The pendulum swings backwards and forwards — or should I say from left to right — and at the moment it seems to be swinging rather fast.
The subject is ‘The Family’, and whenever it is raised in the public prints, it now seems to include references to homosexual relationships. This is a measure of our success in getting the topic on to the agenda; the “pretend family unit” is now an inevitable part of the family equation.
This does not suit everyone, of course. William Hague is one such. According to The Daily Telegraph, Mr Hague “does not believe that the law should give cohabiting couples the same rights as those who are married”.
According to The Telegraph, Mr Hague is “trying to put the traditional family at the centre of Conservative values”. But the paper made clear that our Willy has not reneged on his promise of tolerance for those who will not — or cannot — live in a “traditional” family unit. He was anxious to make clear that he “was not abandoning earlier comments about the importance of tolerance towards other ways of life such as couples living together and homosexuality”. Apparently Willy believes that “tolerance is not contradicted by a desire to play up the importance of the traditional family”.
The Times agreed. In an editorial about Mr Hague’s pronouncements, the paper said that the old Tories lost power because they were over-fond of bigoted moral crusades. The paper says that Mr Hague is attempting to rid his party of “its least attractive traits: an attachment to the priggish and sometimes prejudiced morality of the fifties and before”.
“People born after the War,” it says, “and particularly those brought up during and after the Sixties, share a certain set of attitudes about women, homosexuality and marriage. Some of their parents now do too, as a result of seeing their children live their lives according to these post-Sixties values. Liberally-inclined voters will become an ever-increasing element of the electorate. Any party that tried to shut its eyes to this demographic trend would be condemning itself to electoral oblivion.”
I do hope that’s a message Tony Blair has taken on board. He seems afraid to keep the promises he made to the gay community before the election. But listen, Mr Blair, if even The Times says it’s OK to deliver justice to homosexuals then there’s nothing to worry about. The voters put you there to make things better. So stop equivocating and give us equality.
The Archbishop of Canterbury, of course, is not at all pleased with all this talk of equality. He believes the politicians are handling this whole family values business appallingly. He called on Tony Blair to “strengthen the family” — which, in his terms means heaping disadvantage on those who aren’t living by the supposed “Christian ideal” of man and wife. The Archbishop was complaining to the Prime Minister that, by living openly together, Robin Cook and his mistress were not setting a good example. It was, he said, undermining the church’s efforts to put marriage back at the heart of society.
But then Dr Carey himself was in turn chastised — by Janet Daley in The Daily Telegraph. Why has he left his protestations so late, she wants to know. “Where have they been, these august spiritual authorities, for the last decade? Until now it has been left to a handful of newspaper pundits, bravely non-conforming academics and unfashionable politicians” to make the case that marriage was superior to the other “rich diversity of relationships and ‘family types’ on offer in the modern supermarket of social life”.
Janet Daley thinks it’s a good thing that the Church has abandoned the idea that cohabiting couples are on an equal moral footing with married ones (as expressed in its report Something to Celebrate, which asserted two years ago that “living in sin is no sin”). Daley says: “Suddenly politicians and churchmen are jamming up behind one another to speak fearlessly in favour of marriage. It has to be a good sign.”
A good sign for whom? For the moral authoritarians, perhaps. Prelates can preach until they fall off their pulpits and politicians can talk till they’re blue in the face, but ultimately, nobody takes any notice of them. People will still annoyingly have minds of their own, they will continue to make their own choices about how they live.
Minette Marrin, a columnist in The Sunday Telegraph was willing to admit it as much. Her piece was headed “Why politicians can’t help the family”.
She said: “The interesting question is what any politician actually intends to do about supporting the family. Blair has always made eloquent noises about it, but has actually proved to be anti-family. He may have campaigned against single mothers, but if his purpose is truly to defend the traditional family it is absurd to include under its umbrella, unmarried couples, never-married single parents and gay lovers, as Blair has done (although without much conviction).”
Unfortunately, Ms Marrin’s personal pendulum is stuck permanently on the Right. She is susceptible to propaganda from reactionary “pro-family” pressure groups, which is why she is able to say quite categorically: “We ought to be allowed to say what is obviously true, that these less conventional households are much less likely to offer a child a good upbringing than a traditional household run by a heterosexual couple. To put it more strongly, these unconventional households are now known to be generally much riskier for children. Therefore, they ought not to get the same support —legally, fiscally, socially — as conventional families, because they do not offer the same public benefits —sometimes quite the reverse.”
But on what evidence does she base her certainty that unconventional families are harmful to children? Presumably her “facts” come from the same source as the statistic she quoted in October, that gay men have an average life expectancy of 30 years less than heterosexual men. Ms Marrin should be careful. Anne Atkins quoted the same nonsense in The Sun and got blasted by the Press Complaints Commission for her trouble. So come on, Minette, where’s the proof for your assertions?
Despite all this right-wing reaction and huffing and puffing from religious control freaks, there are signs that the pressure for more equitable treatment for the unmarried is building. The Guardian reported that the Equal Opportunities Commission is calling for “a radical overhaul of sex discrimination law, with stronger powers to force employers to eliminate sex bias”. If the proposals from the EOC were to be accepted, they would outlaw discrimination against homosexuals for the first time. Let’s hope Mr Blunkett (who will ultimately consider the proposals) is brave about it.
Then there’s the Law Commission which, according to The Sunday Times, has undertaken a three-year study into the property rights of unmarried couples. Writing about the study, Ferdinand Mount says that one of its suggestions is that cohabiting couples should be allowed to “register” their union. He says: “When the registered twosome broke up, they would be allowed to seek court approval for a fair distribution of assets.”
But Mr Mount is not impressed with this idea. He says: “Are we not in danger of going round in circles here? The uncommitted commitment sounds like a marriage that dare not speak its name, a kind of ‘marriage lite’.”
He may have a point for heterosexuals. If they’re going to sign up as a legally binding partnership, why not just do it at the registry office, thereby solving all the problems? Homosexual couples on the other hand do not have that option. There’s no civil or religious equivalent for us.
The Law Commission, however, is anxious for it to be known that it has not forgotten the gay dimension to all this. A registered partnership might solve a lot of problems for us — pensions (see Keith Wood’s article on pages 32-34) and property rights would cease be the minefield of injustice that they are at present.
While we wait for the verdict on those Law Commission proposals (and it could be years before anything happens — if ever) we have to continue fighting issues individually, chipping away at the seemingly endless unfairness inherent in our system.
One such individual battle was recently won by 70-year-old William Webber of Dumfries. According to a report in The Observer, Mr Webber’s long-time gay partner (who actually owned the house where they lived) needed to move into a nursing home, and the council were threatening to use the value of the house to pay the fees. This would have left Mr Webber homeless. If the couple had been heterosexual and married, there would have been no such threat.
Now, after a year-long investigation, Dumfries and Galloway Council agreed that gays in long-term relationships will get near-parity with mixed-sex couples. “Gays will be treated the same if they can provide ‘evidence of the same-sex relationship or companionship for a period of 10 years’. It will look at shorter relationships case by case.”
The Observer says that the council’s decision “could set the tone for other authorities”. Mr Webber, whose brave stand may benefit thousands of couples in the future, hopes that the 10-year rule “will gradually be chipped away”.
Fleet Street loves to have a whipping boy and at present it is Peter Mandelson. It is difficult to imagine a politician more unpopular with journalists. They love to humiliate him.
What puzzles me is that, with this level of unpopularity, the journos have managed to leave Mandy’s sexuality out of it for so long. But perhaps that moratorium is about to end.
Punch magazine (supposedly satirical, but difficult to work out what it is in reality) recently carried a ten-page examination of all aspects of Peter Mandelson. In the interests of completeness, it couldn’t leave out references to his sexual orientation, and it commissioned Peter Tatchell to write about it.
Mr Tatchell reminds readers that Mandy has been subjected to more outings than a school bus. The Daily Telegraph, The Independent on Sunday, The News of the World and Brian Gould in his book Goodbye to All That, have all revealed Peter Mandelson’s non-secret.
Peter Tatchell adds his own fuel to the fire by telling how “Mandelson had a rendezvous with a friend of mine, a member of the gay rights group OutRage! during a trip to Moscow a few years back”. He says it was not a “honey-trap” outing plot, but a serious attraction between the two men.
Anyway, such is the contempt in which Mandelson is held that it is only a matter of time before the ruthless tabloid hacks go for his sexuality in a big way. I do hope he doesn’t have any skeletons in his closet.
The niggling has started, with Richard Littlejohn in The Daily Mail unkindly suggesting that Mandy looked less like a miner and more like a member of the Village People on a recent visit to a coal mine.
Mandy’s asking for it, of course, by not being more open. And, according to Peter Tatchell, he’ll deserve it, because he is “personally responsible for de-gaying Labour Party policy” by ditching key commitments “including the promise to outlaw discrimination against gays in housing and employment”.