Sunday, December 11, 2005

Politics, Language and Civil Partnerships

Ken writes:

Both Question Time and This Week devoted airtime to discussing the advent of civil partnerships on Thursday night. The most common angle taken was to emphasise how great and tolerant Britain was, that such a measure could be brought in with hardly a breath of opposition. Some people, of course, were quick to bring up the contrast with the US - and others quite rightly pointed out that it was calling them "civil partnerships" rather than "marriages" that was crucial in setting the tone of debate.

The interesting point here is the way in which the terminology used to sell a policy has a major impact in framing the debate. It is what Labour have been adept at in Britain, and what the Republicans have done so well in the US. Calling inheritance tax the "death tax", despite the small number of people it affects, completely obliterated serious opposition and serious discussion of inheritance tax in the US. Likewise, the way in which Blair has attacked elite universities has been a masterstroke - placing a social engineering objective in very positive terms.

You need only look at the gap between the consensus on civil partnerships in Britain and the acrimony over gay marriage in America to see what a difference a name makes. Sure, you can point towards the stronger religious feeling in America, and the power of an organised religious movement in politics, but that can't explain the huge difference in attitudes - for here in Britain there is still a deep conservatism in many areas, and one that most likely would flinch at the idea of married single-sex couples. Of course, in Britain it is the 'gay lobby' which has a stronger political mobilisation; in America the power of the religious groups allowed them to discredit a policy simply by giving it an unpopular name.

Instead, the term of "civil partnerships" implies a simple recognition of a loving relationship. When this is combined with two other presentational factors - the question of inheritance taxes and property rights, and the wheeling out of long-term, 'acceptable' gay couples - the issue at hand is whether a fact of life, whether long-term, stable homosexual relationships should have some sort of official recognition. That is an entirely different question to the idea of "gay marriage", which implicitly suggests getting involved in matters of religion (for, despite the fact that civil marriages are increasingly prevalent, the connotations of marriage are strongest to religious families). The differences between the two may indeed be slight - civil partnerships are marriages to all intents and purposes - yet the phrasing of the policies have been crucial in their acceptance.

[These views reflect Ken's only, and do not necessarily represent mine]