Nick Herbert: Legalising same-sex marriage is ‘the right thing to do’

Illustrated rainbow pride flag on a white background.

The former Police Minister, and current Conservative MP for Arundel and South Downs, Nick Herbert, has written on his support for equal marriage, including religious freedoms, the European Court of Human Rights, and that he thinks it still plays an important role in society.

Mr Herbert coordinated the formation of a new campaign group, which launched today, in support of equal marriage called “Freedom to Marry,” which is formed of nineteen senior Conservatives, including Boris Johnson and Michael Gove.

On Friday, Maria Miller laid out the Government’s plans for introducing full marriage equality in England and Wales in an article for the Daily Telegraph.

The piece by Mr Herbert for the Telegraph, who had previously come Out4Marriage, starts: “Marriage not only enriches the life of the couple, it enriches society. When two people love one another, and are willing to make a lifelong commitment to each other, then society itself is strengthened.

“It is precisely because marriage is such a uniquely important institution that we should ensure that all couples who want to enter into it, regardless of their sexuality, can do so.”

He continues: “Conservatives who believe in marriage should feel this most strongly. As David Cameron said to his own Party Conference, “I don’t support gay marriage despite being a Conservative; I support gay marriage because I’m a Conservative.”

“Civil partnerships for gay couples were a great step forward. Entering into one was the most important thing I have done in my life. I will forever be grateful for the courage of politicians – including many Conservatives – who, against much opposition, supported this change.

“But civil partnerships are not marriages. They convey almost the same legal rights, but they do not express the same universally understood commitment.”

The MP for Arundel and South Downs, who is in a civil partnership himself, writes on the question of civil partnerships as argued by some as sufficient for same-sex couples. He says: “Many people say that civil partnerships should be enough. But their very opposition to what is now being proposed only underlines the point that marriage is indeed distinct.

“And I have felt increasingly uncomfortable when told that I should accept something that others would not. I wonder how heterosexual married couples would feel if they were informed that they couldn’t be married after all, and that a civil partnership would have to do.

“I appreciate that there are some who take a different view, including many who are not homophobic but have a profound religious conviction about the nature of marriage. We must conduct this debate in a spirit of mutual respect and understanding, and with regard to the special value of religious institutions.

“Religious freedom is a vitally important principle of our society. This means that religious groups should be allowed to conduct same sex marriages if they choose. Why should the state prevent the Quakers, for instance, from conducting the ceremonies they want?

“Equally, it would be quite wrong to compel religious organisations to marry same sex couples against their will. The Prime Minister’s unequivocal commitment to ensure this is welcome, and the safeguards should be written into the legislation itself.”

Discussing the role the European Court of Human Rights has to play in religious freedoms, he writes: “It is argued that a successful legal challenge to the European Court of Human Rights could nevertheless see same sex marriages being forced on churches. This is a red herring. The European Convention on Human Rights guarantees religious freedom, and the European Court has repeatedly declined to enforce same sex marriage. In any case, ultimately our Parliament cannot be bound.”

On the opposition to equal marriage, the openly gay MP wrote: “Overstating the case only causes unnecessary concern. Last week the Coalition for Marriage claimed that churches might no longer marry people at all. This is not a serious argument.

“They also claimed that this change would be “massively unpopular.” In fact, opinion polls consistently show strong support for it. Only one poll, conducted on behalf of the Coalition for Marriage itself, arrived at a different result, because it asked an ambiguous question about the definition of marriage.

“Nor is this a narrow, metropolitan issue. Support for equal marriage holds across almost every age and social group, amongst people of faith, and in every region. Some of the highest levels of support are in the north of England.”

He points out that London Mayor, Boris Johnson and US President Barack Obama recently won elections, after supporting equal marriage  “As the Republicans found in the recent presidential elections, there is no mileage in alienating the new generation of voters or what is, even in the United States, a growing majority of public opinion. President Obama endorsed gay marriage and was re-elected. So, in London, was Boris Johnson.

“Winning politicians who have built the broad base of voter support that is needed to gain office have got themselves on the right side of this argument. It is not gay marriage which will cost Conservatives votes: it is failing to win the common ground.”

He ends by saying: “These are the political arguments which must be made only because some say that endorsing equal marriage will damage the Conservative Party. But politics cannot be the reason for endorsing this change, and it is certainly not why leading Conservatives from across the Party have signed up to Freedom to Marry today. We simply believe that this change is the right thing to do.

“Concern is expressed that marriage is to be re-defined. But marriage has evolved over the years. Civil marriages were a major change to the institution, opposed by the churches at the time, yet without them far fewer people would get married.

“Marriage will remain a lifelong commitment between two people. Making its benefits available to same sex couples would strengthen those relationships, it would strengthen society, and it would strengthen the institution of marriage itself.”