Britain was brave to abolish the slave trade; we must be so with gay marriage

We have more to be proud of than we sometimes give ourselves credit for in this country. We not only led the world in the development of parliamentarianism, free trade and industry but also in some of the great humanitarian leaps of history such as abolishing the slave trade and, ultimately, slavery itself.

It is difficult today to overstate the magnitude of this accomplishment. In the eighteenth century, slavery was illegal in Britain itself but not in the Empire – indeed it was widely regarded as the only thing sustaining it. Without the slaves to work on sugar plantations, it was said, the economics of the enterprise would collapse.

The trade was, naturally, supported by the very powerful plantation owners but also merchants, dock owners and even – astoundingly – members of the Church of England. In the days of pocket boroughs and patronage, these men controlled many members of the House of Commons – where one of the vilest evils in human history was to be defended for economic and religious reasons.

But it was also defended for reasons which may sound a little more familiar. The slave trade was actually abolished in the British Empire in 1807 – right in the middle of a long, protracted and bloody war with France that had been raging since 1793 and, save for a 14 month peace, would continue until 1814.

Thank heavens men like Charles James Fox and William Wilberforce did not listen to those arguing the issue of slavery was not worth discussing because of the concentration needed for the war effort; that they ignored protestations it would alienate sympathetic voters and patrons; that they shunned the argument it would destroy a fragile wartime economy while allowing France to step in to the trade we had abandoned.

Yet the very same arguments are being used against even discussing the rights and wrongs of gay marriage. Already I have heard the familiar line that ‘this is not the right time’ for the Bill because of ‘instability in the Middle East’, ‘the collapse of the eurozone’ and ‘won’t somebody PLEASE think about the economy?’ – as though politicians are incapable of debating more than a handful of issues at once.

The admittedly more rational reasoning of the danger in splitting the party and alienating voters is also employed though I do not think this sufficient to sink the issue. While I can hardly fault members who oppose the legislation for wishing to protect their party and its electoral fortunes, this should not factor into the thinking of those who support gay marriage because of its inherent virtues. Indeed, if this were to be the case, it would serve as an indictment of modern politics that party is placed before country and what is right – something far too many voters already believe.

It is an issue that has echoes of the great debate over free trade in the 1840s. Sir Robert Peel, then leader of the Conservatives, became convinced of the inherent goodness of removing trade tariffs for the benefit of the country and its people, thereby splitting his party in two and making it virtually unelectable for the rest of the century.

Yet free trade was to reap enormous benefits over the next century, not least for the very poorest British people, who could now buy cheap bread made from imported grain. Indeed, so popular was free trade to the working man, the Conservatives who didn’t join the Liberals were forced to, if not accept it, then at least keep quiet on the subject until the collapse of international trade in the First World War. It was, in effect, a Thatcheresque game-changer.

I am under no illusions that gay marriage will be any such thing, of course. Indeed, I agree with JP Floru that the issue will likely be forgotten the day after the Bill becomes law. But the point is that, like the slave trade and free trade before it, gay marriage is an issue of human dignity and political principle that must cast other concerns aside.

It is, specifically, an issue of equality before the law. Civil marriage has existed in this country since 1836 and yet, despite the legalisation of homosexual activity in 1968, homosexuals have been excluded from this institution of state. This is a situation no believer in legal equality – a Conservative as much as a Liberal – can tolerate.

The legislation makes no inroads on John Stuart Mill’s harm principle. Homosexuals having the right to wed in a civil marriage does nothing to harm others, much as it may offend some, yet its continued prohibition perpetuates the discrimination of one group of people by the state – contrary to the principle of equality before the law (as is ‘positive discrimination’ but that’s an issue for another post).

And the argument that the state has no right to change the definition of marriage – that this belongs exclusively to religion – is also groundless, as the aforementioned 1836 Act established civil marriages as a purely state ceremony. By the same principle, despite what many continue to believe, the legislation currently before Parliament does not concern churches and religious marriage at all.

In short, this debate has perhaps done more to highlight the continuing differences between the Conservative party’s Whig and Tory traditions than any in modern times. Somewhat ironically, this relationship has in many ways functioned like a marriage over the last two centuries and, like any marriage, seemingly inconsolable rows are to be expected.

They have caused separation, if not outright divorce, in the past, for sure, but I genuinely believe gay marriage will not force such an outcome. That said, even if it were to do so, should Cameron hold firm like Fox, Wilberforce and Peel before him, he can console himself with having the hand of history very firmly on his shoulder.