Equal marriage: The political impact of this social revolution won't last

Some lives will be improved, a wider signal conveyed about tolerance, but the legalisation of gay marriage will have a negligible effect on the next election

Share

Today’s vote in the House of Commons in support of gay marriage shows that sometimes history can move with breathtaking speed. Not very long ago the last Conservative Prime Minister, John Major, made front-page news because he agreed to meet the actor Ian McKellen in No 10. McKellen had recently come out as gay. The well-intentioned Major offered the actor little more than a cup of tea, but even this tiny, symbolic gesture of goodwill caused a stir.

Now a Conservative Prime Minister supports gay marriage and is acting to ensure the proposal becomes law. Some lives will be enhanced as a result, a wider signal will be conveyed about tolerance in a modern society, historians will note how speedily the change has happened in a country supposed to be instinctively conservative and the issue will have no lasting political impact whatsoever.

In one of the increasingly few differences between UK and US politics, social issues play little or no part determining the fate of parties here or their leaders. The Conservative party is split over gay marriage. There is intense anger among some MPs and activists. Some older Tory members may resign. The party will cope. Modern parties are much less dependent on high levels of membership than they used to be. Some Tory MPs are angry with Cameron. They were angry before gay marriage and will be angry for other reasons after it becomes law.

Cameron and George Osborne will be proved right in their calculation that in six months’ time the internal anger will subside. This is partly because the implementation of substantial one-off social reforms has a beginning, middle and end. The end will occur once the legislation is passed and gay marriages start to take place. For leaders of troubled parties the nightmarish political stories, the ones that can destroy them, are those with no obvious end. Europe, the economy and public service reform come into that category. Gay marriage does not.

Relax, Cameron

The Tory leadership can therefore be relatively relaxed about the headlines this week about division over gay marriage. This is a policy area that cannot sustain or fuel an insurrectionary fever. Cameron and Osborne’s motives in pursuing this are no doubt multi-layered, but that is the case with most decisions taken by any leadership. In an article last month, Osborne noted that the policy was popular in every region of the country. They seek association with a popular reform. Both must be aware of the chasm between their early tonally progressive messages and their agenda since the financial crash in 2008. Support for gay marriage has an echo of the early months of Cameron’s leadership. But beyond their clunky attempts to “modernise” they are acting out of conviction too. History will recognise their role in introducing a social change that will endure, unlike some of their other radical policies.

Gay marriage is part of an unstoppable sequence of social reforms that began with the lowering of the age of consent, the scrapping of Section 28 and the go-ahead for civil partnerships under the last Labour government. In each case most voters were on the side of change, an important part of the explanation as to why this particular sequence has reached a denouement so quickly.

But for the same reason the Conservative party will move on from the division over this issue, the leadership is unlikely to secure any electoral benefit from the change. Gay marriage will play no part in the next general election campaign, even subliminally. Labour’s Home Secretary, Roy Jenkins, introduced a series of historic social reforms in the late 1960s, reflecting and shaping the zeitgeist of that decade. Labour was removed from power in 1970 and Jenkins’ epoch-changing policies played little part in the campaign. Similarly Labour’s progressive social reforms after 1997 had little impact in subsequent elections.

Cheer

Forget about the narrow political implications and cheer the direction of travel. Section 28, which prohibited local authorities from “promoting homosexuality”, was still law until 2003, only 10 years ago. Cameron was one of those Conservatives who publicly and repeatedly attacked its abolition. According to the diaries of Lance Price, an adviser to Tony Blair, the Labour Prime Minister was nervy about the introduction of civil partnerships, in particular about the reaction of some right-wing newspapers. He still introduced them and like the smoking ban – another change of historic significance but with no impact on politics – the policy was implemented without explosive controversy.

The Tory split is triggered by a free vote where MPs can and should act according to their beliefs. It should be viewed in such a light. The outcome of the vote matters more. Soon if McKellen has a cup of tea at No 10 he can do so as a gay with the right to marry. Last time in his chat with Major he was pleading fruitlessly for the scrapping of Section 28. If only change could happen so quickly in the economy and public services, but in these areas there is no consensus between parties or within them as to what form the change should take. Social reform changes lives, arouses fleeting passions and is also, oddly, politically easier to bring about.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

SAP Project Manager

competitive: Progressive Recruitment: SAP PROJECT MANAGER - 3 MONTHS - BERKSHI...

SAP Project Manager

competitive: Progressive Recruitment: SAP PROJECT MANAGER - 3 MONTHS - BERKSHI...

Senior Investment Accounting Change Manager

£600 - £700 per day + competitive: Orgtel: Senior Investment Accounting Change...

Microsoft Dynamics AX Functional Consultant

£65000 - £75000 per annum + benefits: Progressive Recruitment: A rare opportun...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Children of a bygone era  

Kids these days aren't what they used to be — they're a lot better. So why the fuss?

Archie Bland
A suited man eyes up the moral calibre of a burlesque troupe  

Be they burlesque dancers or arms dealers, a bank has no business judging the morality of its clients

John Walsh
Save the tiger: The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

With only six per cent of the US population of these amazing big cats held in zoos, the Zanesville incident in 2011 was inevitable
Samuel Beckett's biographer reveals secrets of the writer's time as a French Resistance spy

How Samuel Beckett became a French Resistance spy

As this year's Samuel Beckett festival opens in Enniskillen, James Knowlson, recalls how the Irish writer risked his life for liberty and narrowly escaped capture by the Gestapo
Star Wars Episode VII is being shot on film - and now Kodak is launching a last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

Kodak's last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

Director J J Abrams and a few digital refuseniks shoot movies on film. Simon Usborne wonders what the fuss is about
Once stilted and melodramatic, Hollywood is giving acting in video games a makeover

Acting in video games gets a makeover

David Crookes meets two of the genre's most popular voices
Could our smartphones soon be diagnosing diseases via Health Kit and Google Fit?

Could smartphones soon be diagnosing diseases?

Health Kit and Google Fit have been described as "the beginning of a health revolution"
Ryanair has turned on the 'charm offensive' but can we learn to love the cut-price carrier again?

Can we learn to love Ryanair again?

Four recent travellers give their verdicts on the carrier's improved customer service
Billionaire founder of Spanx launches range of jeans that offers

Spanx launches range of jeans

The jeans come in two styles, multiple cuts and three washes and will go on sale in the UK in October
10 best over-ear headphones

Aural pleasure: 10 best over-ear headphones

Listen to your favourite tracks with this selection, offering everything from lambskin earmuffs to stainless steel
Commonwealth Games 2014: David Millar ready to serve up gold for his beloved Scotland in the end

Commonwealth Games

David Millar ready to serve up gold for his beloved Scotland in the end
UCI Mountain Bike World Cup 2014: Downhill all the way to the top for the Atherton siblings

UCI Mountain Bike World Cup

Downhill all the way to the top for the Atherton siblings
Save the tiger: The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

The big cats kept in captivity to perform for paying audiences and then, when dead, their bodies used to fortify wine
A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery all included in top 50 hidden spots in the UK

A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery

Introducing the top 50 hidden spots in Britain
Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

How a disease that has claimed fewer than 2,000 victims in its history has earned a place in the darkest corner of the public's imagination
Chris Pratt: From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

He was homeless in Hawaii when he got his big break. Now the comic actor Chris Pratt is Hollywood's new favourite action star
How live cinema screenings can boost arts audiences

How live cinema screenings can boost arts audiences

Broadcasting plays and exhibitions to cinemas is a sure-fire box office smash