The UK is in uproar as Australian Senator Cory Bernardi arrives in the country. There’s been protests at the airports, and the streets have been blocked with barricades of burning tyres to greet the now-notorious senator who has compared same-sex marriage to bestiality.

Actually, not, you’ll be surprised to hear. There’s been a small story in The Grauniad, one in The Torygraph, and the Conservative party has issued a statement repudiating Bernardi’s comments about man-love and horse-love, but that’s been about it.

From what I can see in the Australian press, it’s another case of bigging up absolutely any attention paid to anything Australian by the world. Bernardi himself is on the way to the “European Young Conservatives Freedom Summit” in Oxford, a one-day shindig by a hard-right pressure group within the Tory party, descendants of the notorious Young Conservatives of the 1980s, who thrilled the world with their “Hang Nelson Mandela” T-shirts.

That Bernardi got the axe for comparing same-sex marriage to the beautiful moments between a farm boy and his heifer appears to have surprised Bernardi, but not only him — the comparison has been floated by the Right for so long, as to be part of the political furniture.

In the US, Rick Santorum nailed his colours to the mast (why does that phrase sound dirty, when said about Santorum?) with it, and it didn’t seem to do him any harm. Bernardi, who runs a neat little import business in culture-war beat-ups — his first effort was a ban-the-burqa move — has clearly been hoping that he could extend these obsessive overseas themes into Australian politics, to his advantage. It’s the tactic John Howard adopted in 1994, becoming the hammer of that new-fangled notion “political correctness”, as a way to carve a path to the leadership. Bernardi’s strategy is failing only because the country has been taken so far to the Right that there’s very little room to go further.

“Bernardi’s strategy is failing only because the country has been taken so far to the Right there’s little room to go further.”

That only goes so far as an explanation of course. Same-sex marriage advocates are extremely lucky their opponents are as utterly obsessive and neurotic as their American counterparts. Yet in facing up to such lunacies they have also allowed themselves to become complacent about the fight they face for full legalisation — hiding in that self-justifying and essentially circular expression “marriage equality”. “Marriage equality” only works as an argument if you already believe in it. If, as a conservative, you believe that marriage is an institution that is incommensurable by its very nature, then you’re unlikely to be convinced.

The fact is that both sides of the same-sex marriage debate are guilty of the most appalling bad faith, and dishonesty in conducting the debate. Conservatives employ the “slippery slope” argument — that their objection is not to same-sex marriage per se, but to what it might lead to — horse-love, polygamy, p-edophilia, incest, polygamous pony-love between cousins, etc. With one exception, all of these examples can be batted back — and without having to go into the displays of unargued outrage that seems to be the usual response.

Same-sex marriage is not going to lead to bestiality for the simple reason that marriage is a contract, and animals can’t be party to contracts. You can’t marry them, and you can’t make them directors of your public company, either. End of story.

Polyamory can be dealt with similarly. The whole point of marriage is to link one person to one other — for, inter alia, the purpose of having one other person who can make decisions in the case of the illness or death of their partner. Raising children, medical care during incapacity, inheritance, etc — marriage only solves the problems of such issues if it a two-person arrangement. Polyamory is usually polygamy, the having of multiple wives, in societies where men and women are not equal citizens.

It’s quite legitimate to accept same-sex marriage and reject polyamorous legal arrangements on those formal grounds. P-edophilia? Children aren’t adult citizens. They can’t sign themselves out of school, get credit cards, etc, so there’s no reason to think that legalising same-sex marriage would change their distinctive legal status. End of story.

The fact that opponents of same-sex marriage are so willing to rely on anything other than same-sex marriage as an argument against it, is a measure of their cowardice and lack of confidence in genuinely conservative arguments. But in the spirit of Churchill’s remark in the lead-up to the 1926 general strike (“I thought that I had never met anyone so stupid as the coal-mine union leaders, until I met the coal-mine owners”) the arguments of same-s-x marriage advocates give conservatives a run for their money.

For years, same-sex marriage has been presented as nothing more than a correction to an inherited inequality in an old institution. Advocates have compared the restriction on same-sex marriage to old restrictions on inter-racial marriage, and hence championed the idea of marriage equality. But this is a category error. Marriage, across the millennia, across cultures (it is not universally present in cultures, but it is overwhelmingly so) has had every form conceivable. Some cultures have forbidden marriage “out”, others have made it compulsory; some have insisted on engagements lasting years, others have allowed marriage by a mere exchange of vows before a shag. Sometimes you can’t marry your cousin, sometimes you can’t marry anyone else. And so on.

But the one constant is that marriage involves a man and a woman. The very fact that marriage, beneath its myriad differences, has had this one constant, refutes the argument that same-sex marriage represents no great change to social life. Clearly, it is a substantial one.For millennia, the obvious and essential meaning of marriage has relied on gender difference — put simply, marriage has been a way by which nature, sex and reproduction, becomes passed through culture, and given meaning. Marriage tames the wild nature of human fertility; human fertility gives marriage its tremendously charged meaning. One can see this at a traditional wedding, with the couple’s family on each “side” of the ceremony; the essential meaning of the event is that soon these disparate people will be united by common flesh and blood. The ceremony thus works backwards and forwards through time, because it unites disparate people as if they had always been related to each other — but it only does this through the promise of a child that both sides can see as their “own” but also that of the other. That this or that couple might be most likely infertile by reason of the woman’s age is irrelevant — it’s the general case that matters.

Clearly, in our era, the meaning of marriage is changing — changing more fundamentally than at any time since it emerged in the post-Ice-Age development of human culture, about 20,000 years ago. Yet same-sex marriage advocates, if they are aware of that at all, are unwilling to use it as part of their argument. The strongest argument for same-sex marriage is one that is implicit in Rai Gaita’s article in The Age a few months ago — that marriage now recognises not fertility, but “multi-levelled” love, combining commitment over time and s-xual connection, among other things, as an expression of human depth.

But to run with such an argument, you have no choice but to acknowledge that same-sex marriage represents an absolutely epochal shift in human affairs, something that marks a break with all human history. And that is something that same-sex advocates are unwilling to do.

That is partly strategic, partly left-liberal cluelessness, and in part the fact that much of the “marriage equality” cause has been run by Trotskyist groups such as the DSP who were, in more optimistic times, running “marriage abolition” campaigns. But it is also, I suspect, a vague awareness that the meaning of marriage — the sense that it is more than just an arrangement — starts to fade, the more it becomes abstracted from its original purpose of taming and enculturing fertility.

That meaning is, to a degree, “lent” to same-s-x marriage by straight marriage, and if same-sex marriage advocates were to make visible and explicit the process by which all marriage becomes a commitment ceremony when “marriage equality” is instituted, then a number of people might start to have second thoughts about it.

That is the reason conservatives argue that same-sex marriage “destroys” marriage by generalising its application, from its unique role in joining human nature to human culture. Same-sex marriage advocates who ridicule this idea do so at their peril, for it is far more widespread than they care to admit — and capable of being mobilised. There is nothing inevitable about the rise of same-e-x marriage. It is quite possible that it will stall, and be rolled backwards in years or decades to come. Paradoxically, they may do better to acknowledge the radical nature of the change, and insist on its necessity, along the lines sketched out by Gaita, rather than trying to pretend that it is simply rendering an equality that was always there, somehow lurking in the innards of it, waiting to be drawn out.

Same-sex marriage has an enormous cultural meaning, well beyond the 2-3% of people whom it might directly involve. Effectively, it advances the idea that inherited and traditionally grounded institutions such as marriage, can be repurposed and redefined — but without losing any of the intense or particular meaning that gives them their cultural power (and also anchors cultural meaning, i.e. the meaning of everyday life, more generally). That seems unlikely, and may explain why, with the best will in the world, to hear a man speaking of his husband, or about a woman’s wife, doesn’t sound real — because those words describe, and contain a real complementarity and difference, based overwhelmingly around the irreducible differences of childbearing.

Perhaps in 20 years they will. Perhaps not. But marriage is older than religion, older than the state, and it may have more powers of resistance than the “marriage equality” movement supposes. No matter. As long as there are people such as Cory Bernardi around, who do not believe in the strength of their own argument, and respond with fear and absurdity, the “marriage equality” movement will find its task much the easier.