Brendan O’Neill: Equal marriage is an elitist campaign with no roots in the public

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Appearing before the Public Bill Committee of the House of Commons, which continued its scrutinisation of the government’s same-sex marriage bill on Thursday, journalist Brendan O’Neill argued against the bill on the grounds that it will redefine marriage without support from the public.

Mr O’Neill cautioned that the bill represented an “authoritarian” overhaul of marriage that was designed to further the goals of politicians at the cost of society, and called it “an elitist campaign that doesn’t have any traction with the public.”

“I think same-sex marriage is an entirely invented, purely symbolic issue and it doesn’t have any roots in social activism,” he said.

When asked to explain why he felt there was no public call for same-sex marriage he said: “Look at the way this [campaign] is, compared to the civil rights movement in the 1950s and 60s, the differences are astounding.

“There were mass protests, there were year-long boycotts, there was fighting, there were water cannons, people were arrested and put in jail.

“Here there has been no campaigning like that whatsoever. You just had a few campaigners say ‘we would like to get married’, you had some national treasures like Elton John agreeing with them, and all of a sudden it is the main political and moral issue of our time.”

Mr O’Neill said he believe that the issue was driven by “political classes” rather than by public opinion or historical force.

He said: “It’s a very new campaign, it’s very rootless, very unhistorical, and I think it’s driven more by the needs of the political class today for an issue of language that they can define their morality around. They can say we’re good, we’re liberal, we’re the new Rosa Parks, we’re the new Martin Luther King, look what we’re doing. It only animates people within the political and media classes.”

He added: “I know there are lots of opinion polls which show that small majorities think it’s a good idea, 55%, 56% and so on, but if you look at those opinion polls in detail you’ll notice that larger majorities think it’s not an important issue.

“People are tolerant of homosexuals, which is a wonderful, great thing, but they are confused by the priority that is given to this issue and I don’t think that’s surprising because this issue came out of thin air and it’s largely being pursued for the benefit of individual politicians and campaigners rather than for the benefit of society.”

Committee member and Labour MP Stephen Doughty responded, saying it was a fallacious argument as most of the issues considered by lawmakers would be seen as unimportant by the majority of the public.

He also objected to the idea that there were no grassroots campaigners for the issue, as he had been lobbied by gay constituents who wished to get married.

“Those are not what I would describe as grassroots campaigners,” replied Mr O’Neill. “They are sharpsuited lobbyists, they are small groups of people and there’s plenty of room for those people in the world but they are not grassroots campaigners by any stretch of the imagination. This represents a complete break with what gay rights activists called for in the past.

“The Stonewall rioters of 1969 said that all social institutions including marriage needed to be abolished. Now you have representatives of something called Stonewall coming in here and saying ‘we really want to get married’.”

Mr O’Neill concluded that it was “an elitist campaign that doesn’t have any traction with the public.”

In response to a question about the stance of religious bodies he stated that although he could agree with arguments from Christian opponents, there were more fundamental problems with same-sex marriage that would affect all of society.

“What I’m worried about is that in focussing on Christian concerns we’re overlooking the more subtle attack that is being launched, in my view, by this bill which is on the millions of people who are already married,” he said. “One day in the near future [they] will wake up in a different institution than the one they entered into. They will wake up in one that is about companionship rather than about renewal and something more social.”

Tory MP Desmond Swayne responded by saying he had been lobbied by an elderly gay couple who had once had to hide their illegal relationship and now wished to get married, and asked: “Do you not accept that it’s a reasonable thing, however bourgeois it might be, of them to desire that […] and how, by my accommodating them, will that change the marriage that I have?”

Mr O’Neill replied: “If you read the government’s consutation on same-sex marriage it does not mention family, or children, or community, except when it twice talks about the transgender community. It doesn’t mention the fundamental things that marriage was originally bound up with, which was about managing and organising the renewal of generations

“You are elevating a bourgeois view of marriage which is marriage as companionship,” said Mr O’Neill. “Beyond your old couple there are millions of people for whom marriage is about more than two people.”

In 2012 a commentator for Mr O’Neill’s publication Spiked claimed that the equal marriage campaign “demonised working-class people”.

Mr O’Neill followed the evidence of Alice Arnold, who said that equal marriage would help diminish the homophobia that can still clearly be seen in places like Twitter.

Tuesday’s session was attended by a variety of witnesses including Lord Pannick, who said a “legal miracle” would be required to force churches to hold same-sex marriages; the Coalition for Marriage, who said the bill was causing a shortage of teachers; Stonewall’s Ben Summerskill who said marriage would reduce homophobia; and Pink News’ own Benjamin Cohen, who appeared representing Out4Marriage and was accused by MP David Burrowes of “fomenting abuse” against opponents of equal marriage.