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Marriage: The Politics of Polls and Public Policy

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This past fortnight, I have been reminded an awful lot of Yes, Prime Minister and its many witticisms. Two in particular are worth recalling here. One, arguably the most famous, is Jim Hacker's forensic analysis of British newspapers and the prejudices of their readers to which they pander. Two, Sir Humphry demonstrating to Bernard the seamlessness with which polls can be manipulated, even by apparently independent organisations, to get the results their clients would want. Wit, as Dorothea Parker said, has truth in it, and it is perhaps a sign of the times that we need these days political satires to understand public policy.

Gay marriage, so-called in part because marriage in this country is as yet not devoid of gender distinctions, and in part due to the refusal to see it on par with heterosexual relationships, has attracted considerable attention on both sides of the Atlantic over the past few weeks, albeit for different reasons. Unlike the United States, the question here in the U.K. is not so much as whether or not same-sex couples deserve equality under the law's supposedly blind eyes as whether that equality be whole and complete, in name and in truth. That is precisely the question being asked in the twelve-week consultation launched by the government today. Understandably, minds addicted to the most dogmatic of religions are upset, and have given expression to some remarkably intolerant and abusive comments from quarters where one would expect moderation and restraint. To compare same-sex marriage to slavery is as illogical as it is offensively hate-filled. Had the outspoken Cardinal used a similar vociferation in issues concerning other religions, say, or ethnic minorities, doubtless he would have been forced to step down from his hallowed position, if not sent straight to prison. Rather, his outburst has merely confirmed to us that homophobia is the most acceptable of all prejudices which lurk beneath the recesses of men's souls.

We now know that the Catholic Church has stepped up its campaign against equality in marriage, for which it received considerable impetus from a poll, published by ComRes last week claiming to demonstrate that up to 70% of the British population was against same-sex marriage. No sooner that this poll was published than doubts were raised against its findings, though this did not prevent right-wing newspapers from reporting it as an unequivocal fact. However, a simple review of its structure, and an analysis of its methodology revealed deep flaws which render the poll itself, let alone its findings, as suspect at best. Then, two more polls were published over the weekend, one by the Sunday Times, and the other by the Sunday Telegraph, both of which seem to show that a tentative majority of Britons indeed support a gender-neutral understanding of marriage. This, however, did not stop the Sunday Telegraph from desperately spinning the findings of its own poll, to claim not only that the public was uncomfortable with the proposed move to legalise same-sex weddings, a move which now has the backing of all major political parties, but also to pen a muddle-headed argument in its leader against it.

Assuming, for the moment, that the polls are a good way to gauge the mood of the nation, let us conduct a simple systematic review of the public opinion from 2004, the year in which Civil Partnerships were introduced for same-sex couples. Now, there are certain rules to conducting a systematic review, which means that I can only use those studies, the methodologies and findings of which are fully accessible in the public domain, and as such raise no serious concerns as to standards and ethics. This means, unfortunately, that I have to exclude the ComRes poll, -- though I think including it will not significantly alter the results -- and the latest ICM-Sunday Telegraph poll, as ICM has not, at the time of writing, made available its full findings and methodology on its website. Yet, I have at least seven studies to work with: Gallup (2004), Eurobarometer (2006), ICM-Observer (2008), Populus-Times (2009), Angus-Reid (2010, 2011), and YouGov-Sunday Times (2012), all of which are available in the public domain. The results, without going into detailed statistics, are strikingly simple: insofar as we wish to see a distinction between civil partnerships and marriages, the public clearly favours gender-neutral marriage as opposed to the false dichotomy that exists now, by a margin of at least 10-20% (error margin: 2%). Needless to say, any opposition even to civil partnerships is at its lowest level, less than a sixth of the population. Finally, although the difference among the sexes is somewhat trivial, most of the opposition stems from the older generations, while support for marriage equality is highest among those between 18 and 35 years of age. In other words, we can easily see in which direction the future is heading.

In a way, despite the optimism that this review finds, I think it does not, on its own, constitute an effective argument for equality in marriage, any more than the widespread belief that David Cameron's backing of the move is rooted in mere political mileage argues against it. (The latter was a finding of the YouGov-Sunday Times Poll, which also found, rather interestingly, that the Anglican Church was thought to be well within its rights to keep a restricted definition of marriage.) The Catholic Relief Act of 1829 was doubtless a political move too, rooted more in economics than in tolerance, and doubtless opposed by the contemporary public at large, though few would now argue that it was morally incorrect. It is therefore richly ironic that the Telegraph and the Catholic Church should cite public opinion as a reason to forbid same-sex marriages. Equally, given that we are a parliamentary democracy, why should the mandate offered by the last general elections, given that the move has cross-party support, be any less representative than a random (or not-so-random) sampling?

Ultimately, it behoves us to note that the relationship between public opinion and civil law is not a one-way street, and rightly so, lest the hoary head of majoritarianism substitute any meaningful version of democracy. Rather, each feeds into the other. The current acceptance of same-sex relationships, say, and other practices such as abortion, once so fiercely forbidden, has much to do with legislative changes without which they might not have occurred. So, while the polls might provide some glimpses into where the collective mood of the nation might head, the guiding principle of legislation must be rooted in the provision of fundamental human rights, derived from a secular moral philosophy, and protection against their violation, especially for minorities long-persecuted. One hopes that, whatever his motivation, the Prime Minister will not pay heed to the contrivances of the prejudiced, however artfully they be disguised.