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Well done, Mr Cameron: a compromise on gay marriage that pleases almost nobody

2012 December 11

David Cameron has made much of his promise to make the institution of marriage equally available to all British citizens, straight or gay. But the plans his Government  unveiled yesterday shamefully fail to deliver on his pledge. Indeed it is so hedged around with concessions to opponents of the idea that the proposals will probably cause as much indignation among campaigners for equality as the original proposal did among its opponents.

The new law will actually make same-sex marriages in the Church of England illegal. It will allow other churches, synagogues and mosques to refuse to conduct gay marriages – and give them “watertight” protections against gay couples who want to take them to court to enforce equality legislation. More than that, it will even refuse to allow dissenting clerics to conduct same-sex marriages in individual churches if their organisation’s governing body has expressly declined to opt in.

This is a tragedy for enlightened members of those religions, not least for Britain’s established church which again demonstrates how out of touch it is with the rest of British society. But for the Prime Minister it is far more: it is a betrayal of the undertaking he gave to offer equal treatment to all couples wishing to marry.  He talked big but all he has delivered is equality for a handful of gay Quakers, Unitarians and Liberal Jews.

The proposed changes are a singular political misjudgement. In one move Mr Cameron has managed to outrage, irritate or alienate all sides of the argument. Equality campaigners will be indignant at exceptions the Government has built into the “quadruple legal lock” which guarantees watertight protection for organisations that refuse gay marriage. Lawyers will be bemused by the complications it introduces on consummation and adultery – infidelity will only be grounds for divorce in a gay marriage if the adultery is with someone of the opposite sex. And those who hold to the traditional religious definition of marriage will not be convinced that the Government’s legal lock will survive the continuing evolution of definitions of equality under the European Convention of Human Rights.

It was ironic that this travesty of a measure should be unveiled on the same day that a new census reveals Britain to be an increasingly diverse nation, with the percentage of those describing themselves as Christian falling from 72 to 59 per cent in a decade, and a greater mix of nationalities in the population. This ought to be a time when diversity is celebrated rather than restricted, especially since a clear majority of the public now support gay marriage.

There is a further irony. Many suspect that David Cameron has been so vociferous an advocate of gay marriage because he saw it as a totemic issue to signal his modernisation of the Conservative party. It is perhaps why he has pressed the issue at a time when many of his backbenchers felt that the Government should not be laying itself open to the charge of getting distracted from economic issues.  To have made so many concessions to those same backbenchers – many of whom he will now have to battle over a subject even dearer to their hearts, Europe – may have bought him few brownie points within his own party. But it has done so at the expense of a serious blow to his credibility as the standard bearer for a new modern kind of Conservatism.

“I don’t support gay marriage in spite of being a Conservative; I support gay marriage because I am a Conservative,” he has previously said. That is a sentiment which rings increasingly hollow. The attempt to merge principled belief with crude political calculation has failed. Mr Cameron has tried to be too clever. In the attempt he has made a mockery of the concept of equal treatment for all couples.

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