I have watched many Parliamentary debates. Some I have watched from the officials' box (one of that little row of faces to the left of the Speaker's chair as you face it), some from upper galleries out of sight to TV viewers, and some - like yesterday's - from the privacy of my own home. They have been, on and off, a part of my professional life. I have rarely enjoyed them. This is partly because, for me, they have been work. When, in my civil service career, I sat in the officials' box, I was usually there to produce information that would enable my minister to provide immediate answers to unforeseen questions raised in debate. When, nowadays, I sit in one of the galleries in the House of Lords, I do so to hear contributions on subjects on which my bishop speaks for the Church and, when he is participating, to tweet a sound-bite or two. Yesterday's debate on the same-sex marriage bill I watched at home on TV for sheer pleasure (if that is the word). I say "if that is the word" because I know enough about myself to realise that I dislike conflict and that I am prone to become personally involved to an extent that militates against the impartiality required of a Government official. And although I no longer occupy that role, I can't get out of the habit.
There was little great oratory yesterday. But there were some courageous and moving speeches. I found myself marvelling that Tories like Nick Herbert and Mike Freer were able to stand in the Commons and on national TV and be open about themselves and their support for this gloriously unconservative bill. Could they have done this 20, even 10, years ago? I doubt it. The old Tory dogs were still there behind them, yapping and snapping at their heels; but the earth has turned another quarter-turn, and for Herbert, Freer and a host of others, it is moving perceptibly from darkness into light. To his credit, David Cameron understands this; I don't think his opponents do. Not really.
If I had to pick an "anti" speech for special mention it would have to be Edward Leigh's. Leigh is a proudly devout old-style Roman Catholic and gave an elegant and poetic (and accurate) account of the traditional Christian understanding of marriage. Towards the end, in response to the claim that the world had "moved on" (from the civil partnerships debate), he replied: "The worry that some of us have is that the world...could move on again". Yes. It could and it will.
The same theme was picked up by Sir Menzies Campbell (a supporter of the bill) who began his remarks by saying: "there is a kind of inevitability about what many of us are hoping will be decided here this evening". He saw gay marriage as the next step along the road towards the full inclusion and equal treatment of all outcasts: a destination that we know we will reach eventually. There is something profoundly Christian about this.
And inevitability is the point. I expect this bill, which still has a good few parliamentary hurdles to jump, to become law in due course. But even it if doesn't, a future Labour government will introduce a similar one which certainly will. One way or another, sooner or later, we will have gay marriage. And we all know it. Isn't the honest (and brave) thing to do to accept that, and to focus on introducing it in a way that commands the widest possible assent and calms the greatest number of fears?
It's been noted that this is a huge gamble for David Cameron; that he has betrayed Conservative principles and will lose "core" votes without gaining any others. I wonder if his motivation rests upon his honest assessment that he will not, probably, in any event, be Prime Minister after 2015: that the times are simply against him. Given that, perhaps he wants to be remembered for something other than austerity and benefit cuts and rising debt. Something that's not coloured grey. Something that makes us more human. Something lasting. Perhaps this is the thing. Perhaps now is the time.
There is a tide in the affairs of men
Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune;
Omitted, all the voyage of their life
Is bound in shallows and in miseries.
On such a sea are we now afloat,
And we must take the current when it serves,
Or lose our ventures.
(Brutus, from Julius Caesar, Act 4, Scene 3)