The Case for Equality of Civil Partnerships

If psychologists are correct and everything, however ​apparently​ trivial, is instructive, what are we to make of the general indifference to former education minister Tim Loughton’s ten minute rule motion, presented this week in the House of Commons, to change the law on civil partnerships?

Since the introduction of Equal Marriage by the Coalition government, civil partnerships, the halfway house which afforded gay and lesbian couples the legal protections of commitment, have enjoyed a unintended anomaly in UK law: they are one facility which can be accessed by homosexuals but not heterosexuals. As injustices go it is a small one; nonetheless gay rights campaigner Peter Tatchell has taken up the cause of equal civil partnerships, and he has support from those who want to commit to their partners but not by getting married.

​But the government is refusing to change the law on the issue.​

If civil partnerships are to exist the argument for equal treatment before the law is persuasive: they should exist for everyone. But to my mind there is a more compelling reason to (maintain and) extend civil partnerships: difference.

In his treatise On Liberty, John Stuart Mill, citing the French political thinker Alexis de Tocqueville, popularised the phrase “the tyranny of the majority” to raise a concern that democratic majorities would threaten the interests of minorities; the idea that political freedom means an ability to pursue one’s own interests and activities so long as it does not conflict with “the harm principle”.

Rules are necessary but individual despotism must not be replaced by an ochlocratic one. The concept of indivisible human rights is one way in which we protect against a social tyranny as oppressive as any other but, at times, it is insufficient. Mill was mainly talking - in the nineteenth century - about political structures though the idea has modern and further resonance.

As a society we pay lip-service to the idea of diversity

Individuals, social networks and societies are paradigmatic projections of one another. Language, which elevates us, also limits us: internal thought can only take us so far, as individuals we need the tension of external dialogue to fuel our imaginations. Therefore it follows, groups which have pluralistic social structures perform better than those which are totally homogenous. Diverse and fluid societies are more creative than those with more rigid structures.

As a society we pay lip-service to the idea of diversity, so that people might wish to make a legal commitment to each other in a different framework that is not marriage should pose no problem. If we accept diversity in individuals then surely the concept of responsive, diverse structures and institutions within society should be equally welcome.

Whether marriage is a patriarchal institution does not matter: the discourse does. It is an inherent good. By equalising civil partnerships we would be showing that we have evolved into a humane, decent and open society of the kind envisioned by Mill. It would enable couples who want to make a commitment to each other to question how they wish to do so.

A number of people who currently co-habit, unaware that “common-law marriage” does not exist, might become civil partners; a majority might still opt for the familiarity of marriage, but the fact that it would be a issue can only be culturally beneficial. Dissonant opinion is important and difference broadens our perspective, if not our decisions. The outsider is able to stir cognitive thought and action in ways which the familiar is unable.

The stifling counter that marriage per se, in and of itself, is the bedrock of our society which should not be undermined, contests how far as a whole we do actually believe in difference and dissent: the assumption closes debate. Zealotry nearly always masks a secret doubt. We tolerate difference so long as it does not resist our mythology.

Equal marriage may have been a satisfying triumph for equality before the law and acceptance of homosexuality’s innateness, but it was not a triumph for diversity. It was, after all, introduced by a Conservative prime minister who championed it not despite being a Conservative but because he was a Conservative.

democracies need homogeneity but societies often need divergence, even conflict

Although the idea can be overplayed, democracies need homogeneity but societies often need divergence, even conflict. There is an oxymoron but not a contradiction. Cohesivity is not the same as uniformity. Friction is necessary for individual expression as well as wider economic and cultural development. The Romans had several different forms of marriage and they managed pretty well. They also had Horace, Ovid and Marcus Aurelius. We have One Direction and Alain de Botton. Just because we have iPhones and caffèlattes it does not mean we are superior.

Who are any of us to insist that heterosexuals who prefer civil partnerships to marriage are wrong?  I would like to suggest that the progeny of the first heterosexual civil partners would write the next Brothers Karamazov, would paint the next Guernica or have as important an impact on philosophy as Wittgenstein, but the debate is a symbolic microcosm of a broader point where there is a hiatus between what society purports to be and what society actually is.  

Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. Sometimes a ten minute rule bill is just a ten minute rule bill.  Issues are rarely black and white. Yes and no is often a very good, but irritating, answer. However, maybe it does show that for all our vaunted talk of diversity we still reject ‘the other’.

Have we as individuals, social networks and society silently created a tyranny of uniformity? I merely pose the question.

More about the author

About the author

Educated at Durham University and UCL, Graham is Disclaimer's editor and a regular contributor. He has written for numerous publications including Tribune, Out Magazine and Vice. He has also contributed to two books of political counterfactuals for Biteback Media, Prime Minister Boris (2011) and Prime Minister Corbyn (2016).

A democratic republican lefty, he struggles daily with the conflict between his ingrained senses of idealism and pragmatism.

Follow Graham on Twitter.

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