British MPs have voted in favour of controversial legislation allowing gay marriage despite fierce opposition from members of Prime Minister David Cameron’s own party.
The move puts Britain on track to join the ten countries that allow same-sex couples to marry, but Cameron had the embarrassment of seeing half of his Conservative legislators refusing to back him.
The prime minister insists that the plan to allow same-sex couples to marry in England and Wales will “make our society stronger” although the draft law still has several other parliamentary hurdles to clear.
It passed on Tuesday by 400 votes to 175, mainly because it had overwhelming support from the opposition Labour Party and also from many members of the Liberal Democrat party, the junior partner in Cameron’s coalition government.
British media said around 140 Conservatives voted against and around 130 in favour with some 40 abstentions.
Cameron allowed MPs a conscience vote on the issue.
Speaking before the vote, Cameron said: “Today is an important day. I am a strong believer in marriage, it helps people commit to each other, and I think it is right that gay people should be able to get married too.
“This is, yes, about equality. But it is also about making our society stronger.
“I know there are strong views on both sides of the argument -- I accept that. But I think this is an important step forward for our country.”
Opponents attacked the bill during an often impassioned day-long debate ahead of the vote in the House of Commons, or lower house of parliament.
Pleas from Cameron’s heavyweight cabinet allies to persuade their Conservative colleagues to back his plans and avoid damaging divisions fell on deaf ears.
A former junior defence minister, Gerald Howarth, said the government had no mandate for such a “massive social and cultural change”.
“I believe this bill is wrong, the consultation was a complete sham. It has caused deep and needless divisions within the Conservative Party,” he said.
Another Conservative opponent, Roger Gale, said the legislation was “Orwellian”.
“Marriage is the union between a man and a woman, has been historically, remains so. It is Alice in Wonderland territory, Orwellian almost, for any government of any political persuasion to seek to come along and try to re-write the lexicon,” he said.
Same-sex couples in Britain have had the right to live in civil partnerships since 2005 but cannot marry.
Culture Secretary Maria Miller, the minister responsible for the legislation, insisted the bill would protect religious freedoms and “not marginalise those who believe marriage should be between a man and a woman”.