Tory Lord Jenkin: The Lords equal marriage vote was a victory for common decency

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Having delivered one of the most powerful and widely read speeches in support of equal marriage during this week’s House of Lords debate, the Conservative peer and former health secretary, Lord Jenkin of Roding, writes exclusively for

This week saw one of the largest votes ever in the House of Lords – 538 peers voted. The issue was quite clear: should the government’s Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill be given a second reading in the Lords or not? The vote came at the end of two days of debate during which no fewer than 114 peers spoke.

The vote took place on the so called ‘fatal amendment’ – ‘fatal’ because if such an amendment is carried in a vote at the end of the debate, the bill falls, with no further opportunity to debate it. For those who supported the bill, it was essential that this amendment should be defeated.

After what we call a free vote where peers are free to decide for themselves how to vote, 148 peers voted for the amendment, 390 peers voted against it, so it was heavily defeated. The bill then got an unopposed second reading, and will now go on to committee stage.

That is the formal outcome of the two days’ debating. Much more important for many of the thousands – perhaps even millions – who are interested in the bill are the implications of what has happened.

First, the majority against the amendment was much bigger than anyone had anticipated. All peers had been inundated with floods of emails, letters, and propaganda urging us to vote for the amendment, and to throw out the bill. It had been thought that this would persuade lots of those who may have been doubtful about the bill that they would be representing the views of the public if they threw it out. The number of Conservative peers who voted for the amendment was smaller than those who voted against it – 66 against 80. Even though we are on average much older than our Commons colleagues, and even though it had been shown in the surveys that younger people were much more likely to be in favour of the bill, there was still a substantial majority for the bill. Common decency beats propaganda lobbying!

Second, the size of the majority is such that there is unlikely to be any sustained campaign in the Lords to try to defeat it by endless repetitive speeches. The vote was a very convincing win in favour of gays and lesbians getting married.

Third, the debate was comprehensive and conducted with courtesy. That is the way we try to do things in the Lords! The whole tone of the debate demonstrated what huge strides have been made in recent years to recognise that homophobia is largely a thing of the past in civilised circles. My mind went back to the dreadful debates of the 60s and 70s on the decriminalisation of homosexual behaviour when the most appalling things were said.

Finally, perhaps the most important consequence will be that in the longer term we are seeing the end of discrimination against gays and lesbians in our society. In part, this is due to the leadership of the prime minister and of parliamentarians; but in part because it must also be accompanied by recognition of the gay and lesbian community that they must try to avoid provocative confrontations. There are still many people out there who will find it quite difficult to accept gay marriages; they must be given time to get used to it, so that they too come to regard it simply as part of a tolerant and civilised community.

Lord Jenkin served as Secretary of State for Social Services, Secretary of State for Industry, and Secretary of State for the Environment during Lady Thatcher’s period as prime minister in the 1980s.

He became a life peer in 1987.