Why didn't Cameron call a referendum on gay marriage?

A referendum on gay marriage would have made things far easier for Cameron's queasy MPs and demonstrated the true popularity of the idea in the country

by Andrew Ian Dodge on 5 February 2013 17:11

The vote is fast approaching and many Tory MPs are running scared. Cameron’s obsession with gay marriage being legalised in the UK is (probably) about to become a reality this week. Whether or not it will be a triumph or a millstone for his tenure as leader of the Conservative Party and Prime Minister remains to be seen.

There are even rumours that a gay MP will out himself in the debate this evening and break free from his closeted situation.

Already there’s been a bit of bother for Iain Dale who posted about the hypocrisy of some closeted gay Conservative MPs who plan to vote against the measure. Even though he made it clear (at least to me) in his piece that he was not for “outing” these names, he suggested others might not be so reticent. In fact he was forced to write this on his blog:

“People seemed to interpret the rest as some sort of veiled threat. It isn’t. It is merely pointing out the blindingly obvious that any apparently straight MP having a gay affair could have to defend themselves against charges of hypocrisy. Others, who are less squeamish about outing others may hold those MPs to account.”

And, of course, UKIP is not immune from this issue causing it chaos (see Ollyshambles). Ultimately this situation was less about gay marriage and more about the head of the youth wing of a political party who didn’t realise his position required him to toe the party line on issues. He isn’t the first and certainly won’t be the last to make that mistake.

Three states in the US have approved gay marriage this last November. And at least one of these three, Maine, probably pulled if off largely because the anti-campaign was so vile. I confess to voting for gay marriage – despite the fact as a libertarian I believe the state should have nothing to do with it – because ultimately people deserve to be happy.

I think the entertainment and catering end of the Maine economy will welcome the uptick in marriages being arranged. I suspect that sector of the British economy would welcome the new source of revenue from gay marriages as well.

Unfortunately for Cameron, and those who are pro-gay marriage in the UK, there is a problem which doesn’t really exist for proponents of gay marriage in the US. It is impossible to guarantee, because of the EU, that no religious institution will be forced to marry gay couples if they do not wish to do so. The government’s quadruple lock shows they are trying to guarantee religious freedom on this issue but will it hold up to EU scrutiny?

Will Cameron be able to make sure that more ardent gay rights advocates do not rush off to the European Court of Human Rights when a local parish church refuses to marry a gay couple? There is no way for Cameron to be able to guarantee the behaviour of others and one would hope that his government has a rock solid defence should this arise. Just as it is important that gays might marry, it is also important that religious institutions’ “right to refuse” is protected.

One has to wonder why Cameron did not go, like Maine and other US states, down the referendum route instead of hammering it through parliament. Why not go directly to the people as he did with AV and as he promised to do on EU membership?

It would have made things far easier for his queasy MPs and demonstrated the true popularity of the idea in the country. 

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