There's a powerful conservative case to be made for gay marriage
On January 1 this year, the tiny territory of Saint Helena, Ascension and Tristan da Cunha in the Atlantic became the latest country to allow same-sex marriage. Its elected council voted for the reform after a consultation found that a majority of its 5600 residents supported the change. After all, isn't that what's meant to happen in a representative democracy?
One after another, countries across the world have legalised gay marriage, usually because that is what their people wanted. Argentina, Belgium, Brazil, Canada, Colombia, Denmark, France, Iceland, Ireland, Luxembourg, Mexico, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Portugal, South Africa, Spain, Sweden, the UK, the US and Uruguay have all taken this step. Finland is about to follow.
The British Parliament passed the legislation for England and Wales in 2013 with overwhelming majorities in both houses. We had already extended the same legal protections as marriage to gay couples by creating a special status of civil partnerships. But it wasn't marriage. In a society where gay people were increasingly accepted, they didn't want to be different.
Opponents of gay marriage advanced two principal arguments against it. First, they claimed that churches would be forced to conduct the ceremonies. But this was simply untrue. We legislated to ensure that no faith groups would be compelled to conduct same-sex marriages. And none have.
But religious freedom cuts both ways, and some faith groups wanted to conduct same-sex ceremonies, yet were being prevented by the state from doing so. Even then, we wrote in careful protections that individual ministers could not be forced to conduct the ceremonies against their conscience.
Second, religious opponents said that we were redefining marriage. But the institution has evolved over time and repeatedly been redefined by law, for instance to allow divorce. Indeed, marriage predates Christianity.
Often a progressive case is advanced for same-sex marriage: that it is the final step to achieve full equality for gay people. That argument surely has force. But there is also a powerful conservative case for the reform. While marriage in the UK was steadily becoming less popular, one group in society wanted to be admitted to it. Such affirmation of an historic institution, one which cherishes stability and commitment, was actually a triumph of conservatism.
That was why David Cameron, then British prime minister, famously told his party conference that he was championing gay marriage not in spite of being a Conservative, but because he was a Conservative. Cameron did not force his MPs to agree: we were given a free vote. He respected the right of colleagues to dissent on what some saw as an issue of conscience. But, crucially, he introduced the legislation which allowed the vote to take place.
He was told that the reform would drive away Conservatives and cost him votes. In fact, two years after the legislation was passed, he won the party's first overall majority at a General Election for 23 years. The truth is that the day the Bill received Royal Assent, the controversy was over and the issue evaporated. People saw that the sky did not fall in. Churches were not compelled to conduct gay weddings. The reform was popular. The minority of MPs who had opposed it went quiet, except for some who candidly announced that they now regretted their vote. The clock will never be turned back.
If anything, Cameron had reached out to a new generation as he demonstrated that his modern Conservative Party was in touch with contemporary Britain. On the steps of Downing Street as he left office, Cameron singled out gay marriage as one of his proudest achievements.
Across the country, thousands of gay couples married at happy weddings. At the same time, the number of civil partnerships plummeted as gay couples chose instead to join the traditional institution. We had legislated to allow great good, and done no harm. If only more of our laws could be so successful.
The last resort of the reform's opponents had been to claim that it would somehow devalue heterosexual marriage. In the Commons I asked if it was really true that the marriages of millions of straight people were about to be threatened because a few thousand gay people were permitted to join. What would they say? "Darling, our marriage is over: Sir Elton John has just got engaged to David Furnish"?
Of course, heterosexual marriages continued as before. There is a simple remedy if you don't like gay marriage: don't have one. It's not compulsory. The question is whether it is anyone's right to stop a loving couple from making this important commitment.
I would not be so impolite, as a British MP, to suggest to my parliamentary colleagues in Australia what they should do, or how they should vote, on anything. But I am happy to tell them that the legislation we passed settled an argument rather than prolonging it. I can say that it did nothing to prevent us winning an election soon afterwards and tackling the big issues we faced as a country – reforming our schools, creating jobs and fixing our economy. I can reassure them that we firmly protected religious freedom. And I can share with them that, with hindsight, most of us are sure we did the right thing.
To read Nick's article on the Sydney Morning Herald website, click here.