While this isn’t actually a post about it, I think equal marriage is a question of civic equality and I don’t think that there should be any specific religious exclusions; I think religious institutions should be allowed to make up their own minds in their own ways. I think many of the people who voted or agued against equal marriage are wrong for the wrong reasons but I think some of them have a reasoned and principled point. I particularly dislike those who say ‘we gave you civil partnerships, what more do you want?’ – I think that approach is particularly unkind and actually rather offensive in seeing non-heterosexual people as needing to be kept separate in some way. It is simply untrue that the issue of reclassifying civil partnerships was not in the manifesto (it was - page 14 of the Contract for Equalities), and it also featured in a story in the Telegraph two days before the election. It was also something that I certainly anticipated changes on from very early on.
I did say that this wasn’t about equal marriage itself, but as I haven’t said much about it, beyond that I support it, I wanted to say all that and also that I am really really disappointed by just how incredibly offensive both sides of the debate have been to each other, and by how very blinkered it has mostly been.
My main point however is inevitably another process one. David Cameron is one of the best and most passionate advocates for equal marriage that the Tory party has (though I watched a little bit of the debate when I got home; Iain Stewart’s speech was lovely, and I hear both Margot James and Gavin Barwell gave fantastic arguments in favour). He did not appear in the Commons until the vote was called. He did not mention it at the Black and White Party last night. He has not made a substantive speech on it, other than some – admittedly very good and clear – lines in a few big speeches at party conferences.
He is Prime Minister. The vice-president of the United States is visiting, he was speaking via video to a conference this afternoon, he is clearly busy running all sorts of other things as well. But the fact remains that this is – for all what I see to be its obvious merits – an issue which was always going to be seen as a test for him, and for his party, and for his leadership, and as a result has much more significance politically (in the short-term, probably. Though a lot less significance than for all the people who are currently made to feel that they are not ‘mainstream’).
I wrote a while ago about how a lack of sustained focus and effort had damaged some of the really promising initiatives he had begun (the European Conservatives and Reformists, the Big Society, and local mayors were the ones I mentioned). And I think that the vote on equal marriage will, sadly, have to be added to that list. Leadership is not just about making a statement and expecting everything to fall in place; it is about hard work and persuasion as well.
I imagine that they will become law, and that in a year or two most people will have forgotten what all the fuss was about. But there will be a lot of people for whom their abiding impression of Conservatives is not that we want equality before the law, freedom and opportunity, nor even that we support committed relationships and a public declaration of such, but that more than half of our MPs – for whatever reason – wanted to keep treating gay people as ‘the other’, and that David Cameron – for all his other achievements – didn’t bust a gut to persuade them otherwise.