage should be available to all couples. Differentiating between the long term legal commitment of a gay couple as compared to a heterosexual couple does, at the margin, provide an ongoing discrimination. If there are young people made to feel second class at the thought of this, it should change. If there are thugs who feel more justified in laying into a gay man because of this difference, it should change. If there are families who want a marriage to celebrate rather than just a partnership, it should change.
The value of marriage to me does not lie in its exclusivity – it lies in the fact that it is possible to make a public and legal commitment to your partner and to receive the recognition and support of others to make a success of the relationship. My marriage is not less valuable to me if others are able to enter into the same commitment – in fact I think it is more special that others want the chance to do the same.
I’m sorry that the Government hasn’t gone further in offering the legal chance to religious authorities to celebrate same sex marriages. However, the proposed change is wholly civil, so I’m a bit tired of the pontificating of churchmen. Lynne Featherstone is right to argue that religious authorities don’t own marriage. My marriage is not a sacrament. It’s a public and legal agreement which doesn’t need the approval (or otherwise) of the church for its significance.
I’m proud of the Civil Partnerships Act, but happy now to see it amended (or even repealed). It has paved the way for the symbolic but important development of equal civil marriage.
This year, Richard and I celebrate our Silver Wedding – yes, I was a child bride (almost). We will be having a party and plenty of celebrations. It could only add to the festivities if we could also celebrate welcoming many more people into married life.
Jacqui Smith is former home secretary and writes the Monday Politics column for Progress
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