George Carey: backward

Gay marriage: Compromising with bigots

The marriage equality law is now a shambles - because David Cameron’s government is hostage to incorrigible reactionaries, argues Paul Demarty

In 2006, as part of his ‘nice guy Dave’ tour of the world, David Cameron, then newly elected as Conservative Party leader, visited South Africa. While he was there, he made time for a photo-op with Nelson Mandela, hoping to catch some reflected glory from a modern-day secular saint.

He also took the opportunity to attack his most successful recent predecessor, Margaret Thatcher, for her government’s policies towards the apartheid regime: “The fact that there is so much to celebrate in the new South Africa is not in spite of Mandela and the ANC: it is because of them - and we Conservatives should say so clearly today,” he wrote in The Observer (August 27 2006).

Nothing remarkable here - except the reaction from certain Tory grandees was hardly enthusiastic. Bernard Ingham, Norman Tebbit and others revealed themselves to be pretty much unrepentant about the designation of Mandela as a ‘terrorist’. What Cameron must have thought would be an open goal to mitigate his party’s malignant reputation served also to remind people of how malignant the Tories actually were, if you scraped a little beneath the surface.

One cannot help but be reminded of that - in retrospect, pretty minor - hiccup in Cameron’s decontamination of the Tory brand, in the light of the farce unfolding in the government surrounding gay marriage.

Cameron may be sincere in his desire to spread good, old-fashioned family values among the gay and lesbian community, but in any case it is a good idea - in the long run - to adopt a ‘liberal’ position on this matter. The results of the 2011 census show a considerable increase - from 14.8% to 25.1% - in the proportion of people who claim no religious affiliation at all, and religion is the most common excuse for anti-gay bigotry. The social attitudes survey show a pretty consistent long-term trend away from anti-gay attitudes among Britons. There is nothing inevitable about this; but on a cynical level, the Tories have little to lose by dropping their historic hostility to gay marriage.

And so it is that Maria Miller, the culture secretary, has unveiled plans to legalise same-sex marriage. It is couched with guarantees - she proposes a ‘quadruple lock’ protection, whatever that means, for religious organisations opposed to the idea, so they cannot be challenged by equalities legislation - and equally no individual minister can be compelled to marry same-sex couples. As far as the Church of England (and Church of Wales) is concerned, there are additional complications - and these organisations are to be banned from consecrating gay marriages until further primary legislation is passed.

The result, as Labour’s Yvette Cooper was able to indicate, is a complete mess, which has left the government pleasing nobody. The Churches of England and Wales are deeply embarrassed that they are to be specifically excluded from the law. Anglican canon law rules out gay marriage in any case; but liberal clergy and bishops are frustrated, especially given the recent ‘women bishops’ debacle, that there is barely any point in attempting to build a movement inside the church to change that any time soon.

Collective neurosis

For hard-line reactionaries, meanwhile, any drift towards conceding even the principle that two people of the same sex could be involved in committed, healthy and stable long-term relationships is unconscionable. Craftier versions come from the likes of Sayeeda Warsi, who was one of many to claim to be insufficiently reassured that recalcitrant vicars would not be marched to the altar at gunpoint to bless the union of Adam and Steve. (This was exactly the mendacious line of argument advanced by the troglodyte traditionalists against women bishops at the Anglican general synod a few weeks ago.) Defence secretary Philip Hammond was the man to raise that other classic Tory-discomfort get-out clause: the issue is a distraction from the real problems the government has to solve!

One can, however, always rely on some cast-iron cranks to let us know what is really at stake. Step forward, first of all, David Davies, the MP for Monmouthshire (not to be confused with David Davis, a rather cannier Tory rightwinger). Don’t get Davies wrong - he is not homophobic. In his earlier life as an amateur boxer, he even sparred with the not particularly legendary gay pugilist, Charles “Pink Pounder” Jones. (Exactly why he would think that punching a gay man in the face counts in favour of his enlightenment on the issue is left unclear.) Yet Cameron’s and Miller’s proposals are ‘barking mad’ - because parents on the whole would prefer their kids to be straight, so they might have grandchildren.

Other Tory MPs have trotted out the old ‘there’ll be polygamy next’ line, which conveniently forgets the fact that there’s a good deal of polygamy in the Bible. The wooden spoon for most absurd comparison, however, goes to former Arch-Reactionary of Canterbury, George Carey, who infamously compared unnamed sections of the pro-gay-marriage lobby to Nazi persecutors of Jews. After all, the persecution of Jews “started [with their] being called names. That was the first stage towards that totalitarian state.”

It’s easy, and perfectly legitimate, to be both amused and repulsed by comments of this kind, but above all they smack of desperation. The perverse claim of such elements to the status of ‘oppressed’ is increasingly irritating, but signals above all that their irrational prejudices are not defensible with rational argument, and can only be posited as an irrational but harmless quirk, criticism of which is somehow on the level of racist abuse.

If these people were really concerned only that anti-gay-marriage ministers might be ‘forced’ into marrying same-sex couples, then they would have no reason to complain, seeing that Maria Miller’s proposals are so cautious as to be obviously incoherent. We all know what is really at stake. These people just don’t like ‘perverts’. Their particular positions on ‘social issues’ have always been inexplicable except as a collective neurosis, with a social determination to which the reactionary is almost necessarily oblivious.

Press power

The underlying framework for anti-gay prejudice is ‘family values’ - or rather the defence of the patriarchal nuclear family in the face of a modern world, which (it is believed) undermines the former at every turn. That is most obviously at issue in the social situation of the petty bourgeoisie: petty economic activity, while presented as individual effort, invariably relies on the super-exploited labour of the patriarch’s wife and children. The family is an economic unit inseparable from petty production, inasmuch as it continues to exist.

It continues to exist mainly for political reasons; the petty bourgeoisie - and petty bourgeois aspirations on the part of sections of the working class - present a potential mass base of political support for the continuation of bourgeois political rule. Numerous direct and indirect levers exist to mobilise well-rooted class fears.

Religion is one such lever, but more important is the press. Cameron and co will not sniff too publicly at Bible-thumping clerics, but will feel confident that the latter cannot destroy their political authority alone (such elements are more influential in the US). The press, on the other hand, presents a serious obstacle to any government; correctly handling them is an increasingly obvious concern.

Having dumped Fleet Street in Brian Leveson’s dock, Cameron cannot afford to give the bloodthirsty reactionary papers many more reasons to hate him. The Daily Mail is not known for its sympathy to the LGBT cause; neither is The Sun or the Express. Tony Blair expended enormous effort neutralising these outlets, with considerable success; yet even those more ‘sincere’ Blairites, who really wanted to ‘make a difference’, found themselves politically paralysed by the terms of the bargain.

For the Tories, the incentive to rebel against Mailism barely exists. They benefit from an oppressive atmosphere of bigotry. As history rolls on, bigotries come into being and then decline in significance (although they take a long time to die out completely) - overt racism can now no longer be exploited for political advantage as it once could, for example. It looks, on the strength of this latest fiasco, that overt anti-gay prejudice has some life left in it, however - and its ties to the ‘family values’ complex make it particularly intractable.

The fight for equal sexual rights - and that includes in relation to marriage - is an integral part of the fight for a truly democratic society. Yet the more general issue is that of secularism. Once again, the absurd position of an established church, which enjoys little overall control of its own dogma, has come into public view - but the broader matter is that state support for marriage is in itself anti-secular, and amounts to the incorporation of religious ritual into official society.

People should be free to celebrate their love with whatever rituals, religious or secular, they wish. But the Tories have demonstrated amply that they simply cannot get the state out of people’s private relationships, even when they try.