My Lords, this is a fine debate and worthy of this House. It is a pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Berkeley, and to have listened to so many fine speeches. Like so many others, my postbag has overflowed. Most of the letters on paper are against the Bill, while the vast majority of those sent by e-mail and Twitter are in favour. So there we have it: an older generation versus the new.
The “anti” mail is clearly organised, but there is no harm in that. It does not make the views expressed any less relevant. Putting aside those letters that are clearly homophobic and written with green ink in the margin, the overriding message is the appeal to support “the traditional approach to marriage”. As a Conservative, I am rather fond of tradition but I must admit that I am at a loss to understand precisely what is meant by “traditional marriage”. How traditional do you want? As traditional, perhaps, as that well known fan of marriage, Henry VIII; or as traditional as the approach that once decreed that marriage had to be for life, no matter the outrages involved; or the more recent traditional approach that denied a divorced person the privilege of remarrying in a church. There is no traditional approach to marriage. It is an institution that has always changed over time and does not stand frozen in a single moment of morality. It moves; it adapts.
I would not have introduced this Bill at this time. There has been no great public outcry for it, not after the successful introduction of civil partnerships. It seems to me that the differences between a civil partnership and a marriage are so fine as to be almost transparent and cast no great shadow. Yet the Bill is here—the pebble in the shoe—and it has to be dealt with before we can move on. I know that it was not in any manifesto or in the Queen’s Speech, which was perhaps a pity, but this issue must be dealt with on its merits and not judged by how it got here.
What should I, as a Conservative, feel about gay marriage? I do not believe in equality—I leave that rather charming nostrum to our friends on the Labour Benches— but in equal opportunity. That is getting closer to it. At the heart of this matter is that we are all born unique and different, while at the heart of my conservatism is that no one should be discriminated against because of how they were born. I do not know any man or woman who has found it easy being born gay. I have not met a single one who would have actively chosen that route, with all its discrimination and denigration, and with the embarrassments, injustices and outright hatreds that were and still are put in the way. However, we are what we are—what we have been born—and I will not look a gay man or woman in the eye and say, “You are inferior just because you were born different to me”, any more than I would do that to someone who was black or brown, or a woman or blind. We are surely way beyond that, so despite the fact that I believe that this Bill needs more work I will be supporting its principle and doing so as a Conservative.
This brings me to my final point, on the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Dear. I have sincere personal regard for the noble Lord but on this issue I differ with him completely. It would do great damage to this place and to the legitimacy of this House if we were to destroy a Bill that has been given such an overwhelming majority on a free vote in the House of Commons. It would make this unelected House look out of touch, irrelevant and obsolete. It would bring back from the dead all those silly and shallow things that the Deputy Prime Minister keeps muttering about us. Our duty in this House is to revise, not to ruin, and to improve rather than oppose to the point of destruction. We have fought so hard in recent months to secure the future of this House and for that reason, above all others, it would be folly to accept this amendment.