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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On Brexit, David Cameron knows exactly what he's doing

It's not a dead cat - it's about disarming the Leave campaign. 

If you’re explaining, you’re losing. That’s the calculation behind David Cameron’s latest entry into the In-Out (or Remain-Leave in new money) battle. The Prime Minister has warned that were Britain to leave the European Union, the migrant camp at Calais – popularly known as “the Jungle” – could move to Britain. But Eurosceptic campaigners have angrily denounced the remarks, saying that there’s little chance of it happening either way.  

Who’s right? My colleague Henry Zeffman has written a handy explainer of the ins and outs of the row, but the short version is: the Eurosceptic campaigners are broadly right.

But the remarks are very far from a gaffe by Downing Street or Cameron, and they aren’t a “dead cat” strategy – where you say something offensive, prompting a debate about that instead of another, trickier issue – either.

Campaigners for Remain have long been aware that immigration remains their glass jaw. The line wheeled out by Cameron has been long-planned. Late last year, senior members of the In campaign discussed what they saw as the danger points for the campaign. The first was a renegotiation that managed to roll back workplace rights, imperilling the support of the Labour party and the trade unions was one – happily avoided by Cameron’s piecemeal deal.

That the deal would be raked over in the press is not considered a risk point. Stronger In has long known that its path to victory does not run through a sympathetic media. The expectation has long been that even substantial concessions would doubtless have been denounced by the Mail, Telegraph and Sun – and no-one seriously expected that Cameron would emerge with a transformative deal. Since well before the general election, the Prime Minister has been gradually scaling back his demands. The aim has always been to secure as many concessions as possible in order to get an In vote – but Downing Street’s focus has always been on the “as possible” part rather than the “securing concessions” bit.

Today’s row isn’t about deflecting attention from a less-than-stellar deal, but about defanging another “risk point” for the In campaign: border control.

Campaign strategists believe they can throw the issue into neutral by casting doubt on Leave’s ability to control borders any better. One top aide said: “Our line is this: if we vote to leave, the border moves from Calais to Dover, it’s that simple.” They are also keen to make more of the fact that Norway has equally high levels of migration from the European Union as the United Kingdom. While In will never “own” the issue of immigration, they believe they can make the battle sufficiently murky that voters will turn to the areas that favour a Remain vote – national security, economic stability, and keeping people in their jobs.

What the row exposes, rather than a Prime Minister under pressure is a politician who knows exactly what he’s doing – and just how vulnerable the lack of a serious heavyweight at the top makes the Leave campaign(s). Most people won't make a judgement based on reading up the minutinae of European treaties, but on a "sniff test" of which side they think is more trustworthy. It's not a fight about the facts - it's a fight about who is more trusted by the public: David Cameron, or Iain Duncan Smith, Chris Grayling or Priti Patel? As one minister said to me: "I like Priti, but the idea that she can go against the PM as far as voters are concerned is ridiculous. Most people haven't heard of her." 

Leave finds itself in a position uncomfortably like that of Labour in the run-up to the election: with Cameron able to paint himself as the only option guaranteeing stability, against a chaotic and muddled alternative. Without a politician, a business figure or even a prominent celebrity who can provide credibility on the level of the Prime Minister, any row about whether or not Brexit increases the chances of more migrants on Britain’s doorsteps helps Remain – and Cameron. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog. He usually writes about politics.