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Oliver Cooper: Backing same-sex marriage won’t decide the next election – but it will decide elections decades from now

Cooper OliverOliver Cooper is National Chairman of Conservative Future.  Follow Oliver on Twitter.

The Conservative Party is the oldest political party in the world, having managed change from one era to the next more successfully than any other.  We are, after all, a party founded by Robert Peel’s acceptance of the Great Reform Act – the original Tory opposition to which put the Conservative Party on the wrong side of history and the electorate and which Disraeli believed cost it greatly for four decades.

The bill legalising same-sex marriage reaches its third reading in the House of Commons this week and is another test of our long-term survival instincts.  For my part, I've supported marriage equality for ten years – I, like most  peoplemy age, simply can’t understand why people shouldn't be able to celebrate their love the same way, no matter who they love.  Ideally, government should get out the business of marriage altogether – and leave it to couples and communities to decide – but this bill does the next best thing.

Opposing it doesn't make you a bigot or a homophobe – a label far too many are willing to apply to those voting against.  There are many religious objections to same-sex marriage - while the bill introduces safeguards to protect churches, I won't try to persuade MPs that feel their own religious beliefs stop them voting for the bill.  But to those that are open to persuasion, I’d like to make a plea from the next generation.

While most voters support same-sex marriage, it’s undoubtedly, and regrettably, the case that most Conservative voters oppose it.  But those that voted Conservative in 2010 are the least likely voters to rank it as a major issue.  After all, we’re Conservatives; we care more about the big issues – like fixing our economy, our schools, and our welfare system – and we should be proud that we do.

There is, however, a generational shift.  People under the age of 24 are three times as likely to put same-sex marriage in their top “three or four” political issues as those over the age of 60. And they support same-sex marriage three-to-one - those aged 25 to 40 back it by five-to-one. It won’t decide the next election, but will decide elections decades from now.  The next generation of voters think same-sex marriage is one of the big issues – and they’ll think us hypocrites to preach freedom and not back it in practice.

Having grown up in a post-Thatcher world, my generation can't justify the core Conservative conviction of freedom by crude Cold War geopolitics, but by how consistently we stick to our values.  That freedom is not pick-and-mix – it’s indivisible; big government is big government and Conservatives should reject it wherever we find it.  And, yes, should be both concerned about government forcing churches to conduct same-sex ceremonies – as they won’t be – and concerned about government prohibiting churches from conducting them – as they currently are.

Our party’s reputation amongst young people is at stake, and it has to be protected.  If we want to defeat socialism going forward – not just in the next Parliament, but the next generation – we have to be seen by the next generation as advancing our values in ways it can relate to.  Too many of my generation, when discussing Margaret Thatcher’s legacy, talk of little more than Section 28 – a measure introduced before they were born that instantly colours, in their ill-judged view, everything else she did.  If the party allows itself to be on the wrong side of history, young people will grow up to never vote Conservative.

This bill is not perfect.  The timing is not perfect.  The debate has not been perfect.  But this is our only opportunity as a party to ensure that the next generation sees us as advancing not just equality, but our own primary principle of liberty as well.  I urge all MPs to seize that opportunity and, for the sake of the party’s future, back the bill.


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