By Dr Matt Ashton
Much of November and December of last year was taken up with arguments over same-sex marriage, and whether it should be legalised or not. David Cameron vowed to keep it as a policy, despite its unpopularity with some of his backbenchers. While it's clear that the prime minister will win thanks to the support of Liberal Democrat and Labour votes, it's likely to create yet further discontent amongst the rank and file.
It's difficult to see the logic of those opposing the coalition's gay marriage proposals. Some have claimed it will undermine traditional marriage between heterosexuals. This doesn't make much sense though, as the institution of traditional marriage has been in decline for years. In a world where vacuous celebrities can marry someone they've known for only a few days, or on the advice of their psyche, it's clear that heterosexuals are doing more to undermine marriage than anyone apart from lawyers. The media have played a significant role too, with gossip magazines turning celebrity marriages and divorces into reality show soap opera. If Conservative MPs wonder why young people take getting married less seriously, they should look elsewhere. The idea that allowing homosexuals to marry will somehow put people off, or lead to more divorces, is nonsensical in the extreme.
Another argument made is that if we allow same-sex couples to marry, they worry: 'Where will it end?' This reasoning doesn't stand up to any sort of scrutiny either. It's argued that if we let two homosexuals marry, why shouldn't we let three people or more marry (and so on and so forth). Using this logic though, they could have opposed votes for women on the basis that, 'where will it end, votes for children and babies?' The simple fact is we're sophisticated creature capable of graduated positions. Giving votes to women didn't mean we had to give them to everybody. Equally, allowing same-sex marriages doesn't mean we have to legalise every other combination of union. If you look at most complex social and moral issues the same sort of graduated thinking applies. Anyone trying to simplify it down to the argument that 'you must always do this, or you must never do this', clearly doesn't spend much time out and about in the real world.
The problem the Conservative party faces is that despite the fact that same-sex marriage is popular amongst large segments of the population, it's less so amongst its own supporters. In this sense it follows a trend where they seem to have consciously backed policies designed to alienate core sections of their own electorate. Trying to sell off the forests and attacking the police are not traditional Tory vote winners. Legalising same-sex marriage is undoubtedly the right thing to do, but is unlikely to help them at the ballot box in 2015.
Perhaps a bigger issue for them is that it could give greater momentum to Ukip. Europe is a more potent issue than at any time in the last 20 years. Ukip has successfully used this with significant success (if no actual victories), in recent by-elections. It's not fully clear yet if Cameron's promise of a referendum has really slowed their momentum. If Nigel Farage and co can create the perception that they are one of the few political parties opposing same-sex marriage, then it could increase their support yet further. I doubt it will lead to them winning representation in Westminster, but it could make a lot of Conservative MPs in marginal seats uncomfortable.
The other problem for David Cameron is that it's now impossible for him to back down. That boat has already sailed. However if there is a large rebellion it will further undermine his support among the backbenchers, many of who are still angry over his handling of the Andrew Mitchell affair. The issue Cameron faces is that he's never been loved by his party in the same way that segments of the Labour and Conservative party loved Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair. In both these cases enough discontent eventually built up to force them out, but this took almost a decade. Cameron seems to be reaching it much quicker. The real question is not whether same-sex marriage will pass or not. It's how many will vote against, and what effect this will have on Cameron's leadership.
Dr Matthew Ashton is a politics lecturer at Nottingham Trent University. Visit his blog.
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