Question Time, Oldham and (not) gay marriage
I was on TV's Question Time last night. It had actually been fixed up ages ago, and wasn't simply a a response to my new-found, and no doubt short-lived, celebrity as the TV presenter who is too ugly for TV/doesnt brush her hair etc etc . (This did, of course, rather give an added edge to the pre show make-up session... but luckily the extremely nice make-up lady was completely on message with the idea that I really COULDN'T be made to look as if I had suddenly changed my mind, complete with mascara and lippy.)
I have done Question Time once before, and -- as I think I said then -- it is about the closest thing to doing an exam that I now know. First you have to question spot, then revise like hell. You also need to look at last year's paper (ie last week's programme) as the same questions aren't very likely to come up twice in a row (though as every canny examinee knows, you can never be quite sure of that).
The difference is that the question spotting goes on right up to the very last minute. A controversial speech by some government minister, sounding off about (say) the state of the nation's teeth, can at a stroke make entirely wasted all that work you put into revising police pay and conditions.
But, of course, even without those little surprises, you are bound revise more than comes up. Yesterday I woke up to the Today programme featuring Obama "coming out" for gay marriage. And took a punt that someone would be asking about that.
They didn't. But in this case the wasted revision had its own rewards. After a quick tutorial with my ex-parliamentarian neighbour and legal type (thank you David), and an hour or so on-line, I found that it raised even more intriguing questions than I thought.
The truth is that -- while I have long been quite sure that there should be same-sex marriages if people want them -- I have never quite understood what the practical differences are between a marriage and a civil partnership.
It seems that there really aren't any, except the name (well...the civil partner of a man who is knighted doesn't get a title, whereas a wife would be called 'Lady"; hardly great shakes). Leaving religious debates aside (and, OK, they will be important for some), the issue seems to come down to the sheer fact of nominal difference: that is to say, simply in the name, our current arrangements parade same-sex partnerships as lesser forms of marriage.
So far, so good. But the muddle doesn't stop there. Another issue is that civil partnerships are not available to heterosexual couples even if they want them. Among those of us brought up to believe marriage had to be understood as one of the most exploitative weapons of patriarchy, some might actually prefer something not tainted by the hateful name. (In fact, some of us remain slightly bemused by the current enthusiasm for marriage -- which was an institution only a few decades ago we thought we wanted to destroy.) But we cant have one.
By contrast, as David explained, civil partnership (pacte civile) is currently available to all combinations in France -- though currently marriage only to heterosexuals.
But dig a little deeper, and it gets even murkier -- complicated by the accretion of conflicting custom and legislation back to the 18th century. I remember when I got married myself, we discovered that all those standard formulae about 'till death us do part' are nothing to do with the law itself, but merely customary. In order to be legally married all you have to say is "I do" (vel sim) in public in front of witnesses. In our case, as almost everyone on the room from the groom to the bride's mother was at least once divorced, we wanted "till death us do part" removed from the ceremony . . . a feat we achieved, after considerable effort.
But David pointed me to the most curious thing yet. Have you ever wondered why you haven't been invited to a night-time wedding? Well that's because until the passing of a bill that received royal assent on 1 May 2012, since the early 19th century marriages have only been allowed to take place between the hours of 8.00 am and 6.00 pm. (Goodness knows why... so you could see you were marrying the right guy?)
My conclusion? First, get some bright civil servant to go through all this, root out the anachronisms and get the rules tidied up and simplified. Second, give everyone gay or straight a civil partnership, and make that the gold-standard... and leave "marriage" as the optional extra, the religious ceremony, on whatever terms the religions concerned manage to hammer out (and no business of the state at all).
Anyway you were spared all that last night...!
I should say though we were entertained beautifully at a great school in Oldham -- The Radclyffe School -- in a brand new building (pictured at the top), and with a really impressive head. I managed to meet a few of the pupils. Thanks for being so nice all of you