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Gay marriage vote passes in UK

Nick Miller
Published: February 6, 2013 - 6:45AM

The British parliament has voted to legalise gay marriage, after an afternoon of passionate argument.

More than 70 MPs had their say in a lively, but mainly polite and very British debate, as hidebound tradition and Anglican values clashed with the principles of “live and let live” and equality.

Both sides emphasised respect for other points of view, despite deep divisions.

One MP cited Shakespeare, another Orwell, another Elton John, and one talked about the importance of allowing everyone, regardless of sexual preference, the opportunity of a long-lasting marriage - even if it descends into “bickering over the biscuits”.

The bill passed its second reading vote at 6.15am Wednesday, Australian time, with 400 in favour and 175 against.

It will now go to a committee for detailed examination starting next week

After that, it is predicted that it will pass the House of Commons with strong support from Labour and Liberal Democrat MPs. The Conservative party, however, is torn down the middle on the issue.

Britain already has civil partnerships between gay and lesbian couples. The new law would allow marriage in civil ceremonies and in religious ceremonies if a church allows it.

Prime Minister David Cameron – who was absent from the house when the debate began - allowed his colleagues a conscience vote on the issue.

Culture Secretary Maria Miller introduced the second reading of the bill with a matter-of-fact speech aimed at countering the concerns of many of her own colleagues, who frequently interrupted her asking about the impact on schools and religious freedoms.

“Every marriage is different,” she said. “The depth of feeling, love and commitment is no different between same-sex couples.

“Marriage should be defended and promoted.”

In a heartfelt speech, Labour MP and shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper said “we all love a good wedding”, with its “cloud of confetti” and rubber chickens – and also loved the idea of a long, stable marriage where partners still care for each other “even while bickering over the biscuits”.

“For better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health - that is marriage,” she said. “Marriage has changed many times before and society hasn't collapsed.

“It has to remain in tune with the values of every generation … (I) hope opponents will look back in 10 years and won't be able to remember what the fuss was all about.”

However many Conservative voices, and several Labour ones, were raised in opposition to the proposed law.

Some said they were angry that opponents of the bill were being branded homophobic or “barking (mad)”.

MP Tony Baldry said the bill would end marriage as it had been understood “for all recorded time”. Robert Flello said the bill would create inequality because there would be two forms of marriage, traditional and same-sex.

Jim Dobbin said marriage was designed to support the bearing and raising of children, and the bill would dilute its meaning. Craig Whittaker said the move would make marriage a “partnership model”, eroding its full purpose.

And Roger Gale agreed that it was “Alice in Wonderland territory, Orwellian almost, for any government to come along and try to rewrite the lexicon” – before suggesting an alternative law that recognised a “civil union” that could include siblings.

More expressed fear that religious people and organisations would be pushed into a legal minefield if the law went through.

However Labour MP Toby Perkins said there was a fundamental principle that each party shared: “we basically live and let live, we let people get on with their lives.”

Liberal Democrat Stephen Gilbert said as a gay man who grew up in working class Cornwall, he knew the importance that parliament “send a clear signal that we value everybody equally”.

Conservative Nick Herbert mocked others who feared marriage would be undermined. “What are heterosexual couples going to say? 'Darling our marriage is over, Sir Elton John has just gotten married to David Furnish'?”

And Labour MP Ben Bradshaw, the son of an Anglican vicar and himself in a civil partnership, said objection to the bill was “residual prejudice against same-sex relationships”.

Simon Hughes, deputy leader of the Liberal Democrats, said “Edgar in King Lear said 'stand up for bastards'. I believe we should stand up for gay people and gay rights.”

Conservative Mike Freer said “the proudest day of my life was entering into civil partnership with my partner of 21 years.

“(It) was our way of saying 'this is who I love, this is who I am, this is who I wish to spend the rest of my life with'. I am not asking for special treatment (by being allowed to marry), I am just asking for equal treatment.

“Today we have the opportunity to do what is right, to do what is good.”

Australian gay marriage activists plan to seize on the vote to lobby for a similar move in Australia.

Rodney Croome, national convener for Australian Marriage Equality, said the fact that David Cameron had allowed a conscience vote for the Conservative Party increased pressure on Tony Abbott to do the same in Australia.

“A conscience vote is about personal freedom, and marriage equality is about strengthening families: both principles which conservatives should support,” he said. “The UK vote will figure prominently in our lobbying of Coalition MPs.”

And he said Prime Minister Julia Gillard was lagging behind not only her colleagues, but even her conservative counterparts.

Mr Croome said Australians would hear the news of the vote “tinged with embarrassment that Australia is falling further behind and may soon be the only developed English-speaking country without marriage equality.

“Given the close family ties that many Australians have in the UK I think it's a sad reality that many same-sex couples will marry under UK law instead of waiting for reform here,” he said.

The bill is predicted to get a less wholehearted welcome in the House of Lords, which is dominated by life peers. However it can only reject the law once: if the House of Commons passes it again in the next session, it cannot reject it again.

After a weekend of turmoil in the Conservative party, the morning of the vote saw a last-minute push in the UK media from the bill's supporters.

In a letter to the London Telegraph, Conservative MPs William Hague, George Osborne and Theresa May wrote that “marriage has evolved over time. We believe that opening it up to same-sex couples will strengthen, not weaken the institution”.

“Attitudes towards gay people have changed. A substantial majority of the public now favour allowing same-sex couples to marry, and support has increased rapidly. This is the right thing to do at the right time.” Several polling experts also came out to combat claims it would harm the Conservatives at the next election, saying the effect would be negligible.

Several conservative commentators said the main problem with the vote was that it had exposed deep divisions within the party.

Benedict Brogan in the Telegraph called it a “political error” by the PM.

“Mr Cameron is unable to command majority support (within his party) for a change that he says is needed to modernise the party and make it palatable to an electorate beyond its core of ageing activists,” he wrote.

Left-wing commentator Polly Toynbee in The Guardian wrote the gay marriage debate had uncovered a “nest of bigots” in the Conservative party, and linked the revolt to recent talk of a leadership challenge.

“They have not only lost their marbles but they are throwing them at each other,” she wrote. “Disunity is electoral poison, and so is a leader losing control of his party.”

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