Britain’s Liberal Democrats have been holding their annual party conference, and one of the headlines has been a pledge to legalise same-s-x marriage before the next election. The government will stage a process of public consultation next year, but both coalition parties are committed to the change.

Some readers may be confused — hasn’t Britain had gay marriage for some years now? Don’t we all remember seeing pictures of Elton John getting married back in 2005?

Well, not quite. What Britain introduced nearly six years ago was “civil partnerships” for same-s-x couples. They amount to marriage in all but name, but of course when it comes to status and discrimination the name is important, so the planned move is entirely appropriate. However, for practical purposes, very little will change.

The situation is not to be confused with that of “civil unions”, a lesser status often proposed and sometimes implemented in the US as an alternative to same-s-x marriage. Britain’s civil partnerships really do give the same rights and obligations as marriage, with the same rules for divorce and property settlement.

And as a temporary compromise, the 2005 reforms have worked. The sky has not fallen in, public opinion has been brought along, and although the die-hard fundamentalists will grumble, the full recognition of gay marriage appears not as a revolutionary step but as a simple tidying-up exercise to remove a legislative anomaly.

If only this could have happened in Australia.

The opportunity was there. When elected in 2007, the Rudd government could easily have made the same move that its British counterpart had two years earlier. It would have attracted criticism from both extremes, but could have been sold as a sensible compromise position: full substantive rights for same-s-x couples, without offending the sensibilities of those who are hung up on the word “marriage”.

By now, after three years of successful operation, people would be ready to start moving towards the next step.

Instead, Labor has tied itself in knots on the issue, trying to present itself as pro-equality while conciliating the religious extremists who control bundles of votes in its conferences and caucus. For most people it is not a major issue, but instead of neutralising it Labor has just compounded the impression of general disarray and incompetence.

By now it’s too late for compromise. The debate has moved on, and public opinion is already comfortable with full equality. And the bigotry of Labor’s hard-right has been so openly on display that anything short of “marriage” would be seen, rightly, as a sell-out to them.

That’s not to deny that the government has done good work at a practical level in removing discrimination against same-s-x couples in a multitude of areas. But there’s a peculiar blindness involved in thinking that could work as a substitute for equal status. It’s reminiscent of the notion of “practical reconciliation”, where the Howard government pretended to believe that if Aborigines got decent housing and health care they would forget that their rights were being trampled on.

Britain’s example shows that gradualism can work, but it has to be real (if gradual) progress, not sham progress.