Gay marriage tricky sell to Tory 'loons'
David Cameron is becoming detached from his party's grassroots, writes Ruth Dudley Edwards
If David Cameron wasn't so admirably gifted at relaxing, the problems surrounding the legalisation of gay marriage would have been keeping him awake at night.
He has big problems with his party, most of whose members feel ignored and despised by the metropolitan elite who lead it. In fact, these days it's a feature of British politics that its top brass live and socialise mainly in fashionable, influential London circles and are increasingly detached from their traditional supporters.
Labour's Ed Miliband – a career politician who is the offspring of European intellectuals and married to an environmental lawyer – struggles to connect with the working class. The Liberal Democrat Nick Clegg – who is married to a Spanish expert in EU law and until 2005 was almost exclusively an EU official or an MEP – has little in common with sandal-wearing beardies who oppose the party being in government. And Cameron – whose career has been in politics or PR, whose wife designs expensive accessories and whose inner circle is Eton/Oxford – finds it equally difficult to empathise with those pining for the values of yesteryear.
Miliband is only 43 and Clegg and Cameron 46, while being a party activist is something old people tend to do. In the Fifties, for instance, theConservative Party had almost three million members: today the figure is around 130,000; the average age of Tory Party members is 67.
A recent poll showed the generation divide on gay marriage: 74 per cent of the 18-24s were pro, 70 per cent of 25-39, 58 per cent 40-59 and only 28 per cent of the 60-plus.
Two politicians vividly illustrated the chasm. David Lammy, 40, who became an MP at 27, is a rising star in the Labour Party, a Harvard-educated lawyer with a successful artist wife and is achingly right-on. For street-cred purposes though – for he, like one-fifth of his constituents, is black – he sometimes flourishes the race card. During the debate on the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill, he infuriated the opposition by comparing gay marriage to the abolition of slavery.
Lord Tebbit, 82, once Margaret Thatcher's right-hand-man, who was a pilot and trade union official before entering politics at 39 and who was never accused of being metropolitan, jumped in with his customary take-no-prisoners humour. Why not make same-sex marriages available to all, he enquired, thus allowing children to marry their parents and avoid inheritance tax.
"I said to a minister I know: 'Have you thought this through? Because you're doing the law of succession, too. When we have a queen who is a lesbian and she marries another lady and then decides she would like to have a child and someone donates sperm and she gives birth to a child, is that child heir to the throne?'"
Actually, Tebbit has a point, for these reforms really were not thought through. Prince William's first-born will be heir to the throne. Does the aristocracy face legal challenges from daughters? And it was only very recently that it seems to have dawned on politicians that since only gays qualify for civil partnership, the legislation is leading to discrimination against straights.
Last week Cameron said there would now be schoolboys "who are gay, who are worried about being bullied, who are worried about what society thinks of them, who can see that the highest parliament in the land has said that their love is the same as everyone else's love, and that we believe in equality". It was heartfelt, but 59 per cent polled think he's doing it for political reasons, while 25 per cent think he's genuine .
Despite being 60-plus, I support gay marriage in principle, but I also agree with Tebbit that legislation should be thought through. With only 7 per cent of the electorate placing it among the top four issues that will determine their vote, there was no great urgency and since it was not in the Conservative manifesto, there was an excellent argument for postponing it until after the next election.
Cameron's detachment from his base was evident in his failure to understand how the rank-and-file think or to put much effort into selling it to colleagues, supporters and the general public. As it is, of the 161 votes against the bill, 133 were Tories, so most gays won't be voting Conservative any day soon, the party is seen as divided and UKIP looks increasingly attractive.
Cameron's bosom buddy, Lord Feldman, co-chairman of the Conservative Party, is alleged by journalists to have explained apropos a recent backbench revolt on something else: "The MPs just have to do it because the associations tell them to, and the associations are all mad, swivel-eyed loons." And despite denials, many Tory activists think that's exactly what Cameron's "chumocracy" thinks of them. The prime minister is a smart man who's good at getting himself out of trouble. This time, he's really got his work cut out.