Tolerating the intolerant
Britain has accepted that gay marriage should be legal.
That is it. Gay people in Britain can marry, the logical conclusion to half a century of campaigning for homosexual civil rights. The dinosaurs have been faced down. David Cameron and his Tory metrosexuals, bloodied but unbowed, have triumphed over the nasties. The 21st century has arrived. Marriage is a union of two grown-up people who claim to love each other. Matter closed.
So goes the reformist text. I agree with most of it, but I remain tolerant of those who disagree. I do not dance on their graves and regard them as blinkered ruralistas, who can no more stand gay people than they can asylum seekers. The test of tolerance lies in its treatment of intolerance. Much of the disquiet many Britons feel towards the modern US is over its collapse into political polarity. People seem to have stopped reasoning with each other.
The gay marriage debate, which ended on Tuesday night in the Commons, displayed remarkably little intolerance of homosexuality. That was progress, at least. It argued instead over what constituted marriage, over whether any distinction should exist between a heterosexual and homosexual union. If it concealed latent homophobia, it kept it latent.
Dictionaries are careful nowadays to define marriage as between ''two people''. Where confusion arises is over what this implies. A marriage is not a purely private contract, nor is it a legal or a financial partnership, as with civil ceremonies under the 2004 act. Nor is it merely a word. As Humpty Dumpty said in Through the Looking Glass, we can use words as we choose.
The marriage at issue is that of a love that wishes to share its name, the same between any two people irrespective of gender. Many people outside the argument cannot understand the ''big deal'' about gay marriage. Indeed, on the radio this week a gay contributor said civil partnership was adequate for him, and he could not understand the fuss.
When parliament awarded marriage to the Church of England as a state monopoly in 1753, Quakers were excluded from participating. As a result, a Quaker wedding, among the most moving rituals I have attended, required all present to ''witness'' a bond that enjoyed no legal status. For Quakers, witness was enough.
The gay community regards this as not being enough. To those who ask why marriage is such a big deal they say that marriage is just that, a big deal. It is not a social convention but a state licence recognising a change in convention. Unlike civil partnership, it awards its participants the full community status implied by the word. They want their marriages to be regarded by society as no different from heterosexual ones. If the difference is merely definitional, why deny it to them?
The fact that so many conservatives do wish to deny it makes their point. To their opponents, marriage is a bond of husband and wife, underpinning the family, stabilising the upbringing of children and forming the bedrock of society. Anything that distorts this narrative is seen as socially disruptive, as liberals see welfare cuts or selective schools as disruptive. We all have our culprits for society's ills.
I see nothing reprehensible or bigoted in viewing heterosexual marriage as a different institution to one between homosexuals, even now that gay couples can adopt and bring up children. The fact that most of those holding this view appear to be over 50, live in the country, vote Tory and wear tweed is neither here nor there. They are probably joined by many whose presence in Britain they oppose and liberals support, such as recent migrants.
But the truth is that marriage has never been still. Ferdinand Mount's history of the institution, The Subversive Family, describes the feuding of religious and state authorities over the centuries as they struggled to keep step with social change.
''The idea that marriage is an independent institution with a life of its own,'' Mount writes, ''is extremely distasteful to the state, as it is to the church, neither of which lightly tolerates any rival for power over human hearts.'' While the Catholic Church reserved matrimony for God, and virgins as ''brides of Christ'', Martin Luther called it ''a worldly thing that belongs in the realm of government''.
In the Middle Ages, ''holy wedlock'' was a voluntary affair, usually expensive. Chaucer's Wife of Bath was happy to ''wed'' her five husbands in the church porch. At Little Dunmow in Essex, south-east England, the entrepreneurial monks offered a side of pork to any couple who married in church and have ''not wisht themselves unmarried again'' for a year and a day. It gave us the phrase ''bring home the bacon''.
The late 20th century detached sexual activity from marriage, procreation and the family. Sooner or later it was bound to liberate sex from gender. As Mount points out, this liberation was hardly a modern invention. Sex had no problem with society. It was society that had a problem with sex, as legislators and churchmen craved the ability to bring it under their control. It is perhaps odd that gay people should want to associate themselves with so overt a symbol of that control.
Nonetheless they do, and a popular majority seems to agree with them. Roughly 60 per cent of those polled, in the US as well as in Britain, favour gay marriage. On Tuesday, Parliament held a free vote and acknowledged the majority view.
The public acceptance of homosexuality has been one of the greatest social changes of the past half-century. It is scarcely to be believed that there are still men alive who went to prison for practising it. The real breakthrough may come only when gay people cease to demand the exceptionalism of a ''victimised'' group, when they can shrug off the intolerance of a few, having won the acceptance of the many.
Changes in social mores are always clamouring at the gate. They divide not just progressives from conservatives but metropolis from province, town from country and one idea of social cohesion from another.
Do we in England now extend our tolerance to bigamy and the often differing marriage concepts of Muslim and other faiths? Do we grapple with the taboos that afflict the treatment of animals, genetic engineering, food science, the use of narcotics, suicide and euthanasia? Can we tolerate intolerance and yet face it down? We are miles from doing so.