Secretary of State for Defence and local MP Philip Hammond has found himself in hot water after he was accused of likening gay marriage to incest in a conversation with two RHUL students. He has admitted that he made the remarks.
On 25 January, Hammond visited Royal Holloway to be received by a crowd of protestors challenging his views on gay marriage, which he believes should remain illegal in the UK in light of the upcoming bill in Parliament.
He was visiting Egham to give a speech on defence issues facing the UK, invited by the Politics and International Relations Society (PIRSoc). Before this, however, he had a private conversation with two RHUL students: Joe Rayment, physics student and SURHUL Union Chair, and Jack Saffrey-Rowe, politics student and LGBT Rep for the National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts. They reported their conversation firsthand to The Founder:
Rayment recalls: ‘When I asked him the question: ‘What right does the state have to tell two people who love each other that they can’t get married?’, he responded with ‘Well, we don’t allow siblings to get married either.’
Saffrey-Rowe continued: ‘At the end of the interview, Joe asked Hammond whether he would go out and say to everyone – all of the LGBT people – that they shouldn’t be allowed to get married. He refused.
‘Joe then went on to ask the minister: ‘will you at least tell Jack [who is openly gay] that he shouldn’t get married?’ He battered it off as a ‘silly game’. That didn’t make me feel good. Along with the rest of the conversation that was just the cherry on the cake.’
Upon the pair’s refusal to shake his hand, the minister then reportedly called them ‘juvenile’ and left to give his speech. His alleged remarks have since found their way into many national outlets including The Guardian, The Telegraph, The Times, The Mirror and Pink News.
Ironically, Hammond will not even attend the upcoming first Commons vote on the legalisation of gay marriage, on 5 February, and dismissed his debate with Rayment and Saffrey-Rowe as ‘academic’.
The protest itself was very brief: at 7pm a group of approximately 40-50 (though widely reported as 70) students, enthusiastically led by VPComCam Jamie Green, chanted at the MP as he swiftly entered the Moore Lecture Theatre, flanked by security.
Various RHUL groups had publicly announced their plans to lobby and protest the MP in advance of his visit. PIRSoc itself issued a statement on the event’s Facebook page, both asserting its neutral stance on the gay marriage issue, as well as appealing for protestors not to disturb the event or tarnish the society’s reputation. On the other hand, Labour Soc. announced that ‘Philip Hammond MP should revise the view he holds in order to be more in line with the views of his constituents.’
Indeed Hammond, who incidentally is ranked just 290th of 648 MPs on sexymp.co.uk, is not even publicly in line with his party, let alone the coalition. In May of last year he was the first senior member of the Government to dissent from David Cameron’s manifesto promises, claiming in The Independent that gay marriage is ‘too controversial’ to worry about. This was to the ineffective ire of Deputy PM Nick Clegg, who replied at the time: ‘We would fully expect Mr Hammond to support government policy regardless of his views.’
In response to a publicly-shared reply to a letter lobbying him on the issue, sent by a Holloway student, Hammond has clarified that his position goes beyond that of mere political strategy and is one of principle, claiming that the legislation allowing civil partnerships ‘has removed the elements of practical discrimination that existed against those in same-sex relationships, allowing them to access, for example, the tax benefits that married couples enjoy.’
He goes on to say that he ‘do[es] not believe there is a compelling reason to prioritise legislation to go further at the present time and I have concerns about the robustness of the protections for religious organisations that are being put in place with the best of intentions.
The ‘protections’ Hammond refers to regard the current ability of citizens to legally challenge the Church of England’s decision to not marry same-sex couples, on the grounds of discrimination.
The Equality Act 2010 is due to pass to a vote in Parliament in one week, and will make it fully illegal for the C of E (and any other religious organisation) to marry same-sex couples unless they opt in, and thus changes what was before merely clerical discrimination into discrimination endorsed by our Government.
Hammond clarifies: ‘The Prime Minister has made clear that all Conservative MPs (including Cabinet Ministers) will have a free vote on this issue and I do not intend to support the legislation when it is placed before the House of Commons.’
On the publication of a press release authored by The Orbital’s Lifestyle Editor Simon Rawlings, and a blog entry on Anticuts.com by Saffrey-Rowe, the protest was reported nationally in the Pink News and the Daily Mail. SU President Doug German stated ‘we believe that as our MP, Philip Hammond should listen to those in his constituency and vote in favour of equality.’
Despite the controversy, the request made by a PIRSoc committee member that audience questions at the event remain strictly related to the topic of defence was complied with, after being met with a snigger, and few of the people protesting outside attended the event itself.
PIRSoc’s next event will feature UKIP Leader and MEP Nigel Farage, a figure more accustomed to controversy. The event was previously scheduled to take place on the 21 January but has been rescheduled for the 18 February.
SURHUL has lobbied Hammond once before in recent memory. In November 2010 the Sabbatical Officers wrote a letter urging him to vote against the rise in tuition fees. He was also the subject of a brief barricade and protest by Anti Cuts Alliance members that same month, whilst leaving a VIP dinner at RHUL with Ken Clarke.
However, he voted for the increased cap the following month anyway, suggesting RHUL protests such as these may be water off a duck’s back to the hardline right-wing Cabinet minister.