Wednesday, 6 February 2013


Last word on the debate surrounding the equal marriage bill. Conservative MP Gerald Howarth summed up social conservatives' objections to gay marriage when he warned, obscurely, of 'huge potential consequences.'

But what are these unspecified 'consequences'? The opponents of equal marriage talked for hours yesterday, but I haven't heard, reported in any of the news media, a single, plausible, scenario in which anybody, gay, straight, married or unmarried would be significantly damaged by this measure. How, for example, would letting gay people get married possibly hurt straight people who wanted to get married?

It's not as if gay people would increase pressure on the marriage supply until there weren't enough weddings to go around. This is not a zero sum game. Gay marriage won't rob anyone of their slice of the pie. It just makes the pie bigger, at no appreciable cost to anybody.  And if some religious bodies don't want to bless the big pie, they don't have to. What's not to like?

Opponents of the bill are in danger of looking as if they're motivated by prejudice and spite.

Which is probably why, in the absence of a convincing argument, Howarth fell back on the line that we shouldn't do this because there are far more important things to worry about ('the nation faces much more serious challenges which the government needs to address').

This all-purpose argument against anything you don't particularly want to happen at least has a germ of truth. There are always other vital issues out there competing for legislators' time and attention and you can't hope to change everything at once. In the real world, you need to prioritise and compromise. Up to a (very limited) point, Gerald Howarth could agree with the pro-equal marriage Nelson Jones, writing in The New Statesman:
But at a time when poverty is rising, the economy - to put it politely - becalmed and the NHS, the education system and the police in organisational chaos, you have to wonder precisely why for so many people same sex marriage has become such a big deal.
But I do tend to suspect that, when social conservatives insist that we can't possibly do x, because there are far more important things to worry about, their real motives have more to do with foot-dragging than prioritisation.

Here's an example of social conservative priorities, from outside the Westminster bubble. Posh sandwich purveyor Pret a Manger has been involved in a couple of controversies recently. Pret's management makes its low-paid employees jump, grinning inanely, through demeaning hoops for the privilege of a sub-living wage. The Wikipedia article gives a short summary of the company's intrusive management style:
Pret a Manger has been cited as being particularly vigorous in extracting affective labor from its employees. Affective labor (or emotional labor) is work which involves manipulating a person's emotional state. Pret a Manger demands go beyond traditional requirements for fast-food workers (such as courtesy, efficiency, and reliability) to such tasks as having "presence", demonstrating a quirky sense of fun, and exhibiting behavior consistent with being inwardly happy with oneself. Pret A Manger uses mystery shoppers to ensure that employees deploy markers of a positive emotional state.
There's a more in-depth look at life within the sandwich Stasi's quirky gulag of fun here. It would be hard to argue with Nick Cohen's assertion that 'whenever we go to work we leave a democracy and enter a dictatorship' in Pret's case.

You could say that Pret has issues. Treating its employees like the citizens of a police state run by clowns is issue one. A fairly big issue, in my opinion.

Issue two is comparatively tiny, (again, in my opinion - others are available). Pret got a few complaints about the branding of some of its crisp packets. The crisps in question were spicy tomato flavour, so the team of creatives Pret used decided to name this particular crisp brand the "Virgin Mary", after the non-alcoholic version of  the tomato-based Bloody Mary cocktail. This branding decision might, possibly, strike you as a tiny bit disrespectful if you were an incredibly devout, painfully thin-skinned Christian, unfamiliar with the terminology of non-alcoholic cocktails.

If you were of a campaigning frame of mind, which issue would you prioritise, complain about and try to get changed? A moment's possible offence caused to a very few people might be an issue, but I'd say, in the words of Gerald Howarth, that the company 'faces much more serious challenges' that it needs to address. People spend a good portion of their lives at work and their working conditions, (in particular feelings of autonomy, of being treated with a reasonable level of respect and of being in control of some aspect of their role) contribute to their general well being. Conversely, the absence of these things (not to mention a living wage) contributes to the unrelenting misery of the daily grind in an oppressive workplace.

No prize for guessing which issue was prioritised by campaigning social conservatives and God-heads with a social conscience (clue - it wasn't the big one). The unending day to day petty humiliations in the working lives of hard-working, low-paid employees, trumped by a bit of arguably tasteless branding on a crisp packet? When social conservatives accuse liberals of wasting time on unimportant issues to the detriment of 'much more serious challenges' I think there's a more than a bit of projection going on.

By the way, well done to David Cameron and George Osborne for sticking to their guns on equal marriage. I just had to write that down, because I'll probably never again be in the novel position of wholeheartedly agreeing with anything important those two do or say. 'Hurry while stocks last,' as they say (which is more than anyone can reasonably say about marriage).