Of all the parties across the political spectrum, the Conservative Party has always been seen as the one most likely to champion marriage and the family. Its very name points to tradition, the desire to conserve the best aspects of our civilisation and culture against whatever new “ism” threatens our way of life.
That seems no longer to be the case. The most recent evidence for this is the announcement by Theresa May that heterosexual couples who do not wish to marry can obtain all the fiscal benefits and protections of marriage if they enter into civil partnerships.
The Prime Minister made this announcement at the Conservative Party conference, with the hint that it was another clever remedy for the “nasty party” brand she is so keen to shake off.
Essentially, it will mean that with the simple signing of a legal document, a cohabiting heterosexual couple may obtain the same inheritance, property and pension rights that are reserved for married couples and same-sex couples in civil partnerships.
Supporters of marriage were alarmed. Sharon James from the Coalition for Marriage said in a statement: “The gold standard of commitment is marriage; with the declarations made in the presence of witnesses and the expectation of lifelong faithfulness. Civil partnerships just don’t offer that and will weaken marriage by creating a two-tier system, offering a sort of marriage-lite option.”
The campaign for heterosexual partnerships was fought in the courts by Rebecca Steinfeld and Charles Keidan, a couple who are ideologically and explicitly opposed to marriage because they believe it is an anti-feminist and patriarchal institution which has “treated women as property for centuries”. Now it looks like Ms Steinfeld and Mr Keidan will get their wish.
In her announcement, May stressed her progressive credentials, reminding us that as Home Secretary she had been “proud to sponsor the legislation that created equal marriage”.
That legislation, which was never included in the Tory party manifesto, and was opposed by the majority of Conservative MPs, also alienated many party members. It was partly to win back the Tory grassroots that David Cameron had to offer the EU referendum, the consequences of which May is wrestling with today.
Yet it must have been a price worth paying because the redefinition of marriage continues unabated. In the latest case, those seeking to justify civil partnerships “equality” point to the 3.3 million unmarried couples in England and Wales who have no legal partnership rights and present them as victims of a cruel injustice. The obvious solution – that the government should promote marriage more – is rarely put forward.
Government policy also has a strange anomaly. There is another category of people who could benefit from civil partnerships: blood relatives (say, two sisters living together) who want the right to inherit a joint tenancy, and the right to pass on a jointly owned home to each other free of inheritance tax. At present they are excluded from such rights: an inequality which the Tories seem content to overlook.
Given the current political climate, many will see the push for civil partnership equality as yet another attempt to weaken marriage by either redefining it, stripping it legally of its essential characteristics or denying it the support of the state. The new reform places marriage on a par with a range of lifestyles adults dream up for themselves.
The civil partnerships legislation is the responsibility of Penny Mordaunt, the Minister for Women and Equalities and one of the most outspoken social liberals in the Cabinet: in June she urged Stormont to legalise abortion in Northern Ireland, or else “We [Westminster] will”.
Another significant reform to marriage could be in the works. Mordaunt is also in charge of the Government’s reforms of the Gender Recognition Act 2004.
Launching the consultation in July, May has promised to sweep away “bureaucratic and invasive” obstacles faced by people who want to change their sex.
Depending on the results of a consultation, a new law could allow such changes by self-declaration. At the moment you can object to your spouse changing sex. This objection does not stop the process, but adds an extra bureaucratic complication. The consultation suggests that the Government is considering overturning this, but by doing so it would mean that the state is claiming the power to redefine a heterosexual marriage as a same-sex marriage without the consent of at least one of the parties.
At the same time, the Ministry of Justice is consulting on new legislation to allow no-fault divorces – a further weakening of the marriage bond.
One of this Government’s lasting legacies may be to complete the process of turning marriage into a legally negotiable or transient relationship. At the next general election, socially conservative voters might be prompted to ask this simple question of Conservative party candidates: “What is the point of you?”
This article first appeared in the October 12 2018 issue of the Catholic Herald. To read the magazine in full, from anywhere in the world, go here