Should right-wing politicians be more moral? The question is being raised by Ricky Ross on his superb Sunday morning show on Radio Scotland*; I will be one of the guests. We recorded the discussion this morning. Why, he asked, are Tories seen as being a bit cold-hearted, obsessed with the rich and unconcerned with welfare? Why couldn’t they put themselves at the front of a social mission, like gay marriage?
It’s an important point: Tories tend to dislike being seen as preachy and pious, so avoid the moralising language that Labour politicians are quicker to use. But that doesn’t mean they’re not driven by the same sense of moral purpose: the pursuit of freedom, the belief that societies are stronger and more cohesive when power is passed from the state to the people. But gay marriage is a bad example for two reasons. First, David Cameron actually did lead the charge on gay marriage – and, to my dismay, treated it as a US-style culture war. But even then, he was following rather than leading public opinion.
Attitudes to homosexuality have changed to a staggering degree over the last generation or so, as the below graph shows. This, and the collapse of racist sentiments, are two of the biggest changes in British attitudes.
By and large, laws reflect what people want. Homosexuality was illegal until the 1960s because most Brits thought it was ‘always wrong.’ When The Spectator campaigned for decriminalization in 1957, ten years in advance the actual act, we were denounced as the ‘bugger’s bugle’ in the Sunday Express. The magazine was then, as so often, ahead of its time.
Equal marriage was put into law not by Cameron but by Tony Blair in the pioneering Civil Partnerships Act 2004, which gave gay couples all of the rights and status enjoyed by straight couples. Blair pitched it perfectly: he didn’t try to portray himself as the Emmeline Pankhurst of gay rights, or try to infer that those opposed to his reform were bigots. Cameron’s only improvement was to add a word: civil partnerships could be called ‘marriages’ by government officials. And that was it. A cherry, plonked on top of a wedding cake baked by the Labour Party.
One of the other guests on Ricky Ross's show was Annabel Goldie, a former leader of the Scottish Conservatives. When she was growing up, the government banned homosexuality. Now government is interfering again, encouraging marriage (gay and straight) – also wrong, in my view. People should be free lead their lives however they wish, gay or straight, married or single. It ought to be no business of the Prime Minister who marries whom. All he needs to do is make sure he doesn’t interfere with freedoms – this means not getting in the way of the synagogues and Unitarian churches which want to marry same-sex couples, and not getting in the way of other churches which don’t. Freedom should mean freedom for everyone.
Britain has, within Baroness Goldie’s lifetime, gone through a revolution in its approach to homosexuality. But it was a revolution driven by shifting public perception, not by political hectoring. Margret Thatcher was the first female Prime Minister because Britain was ready for one: her election was the result of reform that had already happened.
All this underlines what I call Elizabeth’s Law of politics: that all of the great reforms we see come due to public demand, rather than state diktat. As the Queen put it in a brilliant observation in her 2010 address to the United Nations:-
‘Many sweeping advances have come about not because of governments, committee resolutions, or central directives – although all these have played a part – but instead because millions of people around the world have wanted them.’
The Queen has seen enough Prime Ministers to know that few, if any of them actually change society. I won’t accuse her of being a Tory, but she makes a very conservative point. By and large, Conservatives believe that the point of democracy is that society should shape government - not the other way around. If Tories don’t sound preachy, this is why.
* Note to non-Scots: BBC iPlayer Radio will sort you out. Ricky's music and intelligent conversation is the best you’ll hear on BBC radio.