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The great Tory gay marriage mess

By Paul Goodman
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Let's start by considering the gay marriage proposal from the viewpoint of practical politics, rather than conviction one way or the other.  There was no big campaigning push for it after the introduction of civil partnerships.  Polls show that the idea divides the generations: younger people tend to be for it and older people not.  In particular, the Conservative base - which is elderly - is opposed.  The views of religious people are not uniform, but the two biggest churches, one of which is England's national church, are against the proposal, and most Christians will line up with them.  In short, most surveys show about a third of voters against the idea, and it is usually bad politics to seek to force through change which a majority or plurality of voters favour tepidly but a significant minority oppose passionately.

The only strategic reason for seeking to introduce gay marriage, therefore, is to seek to win younger, and doubtless new and urban-based voters at the expense of older and more rural-dwelling ones who tend to vote Tory, and to do so without any grasp of in which seats Christian or gay voters - who tend to line up on either side of the debate - are concentrated, and indeed how the numbers break down more broadly.  To make such a move, therefore, is a gambit straight out of the Blair textbook - a "Clause Four moment" based on the dual premise that the base of a political party has nowhere else to go (though the Christian vote, if that's the right phrase for it, is extremely diverse) and that such moments exist in the first place.

What has taken place since I last wrote about gay marriage has tested both the view that its opponents are losing the argument and the idea that the Blair textbook still applies in 2012 - in the latter case, arguably to destruction.  I wrote with the poor timing which remains one of my hallmarks that the Roman Catholic Church had not yet "devoted the energy to attacking the Government's plans that it deploys in defending its own schools": the very next weekend, a letter opposing the move was read from every pulpit in England and Wales.  This morning, the Church of England is threatening to end its role as religious registrar for the state.  There are arguments for and against disestablishment (which is this change would be a move towards) but such radical constitutional reform should be considered on its own merits.

In other words, it should not be furthered as a side-consequence of some other measure, and  that one may bring it about about should give pause for thought.  The crux of the matter for many is whether the churches or other faith communities could be forced to conduct gay marriages against their will.  I am not convinced this would be the case but the Church of England thinks otherwise, as the Times's report this morning reminds us, and anyone who has read the temperate Clearing the Ground report launched by Gary Streeter recently could only conclude that as far as the courts are concerned "what's to come is still unsure".  Lord Brennan has argued that "familiar words such as “husband and wife” and “mother and father” are "disappearing from the statute books in the small minority of countries" that have introduced gay marriage.

He pointed out that Spanish birth certificates were altered to read “Progenitor A” and “Progenitor B” instead of “father” and “mother”.  This is exactly the kind of illustration that gets the opponents of gay marriage going - which returns us to the matter of where they are concentrated.  One MP told me that he had lost an eighth of his Association members over the matter.  Whether he was exaggerating or not, the party is short of boots on the ground and the proposal has undoubtedly made waves in local Assocations.  More broadly, the Coalition for Marriage petition has now reached over 500,000 - no small number - and the party hasn't a clue where they are based, which I repeat has been one of my complaints about the Government's plan from the start.

If David Cameron and George Osborne were primarily conviction politicians, their support for a proposal that wasn't in the Conservative manifesto (or in the Liberal Democrat one for that matter) would cause less dangerous waves.  I don't mean to suggest for a moment that they are without beliefs, but these are invariably tempered by tactical ploys, positioning and a big element of triangulation to a degree unknown to the previous generation of Tory politicians.  They could have approached the issue more cautiously - examining, for example, whether civil partners really are on an equal footing with married couples in terms of the monetary benefits they derive from the state.  They could also have sought to have a big debate within the party itself, and put the argument for gay marriage to activists on its merits.

Let's close by considering where we are now instead.  The push for the plan can't be blamed by Number Ten on the Liberal Democrats (although the Liberal Democrat Minister in charge of it isn't the brightest red box in the pile).  We have a consultation which is committed to instituting a plan for which there was little public pressure and to which there is a lot of voter opposition.  Any bill will produce more dissenting Conservative MPs and more local resignations.  Unlike Tim Montgomerie, I'm not a supporter of gay marriage, but regardless of one's views on the matter, it looks as though the Tory end of the Government has rushed into this one without thinking it through.   If one sets oneself up as a practical politician, one must reasonably be judged as one.  In relation to gay marriage, this is precisely where the party leadership is being found wanting.


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