Same-sex marriage is a rich topic on which much could be said. In the context of the “detoxification” debate, however, its relevance is that it was a strategy for the Cameronians to demonstrate their metropolitan liberal credentials by mounting a kultukampf against their own conservative supporters. As Andrew Lilco — a supporter of same-sex marriage, as it happens — points out, the practical benefits of such marriage could have been achieved by quite minor technical changes in the law on civil partnerships and any wider acceptance of it left to slower and less contentious social processes. Such a strategy would have achieved whatever it achieved with the least ill will and social upheaval and with the rights of those who objected to it fully preserved. But, as Lilco ironically observed, there was also a path to same-sex marriage that maximized the damage to social relations and to the rights of Christians, traditionalists, and others. Helpfully Lilco gave the recipe for how not to do it:
Go around saying: “The problem with this country is that there are still far too many people that disapprove of homosexual sexual relations. Something must be done about that.”
Say: “The fact that heterosexuals get ‘married’ whilst homosexuals get ‘civilly partnered’ enshrines in law a moral inequality. That is a terrible thing, and that difference must be removed.”
Say: “Anyone who wants to use a different word for heterosexual partnerships from homosexual partnerships is, by definition, a homophobe and a bigot.”
Say: “The central purpose of this new law is twofold. First, it aims to deprive opponents of homosexuality a language in which to express their dissent — we shall take their central moral terms, the thing they say is the ideal and what is right and any deviation from which they regard as wrong, and change its meaning. Furthermore, we shall do so in the context of the widespread use of equalities legislation to crush dissent to modern moral norms. Second, it aims to demonstrate to the country that the Conservative Party is in a process of unceasing revolution, rooting out anyone with old-fashioned socially conservative opinions, because we don’t want their sort as our members even if we have to tolerate them amongst our voters.”
Finally, having done all the above, just to emphasize to everyone that our purpose had nothing whatever to do with allowing homosexuals access to legal partnerships that regulate sexual activity and, instead, everything to do with crushing moral dissent, the law we shall actually introduce to Parliament will explicitly exclude homosexual adultery and homosexual non-consummation (see p26 here, noting that Section 12 paragraphs (a) and (b) of the Matrimonial Causes Act 1973 are the non-consummation provisions).
Now, dear reader, would you like to guess which of these two paths the Conservative-party leadership and government chose? Did they make this a morally neutral measure, adding to available contracting opportunities for law-abiding and peaceable people in a liberal way? Or did they make this a morally censorious measure, aimed at depriving their moral opponents of a language (or even in some arenas, potentially, a legal right) to express their dissent, without even adding to the legal opportunities for homosexuals? Take a wild guess.
Mr. Lilco’s diagnosis is spot-on, and events have turned out exactly as he argued — except in one respect. It is not even clear that the same-sex marriage legislation will become law this year. More than half of the Tory party in the House of Commons either voted against it or abstained. Its opponents in the House of Lords may well be emboldened by that fact when the bill comes before the upper house. They might reject the bill or slow its passage with parliamentary trench warfare. Win or lose, however, the introduction of the bill without any serious consultation or discussion has proven a political disaster. It has split the Tory party, alienated the Christian churches, angered the ethnic minorities whom Cameronians want to woo, and given additional fuel for the rise of the socially conservative United Kingdom Independence party, which now regularly gets 9 to 12 percent in opinion polls. (Recent polls have put the Tories as low as 29 percent.)
“Detoxification” looks more and more like a strategy for reducing the Tory party to a rump party of libertarians and big business on the model of the German Free Democrats — except that its commitment to sound finance and property rights is much less reliable. Social, religious, and patriotic conservatives have been told that they and their opinions are not wanted even if their votes are. They in turn show signs of drifting toward UKIP, which for the first time since democracy was first established offers such voters a plausible conservative alternative to the Tories. Indeed, as I pointed out (yes, well, but I did tell you so) in the Financial Times not long after Cameron was elected Tory leader:
Perhaps the best criticism of this strategy came from a French Gaullist: “Cameron is trying to create the very division of the Right that has been the biggest obstacle to French conservatives since Mitterrand deliberately fostered the rise of the National Front.” Were he to succeed, the Tories might have to wait for a Gianfranco Fini to emerge from UKIP to put Humpty Dumpty together again.
Well, maybe Nigel Farage can do it. Or maybe Boris Johnson will steal his Mandate of Heaven. In either event, the Cameron caper is a model for the GOP — of what not to do.
— John O’Sullivan is an editor-at-large of National Review.