Dear Mr Burrowes,
Since your election in 2001 I have been impressed with the work that you have done both for your Enfield Southgate constituency, of which I am a member, and in parliament. In particular your work in relation to Chalk Farm hospital and Mr Gary Mckinnon are worthy of mention and praise. I have personally contacted you a number of times in relation to political causes I care about and, while we often disagree, you have never been anything less than courteous and informative.
It is therefore with disappointment that I read your 17th December 2012 article in Conservative Home entitled Let's take the gay marriage debate out of the party political arena.
I fully agree that the debate about the introduction of gay marriage should not be one that is drawn along party political lines. Like any decision based on personal MP ethics this should be a free vote – which is now the case as you indicated in your essay.
I must disagree however about your statement that "Unlike the Republicans, thankfully, we Conservatives do not do culture wars and should not start now." The Conservative Party has a long history of starting 'culture wars' with perhaps the most famous being the 'Back to Basics' campaign of the John Major era. Of course, the Conservative Party is far from the only political group to do this but to claim that this is something that conservatives do not engage in is rather naive.
I appreciate your concern that MPs have no yet had an opportunity to vote on any government proposals in this area. This is because they are currently under discussion. Now is the ideal time for those who have strong views on this measure, such as you and I, to state them loudly and clearly before a vote is put before parliament.
While none of the major parties have put gay marriage as a plank in their manifestos it is far from unusual for legislation to brought before parliament that is not planned out in full before the election. After all, part of the skill of governance is the ability to respond to changes in circumstance.
There is now a strong support for gay marriage in the UK backed by the majority of citizens from all walks of life. This support continues to grow and now is the ideal time to have this debate and implement appropriate legislation. The fact that less than 10% of currently sitting MPs signed the open letter in today’s Daily Telegraph is surely indicative of national feeling.
I am saddened that you speak of gay rights campaigner Peter Tatchell as having “made some noise on the steps of CCHQ”. While I am not a fan of Mr Tatchell myself I respect the tireless work he has done on behalf of the LGBTQ community and I think your statement does him a disservice
Likewise your statement that Ben Summerskill, CEO of Stonewall, informed you in 2010 that gay marriage did not feature on one of their surveys appears to be deliberately misleading. Stonewall now strongly supports Mr Cameron’s proposals for gay marriage and has a web-page dedicated to that effect at : www.stonewall.org.uk/marriage.
I do agree that recent petition run by the Government's Equalities Office was a waste of time. Currently such online petitions are far too easy to ‘spoof’ – hopefully something that will be avoided in future via the introduction of the National Online ID Assurance Programme in 2013. In the meantime I believe the way to gather such information is via national surveys. For example the June 2012 YouGov survey carried out by Stonewall entitled "Living together: British attitudes to lesbian, gay and bisexual people in 2012" showed 71% in favour of gay marriage (see http://www.stonewall.org.uk/documents/living_together_2012.pdf).
I am glad you bring up the important differentiation between churches, of whatever religion and denomination, being allowed to perform same-sex marriages and being forced to do so. I am strongly in favour of such organisations being given free choice of conscience in these matters. However, that is not relevant in the discussion of the state definition of marriage. The recent statement by Culture Secretary Maria Miller that the Church of England and the Church in Wales will specifically be exempt from any forthcoming laws about gay marriage shows that the present government intends to codify this exemption with respect to those specific institutions.
Given the above I think it is rash to start using phrases like “threat to religious freedom”. The proposed changes are not a threat to any manner of worship and will not affect the conduct of any church in the UK unless they wish to opt-in to performing gay marriages. It is a fallacy to propose that giving someone the right to do something that you disagree with is a reduction in your freedom. Allowing interracial couples to marry was not a reduction in the freedom of miscegenationists.
I value your statements about the number of times “marriage” appears in current British laws. This gives us an idea of the extent that those soon to be able to marry will be bound by the law and convention of this country. The introduction of Civil Partnerships in 2004 was surely a larger change to British Common Law since, as you state, the laws regarding marriage in this country date from at least the 13th century so many precedents are well established. The simple matter of extending the nature of those allowed to marry will not require the re-examination of those statues.
I strongly agree with you in the appalling case of Mr Adrian Smith of Trafford. No public organisation should consider themselves able to negatively affect the employment of one of their workers for personal statements made outside of working hours. As long as Mr Smith treated all the clients of Trafford Housing Trust with equal respect he should have been in no way impacted by his statements.
However, I could not disagree more over your statements regarding education. The notion that teachers have a “freedom of conscience” during their working periods is also a fallacy. While speaking on behalf of the state they are already constrained by a number of regulations as to what is appropriate. For example, no openly racist teachers would be allowed to continue to teach in an British schools. However, I believe that as long as they conform to agreed regulations inside school anything they say out of hours is open to full common law free speech practices. Most local authority guidelines for teachers already cover how to deal with questions of homosexuality. These would merely need to be expanded to indicate that gay marriage is normal – removing the need to the teacher to make a personal statement about their opinion on the matter one way or another.
There may be some minor confusion due to the difference between the recognition of such weddings by the state versus that from religion but I believe that, as with everything to do with personal religion, this is something that should be discussed in private between parents and their children. The state has absolutely no business making any statements regarding religion in schools outside of comparative religion classes.
I join with you in hoping that hate-filled voices on both sides of the argument are relegated to the sidelines and that calmer voices prevail in the discussion.
I commend your personal “commitment to the equal value of people whatever their sexuality” but I strongly disagree with your view that marriage is a “distinctive institution for a man and woman”. This is a view inspired by a particular religious world-view and, with respect, such considerations should not be the basis for ethical decisions made by the state.
Finally, I agree that there are many important political discussions currently underway. Given the paucity of opposing opinion to Mr Cameron’s proposals, both within parliament and within the British population in general, I hope this legislation can be quickly passed so that politicians can return to the vital discussions of state.