David Cameron must be applauded for his admirable stance on equal marriage.
On 20 May and 21 May 2013 equal marriage sustained another fierce parliamentary attack, but despite the best efforts of “traditionalists” the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill thankfully passed successfully through the House of Commons.
I’ve argued before that Cameron deserves real credit for his position on equal marriage. He must have known it would go down badly amongst “traditional grass roots Tory voters” (which is polite code for “Tories who don’t like gay people or certainly not enough to believe they should have identical legal rights to straight people”) but his commitment to this crucial piece of equalities legislation doesn’t seem to be faltering.
Cameron is a former PR man and he’s often criticised for merely “re-branding” the Tory party (and often doing a rather poor job even of that). Of course, it’s perfectly possible that the entire equal marriage project is simply one step on the road to brand detoxification and that Cameron doesn’t care less about the rights of gay people. He might even hate gay people for all we know. We can never know for sure what motivates a politician – whether it’s personal beliefs or political pragmatism or a bit of both – but in many cases a politician’s personal motivations will effectively be irrelevant as long as the final result is good.
In choosing to go to war on equal marriage with his own party and some Tory voters, and at this point in time, Cameron has shown some serious leadership and he’s shown he’s also pretty serious about equal citizenship rights and/or reforming his party.
He has chosen to fight this battle during an economic crisis, thereby giving his opponents the simple opportunity to argue the UK faces far greater challenges than the matrimonial arrangements of its citizens. (Notice the curious choice here: we must either fix our economy or discuss legal equality – we can’t do both. Why not?)
He has chosen to fight this battle when he is weak politically. Cameron is so weak he didn’t even secure a parliamentary majority for the Tories in the 2010 general election. He is the Prime Minister of a coalition government; there’s no Blair-like first term majority here.
He has chosen to fight this battle when his leadership is being subjected to another significant stress test: Europe.
He has chosen to fight this battle when Nigel Farage’s UKIP are waiting to pounce like rabid vultures.
He has chosen to fight this battle when he’s trying to convince another set of vultures – religious institutions – to assume the responsibilities of the state by providing services to the public under the smokescreen of the “Big Society”.
The hypocrisy of the Conservative party is at times quite a sight to behold – and I say that as someone who has generally voted for them in the past. This is the party that often argues for a “small state”, against the perils of a “nanny state”, and from a libertarian perspective for stronger rights and freedoms of the individual, free from the evil clutches of bloated bureaucracies. How on earth are those ideas compatible in any way with bigoted opposition to equal marriage and swivel-eyed support for a pointless, morally bankrupt, homophobic and misogynist established church? Cameron once said, “I don’t support gay marriage despite being a Conservative. I support gay marriage because I’m a Conservative.” That was a nice soundbite for a Tory conference but there’s also some truth in that statement.
Tory hypocrisy on equal marriage manifests itself in other ways. We’re told this legislation has no democratic legitimacy on the (correct) basis it wasn’t in the Tories’ 2010 election manifesto. It was, though, in the party’s equalities manifesto which was published just before that election, and that surely gives equal marriage a good degree of democratic legitimacy. Or at least some legitimacy rather than none. Can we expect Tory opponents of same sex marriage not to pursue any policy in the course of a parliament unless it was set out in their election manifesto? I doubt it.
Finally, while we’re on the subject of democratic legitimacy, let’s remember that arguments against equal marriage are almost exclusively religious in nature and that they’re supported by the formidable, privileged, ruthless, unearned, unaccountable and discriminatory power of religious institutions. But that’s one form of democratic illegitimacy you won’t hear many Tories complaining about any day soon.
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