Watergate has a lot to answer for. Those old enough to remember, or with an interest in modern US history, should skip to the next paragraph. For everyone else, "Watergate" was the name given to a political scandal in the 1970s. It followed a break-in at the Democratic National Committee headquarters at the Watergate office complex. Then President Nixon was implicated in the events, and later resigned.
Particularly in recent years, it has become fashionable to attach the suffix "-gate" to any story with undertones of unethical behaviour and / or cover-up. To say this has become clichéd is an understatement. We have had to endure, amongst others: Flakegate (Anthea Turner promoting Cadbury's chocolate at her wedding); Camillagate (the taped conversation between the Prince of Wales and Camilla Parker Bowles) and Hackgate (the ongoing enquiry that the now defunct News of the World hacked various answersphones) - these are but three of literally hundreds.
The latest "-gate" to hit the headlines involves Nick Clegg. Mr Clegg was due to deliver a speech on 12 September marking the end of the Coalition's government's consultation on marriage equality.
A Cabinet Office press release was circulated in advance of the speech. This release included the following lines the Deputy PM was expected to deliver:
"Continued trouble in the economy gives bigots a stick to beat us with, as they demand we ‘postpone' the equalities agenda in order to deal with ‘the things people really care about'
"As if pursuing greater equality and fixing the economy simply cannot happen at once."
News that Mr Clegg intended to use the "B-word" spread like wildfire amongst the government. Media agencies report a row developed within the Coalition, as those opposing marriage equality took exception to being branded bigots. Likewise certain religious leaders, who found the label objectionable.
Shortly after the initial press release did the rounds, attempts were made to recall it. A new version of the speech was issued. The word "bigots" had been removed and was replaced with "some people".
So began what is now Mr Clegg's Bigotgate...
Former Archbishop of Canterbury, Lord Carey, branded Clegg "immature". MPs on both sides of the house bayed for the Deputy PM to resign. You can probably hazard a guess at the "Coalition for Marriage's" take on the matter. Mr Clegg's office insists the speech as initially circulated was a draft, which should never have been released.
The OED defines bigotry as, "intolerance towards those who hold different opinions from oneself" and bigoted as, "obstinately convinced of the superiority or correctness of one's own opinions and prejudiced against those who hold different opinions".
Was it wrong of Mr Clegg to have intended to refer to those opposed to marriage equality as bigots? Absolutely not! I am yet to hear an argument against marriage equality that has any coherence outside of a religious context. That religious context is meaningless to me. It is likewise meaningless to the majority of Britons nowadays. Last year, a comprehensive study on the role of religion in British life was undertaken by YouGov and Cambridge University for British Religion in Numbers. The results, from fieldwork running from mid-April to mid-May 2011, polled a sample of 64,303 adult Britons. The data (which can be viewed here), shows a society in which religion is increasingly in retreat and nominal. Many of those who claim some religious allegiance fail to underpin it by a belief in a deity or to translate it into regular prayer or attendance at a place of worship. People in general are more inclined to see the negative than the positive aspects of religion, and they certainly want to keep it well out of the political arena.
Forty percent of adults professed no religion, 55% were Christian and 5% of other faiths - age made a major difference, with only 38% of the 18-34s being Christian and 53% having no religion.
Seventy-nine percent agreed that religion is a cause of much misery and conflict in the world today. Seventy-two percent agreed that religion is used as an excuse for bigotry and intolerance. Seventy-eight percent agreed that religion should be a private matter and had no place in politics. Sixty-one percent agreed that organised religion is in terminal decline in the UK.
Another YouGov poll from earlier this year (March 2012) looked at attitudes towards same-sex relationships and marriage equality. That sample size was much smaller, consisting of 1,707 adults. However, if that sample was representative of attitudes generally, it demonstrates the following (the data can be viewed here):
So, in the face of these statistics about the prevailing public attitude, opponents of marriage equality argue that we need to have further debate about the nature of marriage. We have had this debate. We have been having it for years. Overall public attitude suggests it is over. But still opponents of gay marriage say, as if in chorus, they have nothing against gay people: indeed, they think gay people are simply awesome, and civil partnerships ought to be enough for us.
This banality would be more convincing if these same opponents - drawn from the same social, political and religious groups as they ever were - could indicate a single historic occasion when they have supported the award of a sliver of civil liberties to gay people. From the Wolfenden report in 1957 through the Sexual Offences Act 1967 through the right to serve in the military to the creation of civil partnerships, the same groups have argued exactly the same thing: gay people don't deserve it, and they will destroy the institutions that are properly the exclusive reserve of "normal" people. It's at around this time I'm reminded of this quote from the late, great Dorothy Parker: "Heterosexuality is not normal, it's just common".
We now see the same claims brushed down and tarted up and deployed in opposition of marriage equality. These political and religious groups were bigoted then and they are bigoted now. Mr Clegg's offence was not in choosing the use the word, but in changing his mind when the bigots found the label unpalatable.
He works exclusively in the field of family law, and with a particular emphasis on cases involving children. His expertise ranges from domestic cases involving disputes as to residence, contact and/or the attribution and exercise of parental responsibility all the way through to transnational cases that have raise extremely complex issues of private international law.
Duncan is dual qualified in Australia, and is a member of Resolution's International Committee.
The views expressed by contributing authors are not necessarily those of Family Law or Jordan Publishing and should not be considered as legal advice.