Jackie Kemp: Why do legal loving relationships need the seal of a single word?
GAY marriage is a subject which arouses strong emotions. Many support it in the name of equality and human rights – including, apparently, virtually the entire Scottish Cabinet. Some oppose it in the name of religion. Unpleasant names are hurled across the gulf. Surely, however, this is an issue which merits dispassionate consideration.
I have gay friends and sincerely support gay rights but I find I am opposed to legalising gay marriage. This is not in the name of God but of semantics. I don’t understand the point of altering the legal definition of a word with such a long cultural history.
Equal rights are important. Civil partnerships deal with the iniquitous situation that gay couples until recently had no inheritance or property rights and could not be recognised as each others’ next of kin. But I don’t understand why being able to have these unions legally filed under “marriage” is such a big deal. It is the couple who bring the love and romance to the celebration of such a union, not the piece of paper they get at the registry office.
Does being able to celebrate a legal union which carries the same rights but does not use the actual word “marriage” constitute serious discrimination? The comedian Susan Calman gave an interview recently in which she described what sounded like a grand and joyful celebration of her legal union with her partner. Her main complaint seemed to be that she could not have the Pam Ayres poem “I will marry you” read out at the ceremony, although presumably she was able to have it read at the private party afterwards.
Does this constitute meaningful oppression? There are lots of places in the world where gay people suffer horrendous attacks on their human rights. Should we not concentrate our resources on that?
What is marriage? Supporters of gay marriage argue that the institution is not the property of the religious right. This is true. Marriage perhaps has its origins in the brutal reality that children with two parents were simply more likely to survive, as is the case for many animals.
In terms of human history, some couples celebrated their unions by jumping over logs, others tied their hands together with ribbons or smashed plates. Many produced offspring; some didn’t. Some chose their own partners; others had them chosen for them. Some marriages lasted; some did not. Some were happy; many were not.
In some cultures polygamy is fairly common and there have been some, though fewer, places where marriage was polyandrous. Rudyard Kipling’s novel Kim features a Nepalese woman with three hard-working husbands, helping the family to survive in a hostile environment. As societies became richer, legal marriage came into being, codified in layers of statutes like sedimentary rock, mainly to establish property and inheritance rights. Legal marriage is not a romantic institution.
Scotland was a poorer country than its southern neighbour and had fewer rules: hence well-heeled English teenagers fled over the border to Gretna where they could declare themselves married in front of blacksmiths (in those days a blacksmith was considered a substantial citizen, in the same way a doctor is today, and can sign a passport form). Under Scots law, a simple declaration before witnesses was enough to constitute legal marriage.
This is no longer the case – Scotland abolished all forms of “irregular marriage” in 2006, the last one being marriage by “habit and repute”.
But whatever the bureaucratic detail, it is clear that in Scotland for centuries legal marriage has been the voluntary union of one man and one woman. Why change it? Does this have anything to do with actual rights? Does any group have the right to demand that a word be redefined?
What is the implication of changing the legal definition of marriage? Will there be legal ramifications such as altering references to husbands and wives in previous law? Is this a good use of scarce resources? Lawyers fees being what they are this could be a costly commitment. Is it worth it? Philosophically speaking, will this change subtly alter the way that the concept of legal marriage is understood? Will the change in effect create a new and more romantic notion of marriage which seems to cast it as a state certification of the love between two people?
If it is decided that that is what 21st- century Scotland wants, and if there has to be one name for all of the legally recognised relationships between couples regardless of sexual orientation, perhaps it would make more sense to go with a new word which recognises that this is indeed a break with the past. Perhaps we could alter legal marriage in Scotland for everyone to, for instance, “mariage” with one r.
But any far-reaching and historic change like this needs to be considered coolly and carefully, and with the rights of minorities of all kinds in mind, not through the hot mist of intemperate passion, which is what we have seen from both pro- and anti-lobbies on this subject.
Is our one-chamber parliament able to provide this kind of intellectual rigour? The writer Allan Massie recently proposed an unpaid second chamber of what might once have been called the great and the good to provide more robust and independent scrutiny than the party machine seems to be able to allow.
I am not comparing gay marriage to eugenics except that in the early part of the 20th century it was a fashionable notion accepted by most people as a self-evident good. The only Protestant country not to introduce a eugenics bill was the UK, thanks to the radical nonconformist peer Josiah Wedgwood who filibustered the bill in the Lords. There is more to democracy than majority rule.
• The Selected Journalism Of Arnold Kemp, Confusion To Our Enemies (NWP), edited by Jackie Kemp, is published on 10 September
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