Wednesday 6 February 2013

The real significance of the gay marriage vote

Yesterday’s debate in the House of Commons on gay marriage ought not to have been a seismic event. Social attitudes have changed markedly in recent decades and homosexuality has ceased to be an issue for most people. The introduction of civil partnerships a few years ago, although controversial, passed without the uproar we have seen this week. Yesterday’s vote was not even the final vote on this bill.

What is really going on? Why has gay marriage become such a totemic issue, less for its supporters than for its opponents?

In part, it is to do with the internal politics of the Conservative Party. Throughout his leadership, David Cameron’s strategy has been to detoxify his party. He is well aware of the Tories’ reputation as the ‘nasty party’ and he also understands that social attitudes have moved on. He is economically right-wing but doesn’t see why this agenda should be contingent on attitudes towards sexuality. The political value of supporting gay marriage is therefore symbolic; it is to signal that his party is no longer nasty.

You could say that yesterday’s vote was the Conservative Party’s ‘Clause 4 Moment’. But if this was Cameron’s intention, it hasn’t worked as planned. 127 Tory MPs voted in favour of gay marriage but 136 voted against (with a further 5 registered abstentions), so the opponents cannot be isolated or depicted as an unrepresentative minority. If anything, the Tories’ association with intolerant values has been strengthened.

The real significance of yesterday’s vote is that it is a political watershed. It marks the point when political divisions in Britain ceased to be mainly about economic interests and became more about values. This shift was anticipated in an Observer article by Stephan Shakespeare published during the 2005 general election campaign:
So perhaps what the modern campaign is really about is defining our values. After all, we are now beyond ideology: the left have given up on the idea of total state control, even as a distant aspiration. The right have given up thinking about shrinking the state. The collapse of Rover is a political non-event. No-one seriously proposes a shift away from public services. Instead, there is a new line which separates one side of the electorate from another: recent YouGov research suggests that we no longer range along a left-right axis, but are divided by ‘drawbridge issues’.
We are either ‘drawbridge up’ or ‘drawbridge down’. Are you someone who feels your life is being encroached upon by criminals, gypsies, spongers, asylum seekers, Brussels bureaucrats? Do you think the bad things will all go away if we lock the doors? Or do you think it’s a big beautiful world out there, full of good people, if only we could all open our arms and embrace each other? Depending on which side we take, we regard ‘drawbridge up’ people as unpleasant, or ‘drawbridge down’ people as foolish.
Gay marriage is a classic ‘drawbridge issue’, like the current arguments about the EU. This is why yesterday’s vote was so significant. It is not that gay marriage per se doesn’t matter; it is that something much deeper is going on.

Just as, in the USA, many poor working class people support the Tea Party even though it is against their economic interests, so we will encounter similar phenomena here. As I argued long ago in Liberator in 2004, Liberals need to understand where the new political fault lines are and to be prepared to fight battles about values.

The Liberal Democrats have fudged too often on ‘drawbridge issues’ for fear of causing offence (notably on Europe and immigration). They are missing a trick if they lose opportunities to associate the party unambiguously with ‘drawbridge down’ values. That is why the failure of the party’s MPs to vote unanimously in favour of gay marriage was so damaging.

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