The General Election is on May 7th, and as I write this there are posters and slogans around Britain, and media talk about the latest talked-up controversy. It’s a strange time: British elections having been largely two-party fights for the whole of the 20th century, something new is happening in this 21st, with the Scottish Nationalists making all the headlines, UKIP creating a stir, and the old Labour/Conservative certainties of recent decades appearing to blur.
Which way will I vote? I’ve been a very active Conservative in the past, worked for the Conservative Research Department, served for eight years as a local borough councillor (London Borough of Sutton) as a Conservative. I was chairman of a local branch of the Young Conservatives in the days when they constituted a major part of everyday life in the London suburbs, and when their annual conferences were huge events drawing large numbers of young people from across Britain: the year that Margaret Thatcher spoke at a big YC conference in a speech that indicated her willingness to stand as leader of the party was an unforgettable time, and it was exciting to be there and part of history…
When David Cameron announced that his Conservative/Liberal Democrat coalition government would be introducing a law imposing same-sex “marriage” I contacted my local (Conservative) Member of Parliament and went with a couple of other local people to meet him at Westminster to explain to him how cruel, unjust and wrong this planned law would be. He didn’t really seem to grasp the issues at stake, but said that he would support the Government because he felt he should do so, as a junior minister (he was Minister in Charge of Paperclips and Envelopes, or some such office). A nice man, and a courteous and friendly one. And he told me in an email exchange that he is a regular communicant at an Anglican church. Well, that’s all very nice, but irrelevant, because I honestly don’t much care about his private religious beliefs or practices – I am essentially interested in what laws he and others seek to impose on our country.
There are major issues about freedom and justice that are going to become more and more important over the next few years.
The new law on same-sex unions has now been in place for some while, and with it has come a series of unjust bans on free speech. Anyone in public life – a local borough councillor, a magistrate, the chairman of governors of a school – who speaks out saying that marriage can only be between a man and a woman, faces the immediate prospect of being hounded as a bigot, urged to apologise, told that holding such an opinion makes him unfit for public office. Anyone who invites a guest speaker – for example at school event – who expresses the view that marriage can only be between a man and a woman, is also liable to be hounded. A head teacher who has such a speaker in a school, perhaps in a religion class or talking to some after-school Christian group, could face being severely reprimanded or even dismissed. Anyone who defended such a head teacher – for example the chairman of governors – could face being forced to resign. The new law doesn’t state that any of this should happen. But it is happening. And people believe that it has the force of law.
I speak regularly in schools and youth groups, giving the Christian understanding of marriage. I have always understood Britain as a country where the freedom to teach this has been accepted as fundamental to our self-understanding and to our reality as a nation and a community. It is a matter of truth, of goodwill and human wisdom. It is a matter of teaching about the essence on which a family and a community is based – it is a legitimate, honourable and important matter and young people have a right to know about it. I am now worried – and with good reason – that I could be denounced by a pupil, parent, or teacher who disliked such affirmation of male/female marriage, and the head teacher who invited me could get into serious trouble.
Freedom to be an active Christian and to teach the Christian understanding of marriage is part of my birthright – given to me and to everyone in Britain afresh at great sacrifice shortly before I was born, as our country fought a wicked Nazi enemy.
There is no law that bans anyone from talking publicly about marriage as the lifelong union of a man and a woman: until recently it was what every registrar had to state publicly before every wedding ceremony in the land: “Marriage according to the law in England and Wales is the lifelong union of a man and a woman”. It is not illegal to repeat those words in public, or to add further explanatory material, or to say that they are fine and beautiful and truthful words. I had to affirm those words before a Registrar before I could obtain a legal wedding licence: that was the norm in 1980 as it had been norm for many long years before that, and would continue to be the norm until just recently when the Government, without any mandate to do so, imposed something entirely and radically different.
In talking to any candidate in this election I need to know if he or she will give me an absolute and unequivocal statement that my right to say – aloud, privately or publicly, and on a regular basis – the following statement: “Marriage is the lifelong union of a man and a woman, open to new life and the foundation of a family. No law imposed by Parliament or by any other human authority can change this reality. Imposing a new form of marriage, as the union of two or more people of the same sex, is wrong.”
I am not optimistic about the chances of a candidate giving a public affirmation of my right to speak the truth about marriage. That is a grim thought to carry as the events of this election go forward.