Tories must focus on "decency" when it comes to gay marriage

So long as the Conservative Party focuses on decency, rather than the image issue as I fear it’s doing today, it won’t go far wrong

by Dr. Lee Rotherham on 5 February 2013 17:29

Norman Tebbit and John Bercow were two parliamentarians I had worked with in the days of CAFE and of old Eurosceptic battles. Both were, for different reasons, politicians I had come to greatly respect. But ten years ago, both had come to be representatives of palpably different strands of Conservatism.

Might it be possible to get them together to discuss those aspects of Conservatism that united them rather than what the media was focusing on, which was those aspects of policy which split the Party?

It turns out it was. The result was a paper called Common Ground, and it looked at five hot areas in particular.

Of relevance to today’s headlines was where we briefly ended up as the discussion closed, on civil partnerships. The arguments were very telling. Lord Tebbit stressed the need for fairness. Under mooted new arrangements, the changes would now risk discriminating, for instance, against family members who were sharing a house. It was a real and practical concern. John Bercow for his part ended with this argument;

“[...] the Tory Party should represent all our citizens – black as well as white, poor as well as rich, urban as well as rural, gay as well as straight. We should be absolutely explicit that we support equality before the law and oppose discrimination on grounds of race, colour, creed, sex, disability or orientation. Critics sometimes suggest that this is simply to attract votes from these groups. For a start, there is nothing wrong with that. However, the bigger point is that we must be, and appear to be, a modern, forward looking, decent, centre-right Party.”

The debate obviously has moved on. The arguments that will be raised about today’s changes are much more ones of conscience, of the role of the state in matters of faith, and on the very basis of what the fundamental function of marriage is about and how it’s meant to contribute.

But stirring my tea this morning I was mindful of how much of a contentious issue this already was for the party a full decade ago. Given the track record, today’s splits in the Party and the reactions amongst many in the grassroots were inescapably predictable. Yet why rake over these hot coals? Is it about ‘being, and appearing to be, modern and forward looking’? The way today’s debate has been handled suggests so.

I would say rather that the key and illuminating word is not about appearance or perception; it is the word “decent”. Decency and fairness when applied across government sell themselves.

It also needs though to be measured against both sides affected by a policy. So long as the Conservative Party focuses on this word, rather than the image issue as I fear it’s doing today, it won’t go far wrong.  

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