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Leader: Gay marriage and the clash of fundamental values

The value of marriage would be increased, not diminished, through its extension to same-sex couples.

Contrary to reports, gay marriage is one policy on which David Cameron has not changed course. There was never any intention to include legis­lation in the Queen’s Speech last month, which pre-dated the end of the government’s consul­tation. Now, the consultation has ended and the coalition has pledged to legislate before 2015.

There are strong political reasons for Mr Cameron’s commitment to the policy. He is determined for his government to be remembered for more than austerity and has also argued persuasively that same-sex marriage can be reconciled with Conservative philosophy. If marriage, as Conservatives believe, is the foundation of a successful society, then it should surely be offered to the greatest number of people possible. Mr Cameron says he doesn’t support gay marriage in spite of being a Conservative but because he is one.

On this issue, the Prime Minister is right. The value of marriage would be increased, not diminished, through its extension to same-sex couples. Some may question whether the introduction of gay marriage is necessary when the Civil Partnership Act 2004 already allows couples access to almost all of the legal rights enjoyed by heterosexuals. Yet this two-tier system implicitly condones the belief that same-sex relationships are inferior to others. Gay couples are rightly aggrieved that they are unable legally to refer to themselves as “married”. Nor is the distinction merely a semantic one: while a civil marriage is formed when the couple exchange spoken words, a civil partnership is, rather less romantically, formed when the second civil partner signs the register.

Long before its consultation began, the government indicated that no religious organisation would be forced to conduct same-sex marriages. The principle of religious freedom demands as much. Indeed, it went further by ruling that those religious groups that wish to officiate gay marriages, such as Reform Jews and Quakers, would be barred from doing so, even though they can now legally host civil part­nerships. This has not prevented a series of absurd responses from senior clerics. Cardinal Keith O’Brien, the leader of the Catholic Church in Scotland, has compared the introduction of gay marriage to the legalisation of slavery. The Archbishop of York, John Sentamu, has accused Mr Cameron of behaving like a “dictator”. Now, in its formal submission to the government’s consultation, the Church of England has reaffirmed its opposition to gay marriage on the basis that it would “alter the intrinsic nature of a marriage as the union of a man and woman, as enshrined in human institutions through history”. For a church that was founded in opposition to the belief that a sacramental marriage could never be dissolved, it is a reactionary stance.

A greater challenge for liberals is the Church’s assertion that European human rights law could force it to hold gay marriages, with some even raising the spectre of disestablishment. Such a ruling would require the government to adjudicate between the competing priorities of religious freedom and equality. The Home Office’s lawyers insist that the law favours the former, while independent observers suggest that, at most, religious organisations would be permitted to conduct gay marriages voluntarily. The suspicion arises that the Church’s claims are part of a desperate rearguard action, aimed at preventing same-sex marriage ever reaching the statute book. Many in Mr Cameron’s party will prove similarly obstructive but the Prime Minister should use the full weight of his office to override their dissent.

When the Civil Partnership Act was passed, it was said that no single law had done more to promote human happiness. In the same spirit, gay couples should be granted full equality.

This article first appeared in the 18 June 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Drones: video game warfare

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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.