And so, in a riot of pent-up love, commitment and solemnised vows – with a rainbow flag flying proudly over Whitehall – Britain takes a historic step into a more liberal, egalitarian future. With the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act’s passing into law at midnight last night, hundreds of people across the country will today seize their first opportunity to get married, and thousands more are expected to follow suit over the months to come.
The case in favour of the modernisation of Britain’s matrimonial rules may appear self-evident to many readers of The Independent. But it bears restating, nonetheless. This newspaper has campaigned hard for the changes that come into effect today for the simple reason that it should be open to all people to formalise their relationship should they wish to do so, regardless of gender or sexuality. Marriage is a multi-levelled affair, a contract at once legal, social and emotional. There can be no justification for its being limited to one particular group. Equally, the notion that the institution might be somehow damaged by its extension can only be an erroneous one; in fact, the ideal of the union between two people can only be bolstered by making it available and relevant to all.
Today's shift would be a source of profound satisfaction in any event. When considered in context it is even more so. After all, just 50 years ago, homosexual acts between men were a criminal offence (and between women were barely recognised), and it was not until 2000 that openly lesbian, gay and bisexual people were allowed to serve in the armed forces. There is still some way to go before the old bigotries are entirely rooted out. There is still discrimination, even violence, based on sexual orientation. But the legalisation of same-sex marriage – or, as it is perhaps better considered, the extension of the institution to all – is both an unmistakable step in the right direction and a move that will, over time, only lead to a further erosion of old divisions, prejudices and misconceptions.
Controversies do, of course, remain. Even as the majority of Britons are in favour of the new law – about 70 per cent, according to polling – there are still pockets of resistance. Sad to say, recent surveys record more than one in five men and one in 10 women claiming that they would refuse a wedding invitation from two people of the same sex. Religious objections are also stubbornly persistent. Yesterday’s remarks from the Archbishop of Canterbury softening the Church of England’s stance are welcome. But Justin Welby faces criticism from many for even a hint of acceptance. Meanwhile, legal provisions that include a “quadruple lock” to ensure that no religious organisation can be forced either to marry same-sex couples, or to allow such a ceremony to go ahead on their premises, indicate a degree of special status still.
Fundamental shifts in social mores cannot be accomplished overnight, however. But the billows of confetti across the country this weekend mark a milestone in our social evolution, even if there are a few practicalities that will take time to work through. Britain has long been known as a tolerant, forward-thinking society. Today is a day to be proud to be British.