It is a truth, not universally acknowledged, that the political is often personal. In the summer of 1997, after the general election, I was sitting next to a friend at a wedding. She was in a long-term relationship with her girlfriend. It was one of those strange occasions when you know without speaking that you are having similar thoughts: ‘wouldn’t it be great if they could get married?’ I resolved then, that if ever I had a chance to help make it happen, I would.
Five years later I was the Minister for Women and Equalities. We were already bringing forward new rules that would make it unlawful to discriminate against people on the grounds of sexual orientation in employment and training. But there was still so much more to do. There were many thousands of same-sex couples who had been living together for years, who looked after each other and supported each other but their relationship was not legally recognised. People had been refused a hospital visit to see their seriously ill partner, or refused their rightful place at their loved one’s funeral, or evicted from their home after their partner’s death.
I had a fantastic team of officials who were working on civil partnership; and we liaised closely with Stonewall and others to work out what we could, and couldn’t, achieve. It would have been wonderful if we could have had equal marriage in one leap but in 2002 that wasn’t on the cards. Looking back from 2017 it is difficult to remember how revolutionary civil partnership then appeared.
I was determined that civil partnership would be as close to marriage as possible. (In fact, our unofficial title for the scheme was “I can’t believe it isn’t marriage”!). That group of dedicated and committed officials worked tirelessly throughout Whitehall on the details of the proposed legislation. The proposals had implications for practically every government department, including changes to inheritance tax and social security. It wasn’t an easy process and required skilful negotiation to overcome institutional barriers.
“Civil partnership brought not only security but also joy to couples and their families and friends”
The plan was to publish a consultation document in summer 2003. But before that I wanted to signal that real change was on the way. On 6 December 2002 I was interviewed on the 8.10 slot on the Today programme and wrote an article for The Independent. I said that civil partnership would send a powerful message about “the unacceptability of the homophobia still far too prevalent in our society”. There had been some nervousness about how this would be received: “Why is the government doing this?”; “Aren’t there more important issues to tackle?” However, the sky didn’t fall in. There were nothing but favourable and touching messages. One message was from a listener who had been with her partner for years and was really emotional about what recognition meant.
Civil partnership transformed the political landscape and paved the way for equal marriage. Though it seemed controversial in 2002, it soon became clear that public opinion was way ahead of many politicians and there was widespread support for it. We don’t often talk about the law promoting happiness but that is what civil partnership did. It brought not only security but also joy to couples and their families and friends.
And yes, a few years later I bought a new hat, put on my dancing shoes and was thrilled to attend my friend’s ceremony.
Barbara Roche is a former Minister for Women and Equalities