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Tuesday, February 05, 2013 

The Conservatives: still a strange beast.

The Conservative party has long, indeed probably always been a strange beast.  As those determined to make a case for the Tories being the true progressives always point out, it was the first party to have a Jewish leader, the first to have a woman as leader, and likely also to be the first to have a gay leader, although the debate continues over whether the Grocer was closeted or asexual (Ruth Davidson, the Tories' leader in Scotland, is also gay).  Those involved in the laughable skulduggery surrounding Adam Afriyie commented that he had the potential to be the first black leader of one of the big three, although far more probable is that Labour will beat them to it in the shape of either Chuka Umunna or David Lammy.
Still, there is no denying that the Tories remain a reasonably broad church.  Just as there has always been a hang 'em and flog 'em and send 'em back wing, so there has also been a socially liberal minority, since suitably expanded.  If anything, those now most threatened with extinction within the party are those with positive views on Europe, such has been the victory for first the Eurosceptic and now the outright Europhobic tendency.  It's all too easily forgotten then that after WW2 and until Thatcher took the helm, the Tories were a solidly one nation party that remained within the social democratic consensus of the time.  Yes, there were the battles with the unions of the 70s, and the slow shift towards neoliberalism, yet the party didn't succeed or for the most part attempt to overturn the liberalising legislation of the 60s that Labour supported and ensured reached the statute book.

I can't then help but be reminded of Peter Mannion in The Thick of It complaining about how he was being regarded as a knuckledragger despite having long been in favour of immigration and not "against gays, most of whom are very well turned out, especially the men."  Cameron's "modernisation" campaign wasn't so much about changing views wholesale within the party as it was altering the public's view of the Tories.  Sure, there are still a few who view the 50s as a halcyon period and everything that's happened since as the country going to hell in a handcart, but it certainly isn't fair to view Cameron's Conservatives as bigoted as a whole.  The nastiness that remains, such as it is, is all to do with their economic policies and determination to portray everyone on benefits as little better than vermin.

All of which only underlines the inherent contradictions and hypocrisies of so many of those on the government benches who oppose gay marriage. As David Cameron put it, he supports it because he is a conservative, even if he couldn't be bothered to sit on the front bench as the bill was introduced. As much as anything, it is the ultimate victory for the conservative view of the family: far from monogamous relationships falling out of fashion as was hoped for by some of the first wave of gay rights campaigners, the opposite is now to be recognised by the state. It's instead fallen to the increasingly desperate ResPublica think-tank to suggest that gay marriage should be opposed precisely because difference should be celebrated, to much general amusement.

Most of the other arguments deployed by opponents have been similarly off-kilter, for the precise reason that there are no serious ones against. Religions are protected, much to the annoyance of some within the CoE who'd like to make their own decision as to whether to conduct ceremonies, and the other claims made about a lack of a mandate for the change or the bill being rushed through simply don't stand up.  There was no mandate for the changes to the NHS, and the speed with which the reforms to welfare and schools have been rammed through has worried few Tories up to now.

Clutching at straws still doesn't quite cover some of the other pleas made for why the legislation must not pass. Charles Moore invoked the inability to consummate the marriage and the difficulties this would mean for getting a divorce, then plucked at marriage being about children, ignoring how gay couples have been able to adopt for a decade now.  Nadine Dorries, bless her, brought up adultery, something she has personal knowledge of. Sir Roger Gale suggested one solution was we should do away with civil partnerships and bring in civil unions, allowing brothers and sisters to register their love if they so wished, as that would be "a way forward" while this was not.  That Roger Gale's opinion on the sanctity of marriage as it stands currently didn't stop him divorcing his first, or indeed second wife is clearly irrelevant.  As for Peter Bone, whose hilarious motif is to invoke Mrs Bone at every opportunity, he felt it should go to a referendum at the same time as the vote on Europe, as "[W]hy is my view, or the leader of my party‚Äôs, more important than the person in the Dog and Duck?" It's a good question, and presumably Bone will have no objections then to the introduction of a Swiss-style referendum system, with all that entails.

The result of the vote, that more Tory MPs voted against (134) than in favour (126) isn't wholly surprising.  It's been apparent since the rebellion on Europe in 2011 that there are a substantial number of backbench MPs who believe if Cameron wasn't so wet that the party would have won outright in 2010, and the numbers just about reflect that if you strip out those opposed purely on religious grounds.  It also underlines that Cameron's promise of the 2017 referendum has hardly bought off any of his naysayers, who decided not to acquiesce even in the face of making his conference comment on gay marriage look ridiculous.  The tone of the debate may not have been quite as heated or as near the knuckle as it could have been, barring the one or two who simply had to bring polygamy or incest into it, but it shows the party as still riven between outright social conservatism and tentative liberalism.

It also can't be good for inner party relations.  Those who voted against ought to explain to the faces of their colleagues who are gay why it is they think they shouldn't have the same rights they do.  Iain Stewart, MP for Milton Keynes South, made a very touching speech in which he talked about how he told his parents he was gay, starting the conversation by saying "[Y]ou know, I'm never going to be able to marry".  Should the bill pass through all its hurdles, he soon will.  Those 134 (and those in the other parties who also voted against)  didn't even begin to make the slightest of cases for why he should continue to be denied equality.

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