On 17 July 2013, the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act 2013 gained royal assent, granting same-sex couples in England and Wales the right to marry. It was a landmark moment for LGBT+ rights.
The journey to passing legislation on same-sex marriage was long and at times contentious. Labour had made important strides in the early 2000s – revoking Section 28 that had prohibited local authorities from “promoting homosexuality” and introducing civil partnerships that gave same-sex couples comparable legal rights to married couples – but Gordon Brown as prime minister opposed same-sex marriage on the grounds that marriage was “intimately bound up with questions of religious freedom”. 14 Brown, G., ’Exclusive: Gordon Brown answers PinkNews readers’ questions on gay issues’, PinkNews, 5 May 2010, retrieved 17 July 2023, https://www.thepinknews.com/2010/05/05/gordon-brown-answers-pinknewscouk-readers-questions/
But even once Brown left office in 2010 new legislation looked far from inevitable. None of the main parties’ election manifestos that year had committed to introducing same-sex marriage. Despite LGBT+ rights groups being united in their support, galvanised by debates happening in the US over Proposition 8, 15 Six months after California had introduced same-sex marriage (without federal benefits), Californian voters approved Proposition 8, adding a clause to the state constitution which once again banned same-sex marriage. British political leaders still needed persuading.
In September 2010 the Liberal Democrats, in coalition government since May, voted to make it official party policy. The following month, Ed Miliband, another proponent, won the Labour leadership election. As campaigners drew together a block of senior Conservative MPs also in support of same-sex marriage, and key people around David Cameron – not least his wife Samantha – encouraged him to make reform a political priority, his perspective shifted. He announced his support at the 2011 Conservative Party conference.
However, the government still had a battle on its hands. When Liberal Democrat equalities minister Lynne Featherstone announced a consultation on how to introduce civil same-sex marriage, fewer than half of Britons supported the policy. 16 Smith, M. ’Record number of Britons support same-sex marriage 10 years after key vote,’ YouGov,3 July 2023, retrieved 17 July 2023, https://yougov.co.uk/topics/society/articles-reports/2023/07/03/record-number-britons-support-same-sex-marriage-10 -10 Some religious groups, socially conservative voters and a tranche of Conservative MPs and peers expressed particularly strong opposition. The debate was often inflammatory. An article by Lord Carey, former Archbishop of Canterbury, included a picture of two brides kissing captioned “Threat... such communions would jeopardise the stability of the country”.
Listening and responding to stakeholders over a long period was key to building consensus
Committed to passing same-sex marriage legislation in a way that would be acceptable to those from religious organisations who opposed the policy, the government held conversations with stakeholders – both supporting and opposing it – at every stage of the policy process. This included designing the questions in the public consultation, deciding how the government would respond and then how it would implement legislation.
To assuage more sceptical religious groups, the government planned to solely introduce civil same-sex marriage ceremonies; religious ceremonies would remain unchanged. However, in the consultation it became clear that some religious organisations – like the Quakers, Liberal Jews and Unitarians – wanted to perform religious same-sex marriage ceremonies.
Seeking to protect the religious freedoms of both sides, the government worked closely with the Church of England to design a ‘quadruple lock’ of protections for the legislation. This allowed religious groups in favour to ‘opt-in’ while protecting those who were not from any legal culpability. While Cameron later described some of the stipulations as ‘excessive’, and despite the fact that many people both outside and within the Church remain frustrated,
Heffer, G. ‘MPs hit out at Church of England for failing to permit same-sex couples to marry in churches’, MailOnline, 24 January 2023, retrieved 14 July 2023, https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-11671663/MPs-hit-Church-England-failing-allow-sex-couples-marry-churches.html
Wyatt, T. ’Synod members express frustration at slow progress on blessings for same-sex couples’, Church Times, 8th July 2023, retrieved 17 July 2023, https://www.churchtimes.co.uk/articles/2023/14-july/news/uk/synod-members-express-frustration-at-slow-progress-on-blessings-for-same-sex-couples participants at a recent Institute for Government policy reunion described these protections as crucial for passing the legislation.
The right policy at the right time can lead public opinion
By the time the first same-sex marriage took place in March 2014, the proportion of Britons supporting the policy had grown to 57%. But what is most telling is that this trend has continued, and accelerated; the figure is now 78%. Support has grown internationally too. Since July 2013, some 18 other countries have introduced legal recognition for same-sex marriage. 20 Pew Research Centre, ’Same-Sex Marriage Around the World’, Pew Research Centre, 2023, retrieved 17 July 2023, https://www.pewresearch.org/religion/fact-sheet/gay-marriage-around-the-world/
Same-sex marriage is now a stable, celebrated and important part of Britain’s law, institutions and culture. This was an opportunity for government to lead and public opinion to follow. It worked because the government was able to build on recent progress, most notably civil partnerships – but also because government chose to initially meet public attitudes and make a compromise which facilitated long-term change. Ten years on, the success of the legislation remains a powerful lesson for policy makers.