The shambling remnants of Britain’s social and moral conservative movement are marching to Stalingrad, singing as they go. They will not be coming back, but they don’t realise that yet.
David Cameron has cleverly provoked them into this suicide mission, by claiming to be a keen supporter of homosexual marriage. And so, with all the self-control of bluebottles massing round a dead cat, or squirrels besieging a bird-feeder, the Moral Minority have rushed to campaign against him.
The risk to them is great. The risk to Cameron is minor. Even if they succeeded, the Prime Minister would not mind much. Very probably, Cameron does not really support same-sex weddings at all, or even care about the subject. It is not clear that he cares about anything. His beliefs, if they can be called beliefs, cut in and out like a digital radio signal, depending on the circumstances.
But he knows one big thing. Modern politicians define themselves by picking their enemies carefully, and by being noisily attacked by them. It works. New Labour, year after year, managed to fool parents into thinking it was going to reform state schools by arranging to have David Blunkett barracked by the teachers’ unions. And in what looks like the final stage of his Tory purge, Cameron really, really wants to be attacked angrily by preachy moral conservatives, whom he can and will dismiss as bigots. I suspect he daydreams of mowing down a doomed uphill charge led by Lord Carey, while Ben Summerskill of Stonewall looks on approvingly.
He thinks that loss is gain. That is why he hugged the hoodies, fell in love with the NHS and recanted his former (and correct) view that wind farms were little more than giant bird-blenders. At the start of the Cameron project, Oliver Letwin used to muse privately that the Tories might need to lose up to a quarter of their traditional supporters to gain the new ones they needed for a majority. The first part of the project, repelling the old supporters, has so far been both enjoyable and successful. Yet somehow or other the new, open-necked, rich liberals he seeks to win have been slow to join or donate. They still feel uncomfortable with the word ‘Tory’. It is time for one more heave, one more hug, one more languid provocation designed to enrage the suburbs.
This is that provocation, and he hopes it will achieve two things. It will bring to his arms the metrosexual classes who still hesitate before voting Tory in case their friends ostracise them. And it will marginalise forever the only significant knot of opposition in his party that he has not suborned, conquered, charmed, driven out or befuddled. With a bit of luck it might also persuade Ukip, the Dad’s Army of politics, to take up the same hopeless cause in a big way. That should fix them.
I used to take part in debates about homosexuality. I used to try setting out a careful, principled position on it. Then I began to notice something. It was a subject on which it was pointless to be reasonable. You might as well have tried to offer a reasoned defence of clubbing baby seals.
As I began to speak, I could sense a sort of wordless baying noise slowly building in strength (this was always worst in Oxford, which has the most intolerant audiences in Britain). It was the sound of the liberal mob having fun, and I could feel the awful word ‘homophobe’ slowly forming, in letters of fire, just above my head.
Against this charge there is no defence. If someone says you are homophobic, you are, in this post-Macpherson world. And off you go, into the outer darkness where there shall be wailing and gnashing of teeth. Expect no help from those you have until now regarded as allies or supporters. Even the Women’s Institute has fallen in with this orthodoxy. But I knew it was worse than that when, at a Tory fringe meeting, the issue allowed Steve Norris to ascend to the moral high ground and look down on me, smirking. That was an experience I had no wish to repeat.
Why was I bothering with this? Why should anyone? The number of people involved is tiny. Alfred Kinsey was wrong. Ten per cent of the population are not homosexual. Except in 2006, when they had just been introduced, there have never been more than 10,000 civil partnerships a year. There is no important difference between a civil partnership and a civil marriage, and changing the name will alter nothing substantial. As critics have rightly pointed out, there is no great demand for it and nobody promised to make the change at the last election. It is, or ought to be, a war without any combatants.
The real zone of battle, a vast 5,000-mile front along which the forces of righteousness have retreated without counter-attacking for nearly 50 years, involves the hundreds of thousands of marriages undermined by ridiculously easy divorce, the millions of children hurt by those divorces and the increasing multitudes of homes where the parents, single or in couples, have never been married at all and never will be. If we are to have a Coalition for Marriage (or C4M as it is modishly called), this would be territory on which it might fight with some hope of success.
Why should we care so much about stopping a few hundred homosexuals getting married, when we cannot persuade legions of heterosexuals to stay married? It is a complete loss of proportion. This is why I use the metaphor of Stalingrad, a stupid distraction from the main war, with which generals and politicians alike became so obsessed that they poured all their resources into it. I would urge my fellow moral conservatives not to rush into this trap. But as proper conservatism of all kinds is probably doomed anyway in this country, they might as well go down fighting.
Peter Hitchens is a columnist for the Mail on Sunday.