Legalising same-sex marriages is conservative, not liberal

It's time for the Conservatives to say the decision to legalise same-sex marriage is motivated by co

In Birmingham, Liberal Democrat MPs and senior advisers were nodding to journalists that legalising same-sex marriages was a Lib Dem victory against archaic Tories. But it's very important for the Conservatives to claim ownership of this welcome policy, for philosophical and political reasons.

Growing cultural liberalism has certainly helped bring this about, but the logic for extending marriage to same-sex couples is not in fact liberal.
Liberals believe in the autonomy of individuals to conduct their lives free from external constraint so long as they do not undermine the rights of others. So the state should be morally neutral. When it comes to marriage, therefore, liberals argue that the state is not being neutral when it only grants the title of marriage, and the benefits that come with it, to heterosexual couples.

But this new policy is not extending those privileges to everyone. Consensual polygamous partnerships, for instance, are not being allowed to marry. A truly liberal position would be that the state does not sanction marriage at all as the benefits from it discriminate against those who do not marry.

The real reason why marriage is being extended to gay couples is because government - shaped by the changing attitudes of the public - now believes same-sex couples are worthy, that they fulfil the purpose of marriage and deserve marriage's associated benefits. This is Aristotelian, not liberal, logic.

This is why the policy is more conservative than liberal. First, Conservatives more strongly believe that justice depends on what individuals deserve. Many liberals, notably John Rawls, believe that moral desert cannot be the grounds for determining the just allocation of titles and resources.
Second, Conservatives, unlike liberals, are sceptical of introducing new rights based on abstract arguments: they prefer to grant rights and implement change based on the evolution of public opinion, to ensure support for and the stability of government, which is what this policy amounts to. So it's time for the Conservatives to say the decision to legalise same-sex marriage is motivated by conservative thinking.

This is important politically too. Recent analysis showed that the Conservatives failed to secure a majority at the last election because they did not convince floater voters the party shared their values. An increasingly liberal-minded electorate need reassurance that the party is in touch with modern Britain, not reluctantly dragged into the twenty-first century by Liberal Democrats.

Cameron, of course, knows this. Hence why Downing Street told the press, despite the Liberal Democrat Equalities Minister formally announcing it, that the PM had "personally intervened" to introduce the policy consultation. Expect more noises from Cameron on this in the weeks ahead, especially to counterbalance more traditional message he is likely to trumpet at the forthcoming Conservative Party Conference.

Ryan Shorthouse is a spokesman for Bright Blue

Ryan Shorthouse is the Director of Bright Blue, a think tank for liberal conservativism 

Photo: Getty
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The Prevent strategy needs a rethink, not a rebrand

A bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy.

Yesterday the Home Affairs Select Committee published its report on radicalization in the UK. While the focus of the coverage has been on its claim that social media companies like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are “consciously failing” to combat the promotion of terrorism and extremism, it also reported on Prevent. The report rightly engages with criticism of Prevent, acknowledging how it has affected the Muslim community and calling for it to become more transparent:

“The concerns about Prevent amongst the communities most affected by it must be addressed. Otherwise it will continue to be viewed with suspicion by many, and by some as “toxic”… The government must be more transparent about what it is doing on the Prevent strategy, including by publicising its engagement activities, and providing updates on outcomes, through an easily accessible online portal.”

While this acknowledgement is good news, it is hard to see how real change will occur. As I have written previously, as Prevent has become more entrenched in British society, it has also become more secretive. For example, in August 2013, I lodged FOI requests to designated Prevent priority areas, asking for the most up-to-date Prevent funding information, including what projects received funding and details of any project engaging specifically with far-right extremism. I lodged almost identical requests between 2008 and 2009, all of which were successful. All but one of the 2013 requests were denied.

This denial is significant. Before the 2011 review, the Prevent strategy distributed money to help local authorities fight violent extremism and in doing so identified priority areas based solely on demographics. Any local authority with a Muslim population of at least five per cent was automatically given Prevent funding. The 2011 review pledged to end this. It further promised to expand Prevent to include far-right extremism and stop its use in community cohesion projects. Through these FOI requests I was trying to find out whether or not the 2011 pledges had been met. But with the blanket denial of information, I was left in the dark.

It is telling that the report’s concerns with Prevent are not new and have in fact been highlighted in several reports by the same Home Affairs Select Committee, as well as numerous reports by NGOs. But nothing has changed. In fact, the only change proposed by the report is to give Prevent a new name: Engage. But the problem was never the name. Prevent relies on the premise that terrorism and extremism are inherently connected with Islam, and until this is changed, it will continue to be at best counter-productive, and at worst, deeply discriminatory.

In his evidence to the committee, David Anderson, the independent ombudsman of terrorism legislation, has called for an independent review of the Prevent strategy. This would be a start. However, more is required. What is needed is a radical new approach to counter-terrorism and counter-extremism, one that targets all forms of extremism and that does not stigmatise or stereotype those affected.

Such an approach has been pioneered in the Danish town of Aarhus. Faced with increased numbers of youngsters leaving Aarhus for Syria, police officers made it clear that those who had travelled to Syria were welcome to come home, where they would receive help with going back to school, finding a place to live and whatever else was necessary for them to find their way back to Danish society.  Known as the ‘Aarhus model’, this approach focuses on inclusion, mentorship and non-criminalisation. It is the opposite of Prevent, which has from its very start framed British Muslims as a particularly deviant suspect community.

We need to change the narrative of counter-terrorism in the UK, but a narrative is not changed by a new title. Just as a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, a bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy. While the Home Affairs Select Committee concern about Prevent is welcomed, real action is needed. This will involve actually engaging with the Muslim community, listening to their concerns and not dismissing them as misunderstandings. It will require serious investigation of the damages caused by new Prevent statutory duty, something which the report does acknowledge as a concern.  Finally, real action on Prevent in particular, but extremism in general, will require developing a wide-ranging counter-extremism strategy that directly engages with far-right extremism. This has been notably absent from today’s report, even though far-right extremism is on the rise. After all, far-right extremists make up half of all counter-radicalization referrals in Yorkshire, and 30 per cent of the caseload in the east Midlands.

It will also require changing the way we think about those who are radicalized. The Aarhus model proves that such a change is possible. Radicalization is indeed a real problem, one imagines it will be even more so considering the country’s flagship counter-radicalization strategy remains problematic and ineffective. In the end, Prevent may be renamed a thousand times, but unless real effort is put in actually changing the strategy, it will remain toxic. 

Dr Maria Norris works at London School of Economics and Political Science. She tweets as @MariaWNorris.