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A conservative case for gay marriage

By Tim Montgomerie
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David Willetts once said that the Tory Party appeared obsessed with homosexuality. Certainly, during our long years in opposition, the topic occupied a lot of internal debate. I remember sat inside Conservative HQ talking with Danny Finkelstein. He was then head of policy for the party and I was running the party's social justice programme. I said I would happily see gay rights campaigners secure their key objectives if public policy could move on to what I saw as the central issue - ensuring that we promoted more stability for children and for others who depend upon strong and stable families.

On Friday Bruce Anderson described the family as "social penicillin: the super drug which can cure so many social diseases". I agree. The family is, for me, one of three driving forces for social progress. The other two are education and work. As I have often written, this social trinity of a good family, a good education and a commitment to work represent the superior conservative alternative to the socialist emphasis on a large welfare state.

It is because I value marriage so much that I have come to believe it should be extended to gay people and not kept exclusive. Because it is so beneficial an institution it should be enlarged rather than fossilised. Whereas some people see the gay marriage issue as primarily about equal rights, I see it as about social solidarity and stability. Marriage is, for want of a better word, conservatising. I don't mean in a party political sense. I mean it is one of the key social institutions that conservatives admire. It is about drawing people together. Not just the couple but also their extended family and other friends and loved ones. It is a deeply important social act that draws others to the care of the couple and draws the couple to the care of others, not least ageing parents. As Mary Ann Sieghart has written, reflecting on her own experience, most people take a different approach to marriage than to cohabitation. The preparation for marriage, its legal structure, the involvement of others in its ceremonies and celebrations, these things add up to mean that that those within marriage generally behave differently from those who haven't entered such a commitment.

Screen shot 2012-02-06 at 08.57.10In his 1995 book Virtually Normal, which had a big influence on me, Andrew Sullivan set out what marriage could mean for gay people:

"More important, perhaps, as gay marriage sank into the subtle background consciousness of a culture, its influence would be felt quietly but deeply among gay children. For them, at last, there would be some kind of future; some older faces to apply to their unfolding lives, some language in which their identity could be properly discussed, some rubic by which it could be explained - not in terms of sex, or sexual practices, or bars, or subterranean activity, but in terms of their future life stories, their potential loves, their eventual chance at some kind of constructive happiness. They should be able to feel by the intimation of myriad examples that in this respect their emotional orientation was not merely about pleasure, or sin, or shame, or otherness (although it might always be involved in many of these things), but about the ability to love and be loved as complete, imperfect human beings. Until gay marriage is legalised, this fundamental element of human dignity will be denied a whole segment of humanity."

David Cameron has been right to support same-sex marriage from the first days of his leadership. If marriage is embraced as an institution of relevance to all people I hope we will begin to see the kind of pro-marriage public policy that exists in nearly all other developed countries. By making social conservatism if not fashionable again, but certainly acceptable, I think, for example, it will be easier to see the kind of pro-marriage tax policies that exist in every other European state (and which, David Binder noted yesterday on ConHome, can be more pro-poor than raising the income tax threshold).

I hope, over time, we will get to a policy where we can combine gay rights with religious liberty. On occasions - such as with Catholic adoption agencies - religious liberty has been compromised in unacceptable ways. The Government has promised that any gay marriage bill will protect the rights of religious groups to hold firm to their view that marriage must remain between a man and a woman. I may no longer share other Christians' opposition to this social reform but we should live in a society where the state guards freedom of religion and association.

Soon I hope we'll get to that position which I described at the beginning of this blog. Gay people as full members of social institutions. Religious liberty protected. And public policy dedicated to building up the family and all of the benefits that it brings to society.

(I'm writing all of this today because I've given an interview to The Independent in which I talk a little about my views on this subject.)


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