Ex-Stonewall boss Ben Summerskill: ‘10% of gay people are completely opposed to equal marriage’

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Ben Summerskill has said “10% of lesbian and gay people are completely opposed to equal marriage” – in order to justify Stonewall’s previous delay in supporting the measure.

He made the remarks whilst he was still chief executive of Stonewall in the BBC Radio 4 programme ‘Gay Rights: Tying the Knot?’ broadcast on Tuesday evening.

Mr Summerskill was interviewed by Reverend Richard Coles. He asked Mr Summerskill: “You got a bit of criticism in 2010 for being seen as not entirely enthusiastic about equal marriage, was that a fair summary of your position or not?”

Mr Summerskill replied: “No. I mean we were cautious about our policy position for two reasons. First: 10% of lesbian and gay people are completely opposed to equal marriage – we now have polling evidence to that affect – but at that point we had said we would consult all of our stakeholders about what they wanted.

“If we had announced in the middle of a consultation that we had already made up our mind, we wouldn’t have kept that 10% on board because they would have said, ‘you went through this sham consultation and you’ve already announced what the outcome is going to be.’

“And those are people, quite often for example lesbians, who feel very strongly that marriage is a 2,000-year-old vehicle for the subjugation of women – and they don’t like it at all – and I think what we have succeeded in doing, certainty with Stonewall stakeholders and our support is continuing to rise throughout that period… is to persuade them even if they don’t want to get married other people should be able to.”

On Wednesday afternoon Stonewall told PinkNews that Mr Summerskill’s reference to the 10% figure was based on the results of a YouGov and Stonewall survey conducted in October 2012.

Of the 2,006 lesbian, gay and bisexual people surveyed by the charity, 4% said they strongly opposed extending the legal form and name of civil marriage to same-sex couples, 5% said they opposed the reform, 22% supported the measure and 69% said they were in strong support.

Mr Summerskill, who resigned as Stonewall’s chief executive last month, has been at the centre of a political storm due to comments made in the Radio 4 programme about the Liberal Democrats, first revealed last weekend and then reiterated to The Observer.

He claimed the party supported same-sex marriage in order to put distance between themselves and the Conservative Party in 2010.

Mr Summerskill told Rev Coles: “The other thing I’m crystal clear about in retrospect – and it was clear to us at the time but we are able to say it now – is that the sudden adoption of a commitment to equal marriage by the Liberal Democrats was actually quite opportunistic and cynical in the summer of 2010.

“And the reason we can say that with certainty is that in the Liberal Democrat manifesto in May 2010, three months earlier, there had been no mention of it whatsoever. Even more revealingly in the Liberal Democrat gay manifesto in May 2010 there had been no mention of equal marriage whatsoever. And suddenly this was alighted upon by some Liberal Democrats, and one of them admitted at the time, once this policy had been adopted by the Liberal Democrats, ‘isn’t this fantastic we can now put clear blue water between us and the Conservatives’. So it was a way of positioning themselves as opposed to the government.”

Liberal Democrat International Development Minister Lynne Featherstone once again hit out at Mr Summerskill’s remarks, yesterday saying in a blog post he “couldn’t be more wrong”.

On Monday, Deputy Prime Minister and Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg expressed his disappointment over the former chief executive’s comments.

Ex-Lib Dem MP Evan Harris also accused Mr Summerskill of misquoting him in regards to the “water” comment.

Along with Ms Featherstone, former Prime Minister Tony Blair was also interviewed by Rev Coles for the Radio 4 programme.

Mr Blair praised the current government for taking gay equality “to a further stage”, but also suggested, with the benefit of hindsight, that it’s possible Labour could have been even bolder with its introduction of civil partnerships in 2005.

“I think at the time we worked this out quite carefully in conjunction with the gay community and it seemed like the right thing to do – but I also think it’s right now to take [civil partnerships] to a further stage,” he said.

“I don’t know looking back whether it might have been possible to have gone that way [for same-sex marriage] right at the beginning, but at the time it seemed like a very big step – and indeed was.”