Gay Marriage: a Matter for the Politicians or the People?

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“I like how you guys want to shrink the size of government so small that it can fit in our bedrooms”

– The West Wing

In the afternoon of the third of February this year, a group of influential Conservative activists, including constituency chairmen, delivered a letter to Prime Minister David Cameron, expressing their concerns and their opposition to the Marriage Bill, which is being put to vote in parliament tomorrow. In the letter, the full text of which can be read here: http://conservativegrassroots.org.uk/latest-news/permalink/2013-02/letter-to-pm-from-constituency-chairmen, the local Conservatives urged the PM to reconsider the Bill, drawing attention to the political consequences which, they argue, could be severely damaging to the Conservative Party at the next general election. Pointing out the controversy and divisions within the party which have resulted from the Bill, the activists implored David Cameron to put off the vote on the bill until the next general election. The letter read “We are of the clear view that there is no mandate for this Bill to be passed”.

There has been much speculation over how Conservative MPs will be voting in tomorrow’s division. Estimates by The Sunday Telegraph put the number of MPs planning on voting against or abstaining at 180, whilst Downing Street reports put the figure at 130. Opinion polls, however, show yet more variation. A YouGov poll taken in 2011 states that just 43% of voters support gay marriage, whereas a poll conducted for the Guardian shows that it is supported by 60% of voters. But of course, we must take the results of opinion polls and guestimates by politicians with a pinch of salt. If we took the estimates of The Sunday Telegraph as accurate, and 180 Tory MPs did vote against the Bill, that would still leave 470 MPs approving it- assuming that they all showed up at the division.

One of the key arguments made by the senior local Conservatives was the political ramifications of the Bill; it would result in unwanted divisions, thereby weakening party unity, which, as we know, is already in a fairly precarious state. It might also lead to defeats being suffered by the party at the next election, which are particularly dangerous considering the current lead that Labour has in the polls. But are the political consequences really justification for ending the ceaselessly fought battle for marriage equality?

It would appear not. The letter has already been criticised by political analysts accross the country. At the forefront of this debate is an issue of democracy. The Conservative activists have argued that the government has no mandate to pass this bill; it was not included in the 2010 Conservative Election Manifesto, nor was it in the Coalition Agreement. Furthermore, it limits the freedom of choice of religious institutions, which are, after all, private organizations, whose beliefs should be respected.

However, whether or not it was voted in by a small proportion of the electorate is not the only criterion of a “democratic” move. Nowadays, democracy also encompasses principles such as equality before the law, protection of civil liberties and universal human rights. Marriage equality is certainly a matter which comes under each of these headings.

It has also been pointed out by some political commentators that many pro-civil rights moves by previous governments have had the backing of neither the political party as a whole, nor of the electorate. That does not necessarily deter from their merit as principles. The civil rights movement in 1960’s America, for example, was criticised by Congressmen and voters accross the board, but retrospectively, few Americans would regret its having happened.

Many would argue that, when it comes to a struggle that has been fought by LGB community members for decades, partisanship and the threat to party unity must be cast aside. In other words, we must ignore the political reasons and look instead towards the moral reasons. But the arguments concerning the government’s mandate may be slightly harder to rebut. And whether the Conservative activists’ predictions will manifest after tomorrow’s vote, that remains to be seen.

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