For some time now, a growing number of Tory MPs have been quietly informing the whips that they will not be voting to support gay marriage. They’ve been getting letters from their constituents, and even those in favour of the idea know that they can’t afford to support it. When a cabinet member spoke to the whips office recently, he was given a startling reply: don’t worry, it will never come to a vote. The consultation is ongoing, but the agenda is being dropped. The effect it’s having on the morale of the Tory grassroots is calamitous. I look at this fiasco in my Daily Telegraph column today, and here are the main points.
1. The kulturkampf over gay marriage defines American politics, not Britain’s. Obama backed it this week, and it was big news. Not because he’ll do anything: the President doesn’t decide such matters, and several states have gone ahead and legalised gay marriage anyway. Obama’s conversion matters because gay marriage is one of those issues that divides America from sea to shining sea. In a way it doesn’t, really, here.
2. The Cameron approach. Cameron has seen gay marriage as a proxy for how his party has changed. ‘I once stood before a Conservative conference and said it shouldn't matter whether commitment was between a man and a woman, a woman and a woman, or a man and another man. You applauded me for that,’ he said in last year’s conference speech. He is milking the issue for its politics.
3. The Blair approach. This contrasts with the 2004 Civil Partnership Bill, which was certainly opposed by the churches. But hype was kept to a minimum. Blair didn’t claim that his party had changed, that he’d won a victory over the wicked Conservatives and nor did he pose as the Emily Pankhurst of gay rights. He presented the Bill as a technical adjustment to grant homosexual couples the same rights over life insurance, hospital visits, etc as married couples. The American debate is over legal equality and the number of rights — more than a thousand of them — enjoyed by married couples that gay couples do not have. In Britain, Blair has closed that gap already.
4. The conservative approach. Cameron has been using the David Brooks line about how conservatives should insist on gay marriage, not just tolerate it. He’s certainly right to say that conservatism is a hugely progressive force — his was, after all, the first party to elect a woman as party leader. The Spectator was advocating the decriminalisation of homosexuality a decade before it happened. So I agree with Cameron that there’s no inherent contradiction. To quote that lesser god of gay rights, Dick Cheney, freedom means freedom for everyone. But…
5. The freedom to disagree is also very important. What strikes me as un-conservative is some kind of quest for uniformity. Every mainstream strand of Judaism, Islam and Christianity opposes gay marriage. It’s very important that religious freedom is protected, and people who oppose the whole thing are not led to fear that they’ll end up being sued for refusing to host gay wedding receptions in the crypt. When the government suggests it is changing the licensing terms on the word ‘marriage’ this raises deep concerns. The Archbishop of York has warned Cameron that he is behaving like a dictator.
6. Generational differences are also important. The over-65s grew up in an era where homosexuality was illegal, and we’ve seen staggeringly rapid change in social attitudes since. This means opinion changes very sharply down the generations. Blair was respectful of the views of the older voters, and didn’t use the m-word because he didn’t want to antagonize unnecessarily.
7. The Lib Dems don’t mind antagonising. Blair did everything apart from drop the word ‘marriage’ into the equation — and he did this out of respect for (and, yes, fear of) the many millions who find the agenda offensive. Crucially, marriage is not really the government’s domain. It’s run by churches, mosques and synagogues. It’s usually a grave political mistake not to be respectful of these boundaries, as Blair realised.
8. Gay marriage became the focus of a coalition custody battle. Clegg was on the lookout for easy Lib Dem wins, the m-word was seen as one of them, Cameron allowed him to announce this at the last Lib Dem conference as some red meat for his troops. But Andrew Cooper, Cameron’s pollster, panicked then had it briefed out ahead of the Lib Dem conference as a Tory policy and persuaded Cameron to put the bellows under it the week later. A recession-struck country looked on askance, wondering why these two parties weren’t more concerned about the lack of jobs.
9. The coalition is attempting to re-enact a battle already fought and won by Labour. What actual differences would the proposals make? Only two, as far as I can see. It’d make gay divorce easier by allowing adultery to be cited, and confer honorary titles on the spouses of those elevated to the House of Lords or to a peerage. It is unworthy of Lynne Featherstone to compare her proposals with the situation in America. Her services are not needed to allow gay couples to tie the knot: civil partnership ceremonies can be conducted anywhere that allows them, including Quaker meeting houses and certain Unitarian churches.
10. Cameron’s party would back him, if this were a real contest. But it’s fairly obvious to activists that this is just American-style kulturkampf whose chief aim is to allow certain politicians to ally themselves to a cause, and annoy a certain segment of the population. Tory chiefs used to talk about the merits of repelling the most right-wing 20 per cent of the party, arguing that they would be replaced by far more centrist voters. Voters are defecting all right, but they’re not being replaced. Further narrowing the Conservative Party’s appeal is not sensible politics. Like so many of the coalition government’s errors, this is not something that would have been allowed to proceed if it had been properly thought-through.