Twenty or so eight- to 10-year-olds from Cwmclydach primary school trundled down the road to my constituency office last Friday because they were studying politics in the Rhondda. We had laid out some election leaflets for them to peruse and they seemed to be taking a genuine interest. Then came the questions, starting with: "So why did you become an MP?" That was easy enough. The next one was a bit more difficult: "Why did you stop being a vicar?"
The truth is that I was ordained in 1986 and, within a year or so, at the grand old age of 25, I worked out that I was gay – and that is what prompted my move. But something in me felt I couldn't quite explain all that to a group of eight-year-olds. By the time I had sorted this out in my head, though, there was another question: "What's your wife's name?" So this time I fessed up. "Actually, I haven't got a wife. I'm gay, so I have a husband and he's called Jared." Open mouths all round. I expected fulminating letters from parents. But afterwards the teacher explained that they regularly talk about these matters with the children as the word "gay" is often used as derogatory in the playground and several children have gay parents or siblings.
So the world has changed. Not that you would know it if you listened to the bigotry dressed up as theology that spouted out of Cardinal Keith O'Brien last week. I'm paraphrasing but, broadly speaking, he opined that if Britain allows same-sex marriages, the country will fall into the ocean and all our children will be born with three heads. (This isn't that much of an exaggeration, by the way. He did, after all, refer to same-sex marriage as a "grotesque subversion", "madness" and an "aberration".)
Of course, some people say: what's the point of same sex marriage? Civil partnerships and marriage are virtually identical. It's just a distinction without a difference, so why upset the cardinals? Well, not quite, m'lud. There are key differences. A civil partnership does not entail any public ceremony – a civil marriage requires it. A marriage has to be consummated for it to be valid – a civil partnership doesn't. And adultery, per se, is a legitimate cause for divorce in a marriage, but not in a civil partnership.
When I pointed this last fact out to two Tory MPs this week, one gay, one straight, they both jokingly suggested this was a winning argument for sticking with civil partnerships, but there is a serious point here. Some people do want to go the whole hog. They want a big ceremony, all taffeta and lace, with public vows and strict legal commitments. Others want a simple, private registration of their relationship. But, in my experience, the dividing line is not between straight and gay.
Plenty of straight couples would prefer the slightly understated civil partnership. And many same-sex couples would like the full shebang. So why should the state prevent either from achieving what their heart desires? As for the cardinal, I honestly don't think we should take any more notice of him now than we did when he said of civil partnerships that they "are harmful to the physical, mental and spiritual wellbeing of those involved".
Norman's regal splendour
Norman St John Stevas (aka Lord St John of Fawsley), has died. I met him only once, but he was one of those elusive characters, a wit with a serious intent, and a great parliamentarian who became Leader of the House under Margaret Thatcher. His lasting legacy is undoubtedly the creation of the select committee system.
The obituaries have understandably all skirted around the issue of his sexuality, bandying around words like "national treasure" and "unmarried". Whatever the inner workings of his desires, the obituaries all conclude that he was "chaste". One thing is certain, though. He knew how to camp it up and was a great fan and friend of both Princess Margaret and the Queen Mother. One story goes that when he was greeting the Queen Mother at the Royal Opera House as arts minister, she was heard to remark rather loudly as they climbed the stairs and waved to the crowds: "Just think, they've got two queens for the price of one."
This committee is worth saving
One great success of the past two years has been the creation of the Backbench Business Committee under Natascha Engel, which is charged with allocating a couple of days every month to debates of its choosing. So we've had a slew of debates that have been inconvenient for the Government and the Opposition alike – on voting rights for prisoners, the treatment of circus animals, the use of military force against Iran and, this week, banning the murderers of Sergei Magnitsky from entry to the UK.
What is particularly irksome for the Government is that these debates are not just "take note" debates on the adjournment of the House, but substantive motions requiring government action. Often, knowing that they would lose a vote, they have just let the motion through, as they did in the Magnitsky debate.
The key to the committee, though, is its membership. What happens with most committees is that the Tory places are voted on by Tories and Labour by Labour. Not so in this case, as the members are elected by the whole House. Which is why the likes of Peter Bone, Philip Hollobone and Philip Davies sit there.
On most issues, I would consider these three as the axis of eurosceptic, lefty-bashing, "political-correctness-gawn-mad" evil – but, in relation to the business of the House, I have to admit they are saints. Sadly, the Government doesn't quite see it this way, and on Monday Sir George Young is going to try to change the rules so as to kick them off the committee. I hereby launch the "save the backbench three" campaign.