Gay marriage could be a defining issue for Cameron

Barack Obama's support for the idea has strengthened Tory liberals' resolve to take on the reactiona

Barack Obama’s decision to support gay marriage has no doubt been timed with careful attention paid to the US electoral cycle. The American Commander-in-Chief definitely did not factor in the political travails of David Cameron on a small rain-lashed island several thousand miles east of Washington. Had he done so, he might have postponed the announcement by a day or two.

It isn’t the biggest story to come out of yesterday’s Queen’s Speech, but people who were watching carefully for prime ministerial capitulations to the Conservative right found one in the absence of proposals to give gay couples equal rights in marriage.

As I write in my column this week, this is an issue that has acquired emblematic status in the battle over what kind of a Conservative party Cameron leads. In his speech at last year’s Tory party conference, the Prime Minister made the case for gay marriage robustly:

Yes, it’s about equality, but it’s also about something else: commitment. Conservatives believe in the ties that bind us; that society is stronger when we make vows to each other and support each other. So I don’t support gay marriage despite being a Conservative. I support gay marriage because I’m a Conservative.

The fact that the hall applauded at this point was subsequently held up as evidence of the great strides in “modernisation” that the party had taken under Cameron’s leadership.

But it turns out that the party grass roots are less signed up to this view than Downing Street likes to think. I have heard a number of MPs complain that gay marriage was a “hot button” issue in their constituencies and that it provoked Tory voters to abstain or back Ukip in last week’s local elections. It cost the party council seats, say back benchers. Nonsense, comes the riposte from Downing Street. It’s the economy and weeks of headlines about incompetence that hit the party's poll ratings. The very last thing we should do, say Downing Street aides, is veer off into illiberal reaction.

Both are right up to a point. At a national level it is crazy to think that Cameron’s support for gay marriage makes the difference between a majority in 2015 and another hung parliament. At the same time, at local level, it is plainly a problem when activists are outraged by their leader’s opinions.

The gay marriage issue is currently out for formal consultation, so Downing Street could clearly act on it if it was felt to be important enough. The Lib Dems are ardently in favour and would quite happily probe and provoke Tory prejudice on the subject to remind voters that (as they see it) Nick Clegg leads the modern, caring, tolerant wing of the coalition. For precisely that reason, senior Lib Dems very much doubt that Cameron can change the policy. He wouldn't want to give the Lib Dems such a handy stick with which to beat the Tories. He might, however, want to postpone dealing with it to avoid looking as if he is deliberately antagonising his back bench enemies.

Obama’s move makes that approach that little bit harder. Suddenly, everyone of a socially liberal disposition in Westminster  - in all three parties – is fired up and praising the US President’s brave moral stand, pointing out how it casts gay equality as a contemporary civil rights issue and puts Mitt Romney on the wrong side of history, held back by Republican tea party fanaticism etc. That is not necessarily company Cameron wants to be keeping.

Liberal Tories, meanwhile, have been watching the party’s right wing mobilise in recent weeks and are feeling the need for a counter-attack. As I have written before, joining the coalition postponed a difficult debate about what kind of movement the Tories want to be – what is their model of 21st Century Conservatism? The leadership is not seriously in question. Cameron is personally secure for now. But the party’s soul is still up for grabs. There is a feeling that Tory internal culture wars are brewing. Gay marriage could end up being much more of an issue for Cameron than he expected when he made that speech last year.

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former political editor of the New Statesman

Nicola Sturgeon and Tony Blair. Photo: Getty
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Nicola Sturgeon's SNP, like Tony Blair's New Labour, is heading for a crash landing

The fall of Tony Blair should be a set text for anyone wishing to know what happens next to the SNP.

If there was one thing the SNP and New Labour had in common, it was the hope. Both offered themselves as a burning torch of optimism to publics that had become tired of the same old gang running things in the same old way. Both promised a fairer, more equal society and a fearless embrace of the modern world with an appealing freshness and energy. The voters bought it: both won big, repeatedly.

The thing is, if you’re elected on a mandate to be different, you’d better be different. In many areas, for a long time, New Labour managed to be just that. The smiling PM with the huge majority pushed through radical policies, some of which even worked. Tony Blair’s methodology was so successful and so convincing that the Conservatives and the Lib Dems reshaped themselves in his likeness. Arguably, a form of New Labour won in 2010 and 2015.

But, as they say, it’s the hope that kills you. When the inevitable attritional realities of governing start to weigh, when you make, as you will, bad decisions, when the list of enemies grows long, when you’ve just had your time, you’ll fall like all the rest – only, when you’ve soared so close to the sun, you have that much further to plummet.

The fall of Blair and of Labour should be a set text for anyone wishing to know what happens next to the SNP. Sunday night’s debate between the Scottish party leaders was, I think, a foretaste of what’s coming – a public that until recently was politically and emotionally invested in the Nats is growing restive. In time, this will turn to disenchantment, then anger, then revenge at the ballot box. This is the unbreakable cycle of democratic politics.

Some of us have warned since the start that the SNP had over-promised and could only under-deliver. Its raison d’etre is independence; everything else - literally everything else - is just another brick to build the path. And so education reform cannot be either radical or unpopular, even if it needs to be so to work, because the SNP cannot afford to alienate teachers or the teaching unions or parents. Bricks, you see. Same with the NHS and doctors and health unions and patients. All the separatists have done – all they could have done, given their nature - is deploy the rhetoric of the radical while in reality body-swerving hard choices and conflict at any cost. And where they have found themselves taking flak, they’ve pointed south to Westminster: "it’s no’ our fault, it’s theirs".

But voters show signs of wearying of the predictable blame game and waking up to the time-limited strategy of show-over-substance. Middle Scotland is either ignored or maligned by the middle-class socialists who drive the nation’s political debate, but it is where elections are won. The SNP has secured the support of enough of these people to win every recent election in style, but somewhere along the way the party seems to have forgotten this was a mandate not for independence, but for good government. Ten years in to SNP rule, each new audit of public services seems to wail like a warning siren – things aren’t just not improving, they’re getting worse. The SNP is not keeping its part of the deal.

So, during Sunday night’s debate it was Nicola Sturgeon, not Ruth Davidson or Kezia Dugdale, who found herself in the audience’s cross-hairs. It will have been a strange experience for a woman more used to public adulation and a clamour for selfies. There were the teachers, who complained about the damp squib that is the Curriculum for Excellence, the SNP’s flagship education policy; who pointed out that a fifth of primary pupils are leaving without basic literacy and numeracy skills; and who warned that lowering the standard of exams in order to push up the pass rate was not a mark of success.

Then there was the nurse who said she had been forced to use a food bank (the existence of which has been used repeatedly by the SNP as a stick with which to beat the Conservatives and Westminster): ‘I can’t manage on the salary I have [which is set by the Scottish Government]. You have no idea how demoralising it is to work in the NHS. Don’t come on your announced visits, come in in the middle of any day to any ward, any A&E department and see what we’re up against.’ She delivered the evening’s killer line: ‘Do you think your perceived obsession with independence might actually cost you… in this election?’

The list of reasonable criticisms is growing and will grow further. The ideological obsession with free university tuition for Scottish students is increasingly seen as a sop to the better-off, while in England the fee-charging regime has seen the number of students coming from poorer families climb. Ms Sturgeon’s demand for a quick second independence referendum, when a worried middle Scotland was focused on what Brexit might mean for its future, was tone deaf.

The SNP has another problem (one that New Labour, for all its flaws, didn’t face): its doctrine of infallibility. The Nats’ constitution explicitly prohibits its elected members from criticising the party, its policies or each other. While total unity is useful when you’re on the climb, it starts to look bonkers when the cracks are showing. Allowing public self-criticism, far from being a sign of weakness, is a necessary vent for inner tensions and a sign to voters that a political party is something more than a cult.

That ‘cult’ word has long dogged the SNP and its supporters. The party has tried hard to normalise its electoral appeal while keeping the flame of independence burning bright, but it has been a difficult balancing act. The pro-independence mob is an ugly thing when it is unleashed (and it has suited the leadership to open the cage at times). Claire Austin, the nurse who criticised the First Minister on Sunday, has found herself at its mercy. Immediately after the debate, the Nats briefed (wrongly) that she was the wife of a Tory councilor. The SNP branch in Stirling said Tebbitishly that if she was having to use food banks "maybe she needs to tighten her belt a bit more?" Joanna Cherry, a QC, MP and the SNP’s Home Affairs spokesperson, was forced to publicly apologise for spreading "Twitter rumours" about Ms Austin.

The ravening horde has largely kept its head down since the 2014 independence referendum, but we now see it hasn’t gone away - it is not enough for the SNP’s critics to be debated, they must be destroyed. This isn’t the behaviour of a normal political party: it’s the behaviour of a cult.

I might be wrong, but I have a feeling that when the SNP does fall it will fall quite quickly. Its belief in its infallibility, its inability or unwillingness to do self-deprecation or apology, will increasingly aggravate voters. There is nothing to suggest the current public policy failings will be addressed, and plenty of signs that things will get worse. How, then, do you arrest your fall?

The SNP offered hope and promised it was different, and the voters believed. The sense of betrayal could make for a very hard landing indeed.

Chris Deerin is the New Statesman's contributing editor (Scotland). 

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