This article is from the July issue of Total Politics
The coalition government is in a spot of self-inflicted bother about marriage. It is hard to disagree that civil marriage should any longer be confined to unions between men and women.
But an onlooker could ask, why act now? Neither party made the pledge in 2010.
MPs’ postbags and inboxes now overflow with missives from fuming constituents. A cursory glance at the past tells us this reaction is unsurprising. Over the course of modern British history, matrimonial legal advances are few and far between – and fiercely fought over.
In 1753, the Marriage Act cruelly restricted all legally binding marriages (except those of Jews and Quakers) to those taking place in a parish church or chapel of the Church of England. Restrictions were not removed until 1836.
The minimum age of 16 was not secured until 1929, and half a century later a private member’s bill passed in 1994 by the erstwhile Tory MP Gyles Brandreth amended an Act of 1949 to permit solemnisation of marriages in “approved premises” (heralding a lucrative side-trade for the country’s stately homes).
Ten years later, under New Labour, we saw the advent of civil partnerships, accepted by David Cameron’s Tories. So for a subject that advanced at a snail’s pace for so many years, here we are today, attempting change at a pace the people of this country are historically unaccustomed to.
This month we visit the House of Lords, in July 1836, as Whig prime minister Viscount Melbourne (Paul Bettany to fans of Julian Fellowes’ The Young Victoria film), rises to declare the time had come to relieve religious dissenters from the compulsion to marry according to the Anglican rites.
To do so would require the creation of a “general register of births, marriages, and deaths”, so as to disconnect the civil register from the ecclesiastical ceremony. It would mean the state assuming total oversight of marriage on these shores, a fuzzy responsibility that is at the crux of the coalition’s quandary today.
Is ‘marriage’ – the very word – the property of the church or the state?
The Archbishop of Canterbury, William Howley, who had unhappily presided over the repeal of the Test Act in 1828 and Catholic emancipation in 1829, said he “had no objection” to relieving dissenters “from the hardship” of attending Anglican services.
But much as people today are willing to countenance gay marriage so long as it does not impose on the church – indeed, never the government’s intention – Canterbury’s fear was of intrusion on ”the religious scruples of the members of the church” and “the marriage laws”.
Tory peer Lord Ellenborough bemoaned burdening marriages with new registration regulations, which though intended to eradicate the problem of sham marriages, “would make marriage to the poor man more expensive and inconvenient”. And this even before the days of photographers, flowers and fancy stationery.
Marriage stirs great emotions and is toyed with at a politician’s peril. It is indeed Conservative to support marriage in all its forms – as the past demonstrates, it is more conservative still for politicians to tread warily.