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 Images
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How can Britain become a nation of homeowners?

David Cameron must unlock the spirit of his postwar predecessors to get the housing market back on track. 

In the 1955 election, Anthony Eden described turning Britain into a “property-owning democracy” as his – and by extension, the Conservative Party’s – overarching mission.

60 years later, what’s changed? Then, as now, an Old Etonian sits in Downing Street. Then, as now, Labour are badly riven between left and right, with their last stay in government widely believed – by their activists at least – to have been a disappointment. Then as now, few commentators seriously believe the Tories will be out of power any time soon.

But as for a property-owning democracy? That’s going less well.

When Eden won in 1955, around a third of people owned their own homes. By the time the Conservative government gave way to Harold Wilson in 1964, 42 per cent of households were owner-occupiers.

That kicked off a long period – from the mid-50s right until the fall of the Berlin Wall – in which home ownership increased, before staying roughly flat at 70 per cent of the population from 1991 to 2001.

But over the course of the next decade, for the first time in over a hundred years, the proportion of owner-occupiers went to into reverse. Just 64 percent of households were owner-occupier in 2011. No-one seriously believes that number will have gone anywhere other than down by the time of the next census in 2021. Most troublingly, in London – which, for the most part, gives us a fairly accurate idea of what the demographics of Britain as a whole will be in 30 years’ time – more than half of households are now renters.

What’s gone wrong?

In short, property prices have shot out of reach of increasing numbers of people. The British housing market increasingly gets a failing grade at “Social Contract 101”: could someone, without a backstop of parental or family capital, entering the workforce today, working full-time, seriously hope to retire in 50 years in their own home with their mortgage paid off?

It’s useful to compare and contrast the policy levers of those two Old Etonians, Eden and Cameron. Cameron, so far, has favoured demand-side solutions: Help to Buy and the new Help to Buy ISA.

To take the second, newer of those two policy innovations first: the Help to Buy ISA. Does it work?

Well, if you are a pre-existing saver – you can’t use the Help to Buy ISA for another tax year. And you have to stop putting money into any existing ISAs. So anyone putting a little aside at the moment – not going to feel the benefit of a Help to Buy ISA.

And anyone solely reliant on a Help to Buy ISA – the most you can benefit from, if you are single, it is an extra three grand from the government. This is not going to shift any houses any time soon.

What it is is a bung for the only working-age demographic to have done well out of the Coalition: dual-earner couples with no children earning above average income.

What about Help to Buy itself? At the margins, Help to Buy is helping some people achieve completions – while driving up the big disincentive to home ownership in the shape of prices – and creating sub-prime style risks for the taxpayer in future.

Eden, in contrast, preferred supply-side policies: his government, like every peacetime government from Baldwin until Thatcher’s it was a housebuilding government.

Why are house prices so high? Because there aren’t enough of them. The sector is over-regulated, underprovided, there isn’t enough housing either for social lets or for buyers. And until today’s Conservatives rediscover the spirit of Eden, that is unlikely to change.

I was at a Conservative party fringe (I was on the far left, both in terms of seating and politics).This is what I said, minus the ums, the ahs, and the moment my screensaver kicked in.

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.