For better or for worse?

Despite a concerted attempt by mainly Conservative backbenchers, the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill passed its first legislative hurdle in the Commons last night. As a result, it seems likely gay marriage will be introduced on both sides of the Border at approximately the same time. This may be a source of disappointment to the merchants of nuptials in Gretna Green but on balance it is a welcome development.

Quite why David Cameron has chosen to focus on an issue that seems peripheral to most voters is a mystery. If it is a fresh attempt to detoxify the Tory brand or to create an alternative legacy to five years of mounting austerity, the Prime Minister is likely to be disappointed. Instead, this has exposed another deep fault line in his party and made many of his own MPs look out of touch with public opinion, which has moved swiftly on the issue of gay rights since the introduction of civil partnerships in 2005. So historians will note that this great social change was reliant on Labour support.

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Whatever the Prime Minister's motives, he has done the right thing. Couples in stable loving relationships should be entitled to marry, regardless of gender or sexuality. As Culture Secretary Maria Miller argued yesterday, marriage has evolved over time and carries with it promises of responsibility and commitment that are not implicit in civil partnerships.

Some of the opposition has been intellectually incoherent. Those who argue that marriage is purely for the procreation of children need to explain why they support marriages between people who are past childbearing years or unable to bear children for other reasons. At Holyrood this legislation is less contentious, thanks to the skill and patience with which Nicola Sturgeon has guided it and because of consensus between the main parties. However, though a growing majority of voters seems to support gay marriage, the deeply held views of detractors should be respected. At times they have found it difficult to put an alternative view without being lambasted and misunderstood. The Scottish and UK governments should work together to protect under the law religious bodies and individual celebrants from the threat of prosecution under equality legislation. Freedom of gay people to marry must be balanced by the liberty to express and practise religious belief.