Marriage has already been redefined, its time the law catches up

just-married-gay-marriageIn today’s equal marriage debate, everyone’s favourite conservative foghorn Nadine Dorries, argued against the equal marriage bill because it does not contain a provision for adultery. She believes if a marriage contract does not contain a fidelity clause it cannot be a real marriage.

Now, putting aside how galling it is to be lectured on marital morality from someone accused of being a homewrecker, Dorries interpretation of what marriage is, is laughably out of date.

Ever since the Divorce Reform Act in 1969, it became possible for couples to go their separate ways without having to demonstrate infidelity (or even fake it in the most absurd circumstances), marriage has slowly evolved into a much more fluid entity.

In truth, despite what some backbenchers and the Coalition For Marriage say, the definition of marriage, like other British ‘institutions’, has never been static.

As Stephen Williams, Liberal Democrat MP for Bristol West, explained effectively in the Commons today, marriage has always been a socially developed institution with religious overtones occasionally attached. Nearly every human conurbation in history has had some sort of ceremony destined to recognise not coital or romantic union. Whether its polygamous or monogamous, whether its gay or straight, whether its for life or until the ink on the divorce papers are dry was irrelevant.

Time passes, but from the Ancient world into the Christian medieval world, marriage was never viewed as a sacrament ordained by the church. Indeed, in the eyes of the Catholic Church it still isn’t. Villeins, yeomen and the everymen and women of medieval England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, could be married by their local lord in a civil cermony that had little to do with their local church.

It was only during the Protestant Reformation that marriage became a sacrament in the eyes of the Church as way to distinguish themselves from Catholicism and prevent the build up of monasteries swimming in wealth and cut off from the rest of the world. Up until 1753 you didn’t even need a formal ceremony to be declared married. This is the status quo favored by ‘traditionalists’ but it was effectively ended by the Civil Marriages Act in 1836 which allowed civil services in registry offices.

In 1858, divorce was allowed via legal process rather than the 300 divorces which were granted through act of parliament. This was around the time when ‘marrying for love’ became in vogue for Victorian Britain. Eventually, this led to nascent women’s rights with the Married Women’s Act of 1882 which allowed women to own their own property.

This paved the way for women’s rights and the suffragette movement. When they were granted the right to vote on equal terms to men in 1929, the reform of marriage really started. This culminated in 1991 when rape in marriage was finally recognised a crime.

This brief history of marriage shows there is no ‘default setting’ for the institution. The only constant of marriage is that it is whatever the participants want to be with the according legal rights. Whether is a purely economic transaction, a gesture of platonic companionship or romantic union, a married couple decide the parameters of what is and is not acceptable in their marriage.

The adultery principle is therefore not valid. Every marriage is different. Some are open, some are closed. Some are destined for children, some are not. The purpose of a marriage  is to build a secure, happy home. If that includes two men, two women or multiple men and women so be it. Comedian Sharon Horgan recently had a programme on Channel 4 about modern marriages. Some were weird, some were traditional but all of them seemed, at least on the surface, to be working.

Who says marriage has to be for life? Who says marriage can only be for two people at a time? Who says marriage should be for children? Marriage is a legal and an expression of love; beyond that everything else is semantics.

Therefore there is no grounds for the delusion it is only between a man and a woman.

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An odd wind blows through Eastleigh

ChrisHuhneRichardIII
Image Courtesy of Peter Brookes at the Times

Guido Fawkes was gleefully rubbing his hands together yesterday as Chris Huhne surveyed the burning wreckage of his ministerial career, his home life and probably his personal freedom.

While the remains of one would-be king were being exhumed from Leicester social services’ car park, another is watching his career committed to the ground.

A driving licence! A driving licence! My kingdom for a driving licence it would seem.

However, in the 24 hours since Huhne changed his plea the focus has moved from him to his constituency and the uphill battle for political soul of the nation. Or something like that.

Comparing the Eastleigh by-election to the Battle of the Bosworth Field might be slightly over doing it as far as shoehorned political metaphors go but as the battle extinguished the Yorkist claim to the throne in all but name, so could this election prove decisive for the Liberal Democrats.

This is, in real terms, the first time they’ve been properly tested in more than a year. Forget the by-elections where they didn’t take it seriously and lost their deposit. In Rotherham, they only campaigned in one council ward because they were hoping to concentrate their resources to get a council seat further down the line. This, of course, rather backfired but it wasn’t the crushing defeat everyone else imagined.

Over the past year we have seen an unusual number of by-elections but the Lib Dems have not really been challenged until they are faced with a seat they could actually win. Eastleigh, despite being historically Tory, should be a Lib Dem slam dunk. With Huhne and David Chigley before him the seat has rested in the party’s hands for nearly 20 years. They control the council and the attitude of the local people on Channel 4 News last night suggested Eastleigh is about as indentured Lib Dem as any one seat could be.

However, with the Liberal Democrats current, continued, unpopularity and only a majority of 4000, they’ll have their work cut out for them.

Eastleigh could also just be the test piece for each political party that Corby wasn’t as they try to prove themselves as the party which will win the next election.

Liberal Democrats: They need a win. The Liberal Democrats’ supporters are deserting them in droves and they are fighting like cats and dogs with their coalition partners. The atmosphere amongst grassroots has become a case of counting down the days till they can get out of Government. Contrary to popular opinion, the Liberal Democrats are not likely to be finished as a political force at the next election. But they will be severely wounded and face substantial losses to the parliamentary party they need to steal themselves against. If they lose Eastleigh it may be a step too far.

Given the current situation, the grassroots could live with losing a few Lib Dem-Labour marginals. But to lose a seat like this would should dent any faith in the leadership there is left. The gallows humour currently flying around the party could turn into all out revolt. Much like the Conservative Party cannot possibly win the next election while they are still cleaved in half over Europe and gay marriage, the Liberal Democrats cannot afford to go into the next election preaching their faith in Nick Clegg when they openly don’t believe in him themselves.

Conservatives: Eastleigh is winnable for the Tories. Despite losing control 19 years ago, the seat is historically Tory even if it is in a relatively working class area. However it is going to take some real effort. Many commentators are saying the Conservatives need to put up a charismatic, big hitter- someone who could possibly be tipped for a ministerial post somewhere down the line rather than a local grandee that has paid their dues. However, the danger is Eastleigh won’t want another Louise Mensch. Marginals like Corby and Eastleigh thrive with a charismatic MP who actually cares about their local area rather than someone using it as a stepping stone to greater things. Unfortunately for the Tory party at the moment, they are struggling to find bankable candidates. It seems they are stuck between a rock of lacklustre locals and a hard place of upstart A-Listers. They only way to win would to somehow find a middle ground.

Similarly, gay marriage could be an issue. Nigel Farage’s reluctance to commit to standing there demonstrates even UKIP know they’re no real threat in this particular marginal. While Europe is a relative non-issue amongst the electorate (especially since the announcement of the ‘maybe referendum’), the gay marriage row has made the party look even more out of touch. The Tories will be hit hard by the regular voters who perceive the party as out of step with popular opinion and the local Tory activists who may decide to stay at home in protest.

Labour: This by-election provides a dilemma for the cash strapped party. They will not win, but they could dramatically improve their vote share if they really put the effort in. While they languished far behind in third place at the last election, they can’t afford not to campaign in this election because they still have to beat UKIP to remain credible as the favourite for Number 10 in 2015. With a bit of effort and a good candidate this should not be too difficult. Given the unpopularity of the two Government parties, they could even squeeze second place.

If they were to push ahead of the Tories, or even the Liberal Democrats, it would probably be the best publicity for the Labour message they’ve had since Ed Miliband won the leadership. It would prove they are on the up and Miliband in particular is a credible as a future leader. But, will a cash strapped party want to waste resources on what would be a short term gain? In the long run it may be better to invest properly in their policy review so Ed Miliband’s promises of ‘One Nation Labour’ would not seem so paper thin. A comparative victory in Eastleigh will do nothing to ameliorate their continued lack of vision.