03/06/2013 16:25 BST | Updated 03/06/2013 16:27 BST

Gay Marriage Lords Debate Drops Through The Looking Glass

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Mad Hatter and Alice in Wonderland

The debate on gay marriage fell through the looking glass on Monday, as the peer leading opposition to same-sex weddings enlisted Alice in Wonderland and Humpty Dumpty to his cause.

Lord Dear told the House of Lords on Monday that the word 'marriage' could not simply be changed on the whim of governments or politicians. He said by any stretch of the imagination gay mariage was a contentious Bill - before stretching peers' imagination.

Quoting from Lewis Caroll's 1872 novel he read: "I don’t know what you mean by ‘glory’, Alice said. Humpty Dumpty smiled contemptuously. Of course you don’t—till I tell you. I meant ‘there’s a nice knock-down argument for you!’ But ‘glory’ doesn't mean ‘a nice knock-down argument’, Alice objected. When I use a word, Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less”.

Lord Dear explained: "I would suggest that if we substitute the word 'marriage' for 'glory' we get somewhere very close to the essence of today’s debate. As Humpty Dumpty might have said: 'There’s a nice knock-down argument for you. Marriage means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less'."

The crossbencher, who was speaking at the start of two days of debate on David Cameron's Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill, also said he believed gay marriage would set back rather than advance gay rights.

"I fear that the Bill, should it become law, could well create such opposition to homosexuals in general that the climate of tolerance and acceptance in this country that we have all championed, supported and seen flourish over the years could well be set back by decades—certainly for a long time," he said.

Citing widespread protests in France against gay marriage, Lord Dear said "tolerance can be overstretched". He added: "The majority view should prevail, especially when the minority is tiny and the overwhelming majority is affronted."

During the debate several peers opposed to the Bill also warned of the "unintended consequences" of the Bill - including the possibility it would open the door to polygamy and incestuous marriages.

The House of Lords usually automatically gives government bills their second readings. However peers opposed to the Bill will force a vote on Tuesday evening - despite the convention that peers do not throw out legislation passed by the elected Commons. The vote is expected to be close.

Gay marriage is backed by the leadership of all three main political parties, but it has split the Conservative Party down the middle and the majority of Tory MPs voted against the plans.

However Lord Fowler, a former chairman of the Tory Party who supports the Bill, told peers today gay people had the right "to expect what we all expect; nothing more, but certainly nothing less."

"Parliament should value people equally in the law and enabling same-sex marriage removes a current inequity," he said. "For some of us, that is a fundamental moral issue."