Two stories – at least – in yesterday’s Sunday Telegraph in London puzzled over the mystery of David Cameron’s strange behaviour in the recent past. Janet Daley asked how Cameron could go from what looked like a possible triumph in his European Union difficulties to what looked like a scuttling of his own party on the redefinition of marriage legislation. Christopher Booker puzzled over the same thing but soon came up with an answer which might well be, for most of us, the solution to the riddle of Cameron’s folly.
“The greatest puzzle about the ‘gay marriage’ furore” Booker wrote, “is why this issue suddenly erupted from nowhere to the top of the political agenda. Why has David Cameron been willing, as one commentator put it, to ‘trash his party’ in pushing so hard for something that, before the last election, he refused to endorse or to include in the Tory manifesto? And why, just as it was provoking the biggest Tory rebellion in decades, was it also prompting a similar row in the French National Assembly?”
Janet Daley, reading the conundrum in terms of keeping Cameron’s political scoreboard, confesses that she can’t keep up.
Was his European summit intervention a triumph over the EU budget, or not? She asked. And if it was a success, does it cancel out the ghastly calamity of the earlier half of the week? That depends on whether the cleverness and determination of the second half was more revealing of the Prime Minister’s true character than the bloody-minded foolishness of the first. The same-sex marriage question should have been, she said, “on the scale of the country’s immediate problems, an issue of vanishingly small political import had been propelled into a five-star megacrisis of stupendous proportions”.
Was it, as one of Daley’s disgruntled and mystified confidants from the tory back benches said, a silly, off-the-top-of-our-heads gesture inspired by a half-understood observation of the US presidential election. She suggested that it might be a question of “a juvenile crush on the charismatic guy across the Pond.” Barack Obama, the epitome of “cool” in the eyes of star-struck Cameroons, had committed himself to legalising gay marriage – and he had won the election by taking states with largely urban, metropolitan electorates. Ergo, thought the great brains of Downing Street, endorsing gay marriage brings you electoral success in cosmopolitan conurbations of the kind that the Tories need to win, she said.
So what does Daley conclude? That Cameron may be too facile with language and arguments? She thinks that, maybe like a very bright but vaguely lazy student, while he can pull out a gifted verbal performance when it is absolutely necessary – when his political life depends on it – he then slips back into haphazard sloppiness when the crisis is past?
Booker’s analysis ultimately gives Cameron more credit, but if it does it is also more worrying for anyone with a modicum of democratic instinct. Ultimately, as well, it could signal an even deeper crisis for Cameron’s own party for it will be seen as signalling a subtle and sinister subversion of British sovereignty to the creeping hegemony of the European Union and the Council of Europe.
The real story behind this drama goes back to 2010, Booker argues. It has three main players, the Home Secretary Theresa May, our former Lib Dem equalities minister, Lynne Featherstone, and that shadowy institution, the Council of Europe in Strasbourg, with its controversial adjunct, the European Court of Human Rights.
In March 2010, ministers from the 47 countries represented in the Council of Europe agreed a “Recommendation” on “measures to combat discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation or gender identity”. Section IV focused on Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights, guaranteeing “respect for family life”. It proposed that where national legislation recognised same-sex partnerships, these should be given the same legal status as those between heterosexuals. There was no mention of marriage as yet, except in a proposal that “transgender persons” should be entitled to “marry a person of the sex opposite to their reassigned sex”.
Four days before the 2010 general election, the Tory party issued a pamphlet, signed by Theresa May, in which a section on “lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender [LGBT] issues” promised that the party would “consider the case for changing the law to allow civil partnerships to be called and classified as marriage”. But this was not in the manifesto, nor, after the election, in the Coalition Agreement.
In June that year, the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) ruled that, though there was no obligation on countries to recognise same-sex partnerships, Article 8 did not specify that the right to enjoy family life applied only to couples of different sexes. It could be taken as equally applying to same-sex couples. The court proposed that, when a “consensus” emerged among the member states, this could allow the right to same-sex marriages to be recognised under the convention.
Shortly afterwards, Lynne Featherstone, the equalities minister, set out new guidelines allowing “religious music” to be used in civil partnership ceremonies. She suggested that this should be regarded as a step towards allowing gay marriages. In September, the Lib Dem party conference backed her call for same-sex marriages to be legalised.
In December a campaign group, Equal Love, helped a group of British same-sex couples to launch an action in the ECHR asking for civil partnerships to be given full marriage status. They were supported by Peter Tatchell, who told the BBC that banning gay people from marriage sent “a signal that we are regarded as socially and legally inferior”.
The campaign – with much conferring behind the scenes between ministers and gay lobby groups – was under way. In March 2011, May and Featherstone issued an official policy document, “Working for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Equality: Moving Forward”. It committed the Government to work “with all those who have an interest in equal civil marriage” on how “legislation can develop”. Furthermore, it committed the Foreign Office and the new Gender Equality Office to work for “full implementation” of the Council of Europe’s 2010 Recommendation, with a target date of June 2013.
In November 2011, when Britain took over the six-monthly chairmanship of the Council of Europe, it put this at the top of the agenda. (Featherstone had already committed £100,000 of government money to creating an LGBT unit in Strasbourg to plan implementation of the policy). Britain was so keen to take the lead that, on March 27 last year, the UK’s representation in Strasbourg organised the council’s first “closed conference” (ie, public not admitted), to agree detailed plans for the June 2013 implementation, with a keynote address from Featherstone. A speech by the British judge, Sir Nicolas Bratza, then head of the European Court of Human Rights, signalled that the court was ready to declare same-sex marriage a “human right”, as soon as enough countries fell into line.
Such are the real reasons that our Government needed to rush through last week’s vote on gay marriage. We are committed to “full implementation” of the Council of Europe’s policy no later than this June (and hence the similar law now being rushed through in France). It has been a brilliant political coup by the gay lobby, aided by Featherstone, May and those shadowy European bodies that, in so many ways, now rule our lives. But why weren’t we told more honestly and openly why it has all happened?
And that is the question which makes this whole issue a much bigger one than the sentimental journeys of some gay people or the sympathies of those who fail to see the importance of fundamental change in the definition of an institution which is at the heart of a stable society and which has such bearing on the welfare of children. The calculated manipulation of political institutions, the manipulation of public opinion and the deceit at the heart of all this is what should really be disturbing us. If the political establishment is prepared to this in pursuit of one policy it will do it for any policy.