And lo, the battle for British Gay Marriage was in fact a rout. True, half the parliamentary Conservative party voted against the measure. True too, this is now being considered further evidence that David Cameron’s leadership skills – or, rather, since they are not the same thing – his party management skills are less than they might be.
But, for once, I think focusing on Tory divisions misses the rather bigger, simpler story. Nearly half the Conservative parliamentary party endorsed gay marriage in the House of Commons. And they did it on a free vote. That is quite a thing.
Now of course I understand why the press prefers to portray this as a struggle between Modernisers and Traditionalists but even if you wish to see it in this – not altogether useful – fashion there’s no doubt who won. The Modernisers. I fancy that in ten years time we will wonder what the fuss was about.
Will it help the Conservatives win some of the metropolitan seats they could do with winning at the next election? Who the hell knows? Again, it is easy to view this kind of matter through an electoral prism. But sometimes doing so misses the bigger, simpler story. Which is this: the Prime Minister showed some real leadership on this issue. That is, I think he thinks that legislating for gay marriage was the right thing to do and that this, more than positioning or modernising or vote-grabbing, was the motivation for this legislation. It’s sad to think that this counts as something refreshing at Westminster.
Perhaps there was no need for this bill. Perhaps it was not a matter of great urgency. Perhaps the bill, like most bills, has its flaws. Frankly, these are objections that could be made to most bills that pass through the Palace of Westminster. Sometimes the answer to the question Why now? is simply Why not now?
It’s true that homosexual emancipation – as such, it may, I think, be termed – has moved at a rapid pace and too quickly for some. There has been a remarkable transformation in attitudes in this country in a relatively short period of time. It is understandable that some people will take longer than others to reconcile themselves to that change.
But, guess what, people can – and will – reconcile themselves to that change. The Telegraph’s editorial opposing this legislation accepts that:
The British public have long proved themselves open-minded and adaptable; in time, the existence of gay marriage will become a settled fact. But even if the country takes the change in its stride, Mr Cameron may find – to his cost – that his party has not.
This is an interesting formulation, not least since it suggests the British public is likely to react to all this in a more measured fashion than the Conservative party. Where does that leave the Tory party then? I’d like to think that just as we can have some confidence in the good-natured decency of the British public we could have some equal confidence in the good-natured generosity of the Conservative party. But perhaps not.
People are often better than we give them credit for being. I think it reasonable to have misgivings about this kind of measure but I also suspect experience will prove most of those misgivings irrelevant. Time will work its magic.
As for the party management question, well, I thought it wise for the Prime Minister to avoid the House of Commons debate. Everyone knows where he stood on the issue (he’s been talking about it for years after all so no-one can say they weren’t warned about this). But leaving the floor to others helped ensure that this was less about David Cameron and more about the merits of the matter itself. There was something almost refreshingly modest about this too.
Iain Martin has some good advice:
Cameron is now getting all sorts of strange advice from Tory modernisers. Having split the Conservatives in parliament with his campaign on gay marriage – and I am told he regrets the damage done in party management terms – there are renewed calls circulating for him to declare war on his party. This is kamikaze politics, the opposite of what he should be doing.
I agree. This battle is won. There is no need to bayonet the Tory wounded. Better, by far, to regroup and move on. We are hearing quite a lot about loyalty in the Tory press at present. Oddly, however, it is the Prime Minister who is accused of betraying conservatism. I should think the loyalty question is best asked of Cameron’s internal opponents.
Whatever their motives, the malcontents do the Tory party’s electoral prospects no good at all. I dare say Downing Street could – and should – do more to make backbenchers feel loved but backbenchers might also ask if their actions are really helping the party. All this recent speculation about the leadership has, viewed from far beyond Westminster’s walls, seemed perfectly ludicrous. If loyalty was once supposed to be the Tory party’s secret weapon it sure ain’t any more.
I happen to think gay marriage a conservative issue and think it better by far that legislation permitting it be passed by a Tory-led government. Britain has changed and one way we will know this is when we realise, a few years hence, how little this bill has changed much that matters at all. It will be seen as a tidying-up piece of legislation, not a revolution. A Tory measure, in other words.