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Leading article

Much ado

16 June 2012

6:00 AM

16 June 2012

6:00 AM

The American political scientist Wallace Sayre said that the bitterness of a political debate was inversely proportional to its importance. This has been true for US politics, where at each election time the issue of gay marriage divides the country — even when the president has no authority to either legalise or ban it. It’s all about sending messages and expressing values. This murky, often hysterical form of campaigning has largely been absent from British politics — until David Cameron, that is.

The Prime Minister’s decision to legalise gay marriage has, from the off, been more about political positioning than equality. He has created a fuss which is, as Sayre would have predicted, out of all proportion to what is at stake. The pot has been stirred. One hundred thousand responses have been sent to the Home Office’s consultation on the subject and more than 500,000 have signed the Coalition for Marriage’s petition, which shows the ability of the gay marriage agenda still to upset a great many people. But to what end? 

The irony is that gay marriage is, in effect, already legal in Britain, with an average of 110 ceremonies every weekend. Walk along British high streets and you can see adverts from councils inviting gay couples to ‘tie the knot’. The m-word is not yet licensed by the government, but words are not controlled by governments. So far, 43,000 couples have taken vow under the 2004 Civil Union Act without much hostility from the churches (or mass petitions).

Where there once was harmony, David Cameron has brought discord. The Church of England has warned that if a law allowing gay marriage were passed, it could lead to the church withdrawing from the role of issuing civil marriage certificates. Suddenly, we are presented with the possibility of the Church of England disestablishing itself. 


As so often, the Prime Minister is now in retreat. He is giving his party a free vote over the issue because even his Cabinet colleagues have made it clear that they would rebel. To most people, the issue seems an absurd distraction at a time of economic emergency: only one in 25 MPs say that gay marriage is a priority for their constituents. Even advocates of gay rights are baffled. Ben Bradshaw, a former Labour Cabinet member, says the m-word was never needed and Cameron’s proposals only ‘get a bunch of bishops hot under the collar’.

The Spectator is, by instinct, on the side of liberty. We called for the decriminalisation of homosexuality a decade before it was enacted, and were denounced as the ‘bugger’s bugle’. Our position remains the same: freedom means freedom for everyone. But that must include freedom for churches, mosques and synagogues to reject the secular definition of equality and define marriage as a public promise between a man and a woman.

Religious institutions are nervous at ministerial assurances that they will be left alone. The government is not in a position to give such guarantees; the real Supreme Court of the United Kingdom lies in Strasbourg, not London, and discrimination cases will be brought under the European Convention of Human Rights. So far, Strasbourg has rejected the idea of gay marriage as a human right. But the Prime Minister’s guess about its future position is no better than anyone else’s.

Mr Cameron likes to say that he supports gay marriage not in spite of being a Conservative, but because of it. That is a good slogan, but rather misses the point. One of the defining characteristics, and great strengths, of Conservatism is its ability to bring about change while accommodating a broad spectrum of views. On the subject of same-sex unions, Tony Blair was a good conservative. David Cameron is proving a rather poor one.

Soap-on-Seine

At first, it seemed that French politics were becoming a little dull with the election of François Hollande. Now, things look more promising. The new president seems to be locked in a love triangle, offering apparently limitless potential for romantic drama.

His girlfriend is the television journalist Valerie Trierweiler — who has promised to remain politically neutral in her broadcasts, despite sleeping with the president. The other woman in Hollande’s life is the former presidential candidate Ségolène Royal, the mother of his four children and, in effect, his ex-wife ­— although they never married, regarding the institution as bourgeois.

This week, Mr Hollande asked his fellow socialists to vote for Ségolène in her constituency. In response, Trierweiler pledged via Twitter her support for Royal’s opponent, Olivier Falorni. The president’s aides claimed that the First Girlfriend’s account had been hacked. But Ms Trierweiler — independent as ever — stuck to her guns. She confirmed that the message was genuine and that she would not give political support to Ms Royal.

So what next? For French Conservative opponents, this fiasco is a gift: Dallas in the Elysée. For everyone else, it offers entertaining distraction from a eurozone that seems to have nothing but bad news. ‘France cannot be France without greatness,’ said Charles de Gaulle. But French politics cannot be French politics, it seems, without an element of romantic farce.


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