O would some power the giftie gie us to see ourselves as others see us.
When I was watching the equal marriage debate those words of Robert Burns came to my mind. It is a sentiment I often think Conservatives ought to have seared into their being, in fact politicians of all descriptions really. Speaker after speaker in the debate stood up to praise the tone of the debate, and yes I admit it wasn’t as bad as I feared it could be, but did any of them have any concept of how that debate was being received outside that televised chamber? I doubt it. Speaker after speaker rose to defend marriage as having always been between a man and a woman, or as being about the family, or raising children. All these things are fine, but I was sitting there thinking just because a thing has always been the case doesn’t a good argument for its continuance make. Also by suggesting that marriage is about family life and raising children some listeners would have inferred that gay couples don’t constitute a family unit and cannot or should not raise children.
Myriad speakers were at pains to point out that they weren’t bigots when they were pointing out their inability to vote in favour of the bill. For the most part I believed them I don’t think they were motivated by prejudice to oppose the bill. They were however seeking to deny the legitimate aspirations of a minority section of the community and for many that act will be perceived however wrongly as an act of bigotry. The religious freedom arguments around whether faith groups would be unfairly discriminated by this were interesting and reasonably put. I think there are very few people who would actively want faith groups to be trampled under foot. We are a secularising society, most people have a very limited active faith but even so would recognise that in being tolerant to one group you cannot end up by being intolerant to another.
There were of course a fair number of exceptionally over the top interventions into the debate. I thought David Lammy’s speech was a little over the top for my taste and could be seen as provocative and inflammatory, I just didn’t see the need for that kind of rhetoric which wasn’t going to win anyone over at all. Most of the terrible interventions though were on the anti side of the argument. We had the full range of ludicrous rubbish, one speaker even mentioned the old canard of “Adam and Eve not Adam and Steve”. I mean really. It might have looked funny and witty 40 years ago but now it is just hackneyed and bitterly offensive. We then had Roger Gale proposing that civil marriage and civil partnership be abolished in favour of some sort of union that could be open to brothers and sisters, gays and those heterosexuals who didn’t want to involve the church. He didn’t say but I assume that this new civil union proposal would include those weirdos who want to be partnered with their pet gerbil. I found his remarks gratuitously offensive, because what he seemed to be saying was that marriage is only for red-blooded christian folk and everyone else can have a weirdos and perverts alternative. Grossly offensive. Peter Bone was another person who made a speech that made me shiver. The suggestion that minority rights should be subject to a referendum was hideous. If that approach had been taken in the past then black people would still labour under the lash.
A lot of the debate boiled down to those who objected to the redefinition of marriage. They are entitled to that view. However it is a view that like cliffs subject to erosion is increasingly tenuous. Marriage is an institution that is at the apex of human relationships, it is the way that we as human beings highlight the most significant bond we form with someone we are not related to and show to the world the depth of our emotional attachment. It is built on love, but it is much more than that and is the foundation of stable families, communities and societies. If society over time has redefined itself, and redefined what it accepts as love and as a relationship then surely logic dictates that marriage has to be redefined as well? Surely if we believe in stable relationships as the bedrock of stable families which in turn are the anchor of stable societies then surely we must ensure that all relationships can be built on the same solid foundations in marriage? Those who voted against equal marriage last night would have looked to many as if they were saying that certain people’s relationships are less good, the families they create less good and that society is somehow better off without those people. I doubt that was the intention of the votes that were cast against, but that will be the way it will be perceived.
Society is a constantly evolving organism, it adapts as attitudes progress and opinions change. The idea that anyone can or should stand pat Cnut like on the water’s edge vainly forbidding progress is ridiculous. Conservatives are not in existence to stop progress but to ensure that when changes like this come along they add to rather than detract from what has gone before. The Conserve part of the name is not to do with apparatus but to do with values, the party is there to conserve certain values and it is perfectly possibly to conserve the value of formal relationships whilst being the proponent of radical changes to the way those formal relationships look. David Cameron understands this instinctively which is why he could say he was in favour of gay marriage BECAUSE he was a Conservative. The Conservative Party will get absolutely no where if it tries to act as the sheet anchor against social progress because the vast majority disagree and the small number who agree are getting smaller by the day. Conservatives can embrace the settled will of the majority of people on the shape and direction of our society and retain relevance to it, or the alternative is to stand in opposition to the aspirations of that majority and watch as they push the carcass of a once great party from the stage of history.