Today marks the day that gay marriage officially became legal in the United Kingdom, as the Queen gave royal assent to laws passed by parliament.
For supporters of gay marriage, it’s a great day. The U.K. joins the short list of countries around the world that allow same sex marriage. But to anyone who’s followed the legal process, there’s another interesting factor: the leader of the U.K.’s right wing party, David Cameron, was vocal supporter the bill.
Cameron did this at the risk of alienating his own party. It’s a depressingly hard situation to imagine happening in the United States.
Cameron’s coalition government — formed from his own Conservative Party and Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats — announced they would be start a formal consultation on how to implement equal marriage for same sex couples back in 2011. Cameron supported the plans, and it appears to have been a personal issue to him; back in 2007, before he was Prime Minister and when he had been party leader for just two years, he said this to an audience of Conservative Party members:
“There’s something special about marriage. It’s not about religion. It’s not about morality. It’s about commitment. When you stand up there, in front of your friends and your family, in front of the world, whether it’s in a church or anywhere else, what you’re doing really means something. Pledging yourself to another means doing something brave and important. You are making a commitment. You are publicly saying: it’s not just about me, me me anymore. It is about we – together, the two of us, through thick and thin. That really matters. And by the way, it means something whether you’re a man and a woman, a woman and a woman or a man and another man. That’s why we were right to support civil partnerships, and I’m proud of that.“
Civil partnerships — a legal marriage in all but name — had become legal in the U.K. in 2005 under Tony Blair’s government, but even in 2007 people took this statement as showing an ambition for something more from Cameron. Before the 2010 election, the Conservatives clearly told voters they would “consider” gay marriage.
Cameron’s personal support of gay marriage wasn’t with the support of his party. Even polls from 2013 show a slim majority against gay marriage from Conservative voters. When the government’s gay marriage bill had its second reading (which is the first time a proposed bill is voted upon by the House of Commons) it passed 400 to 175. However, 134 Conservative Party members voted against the bill — and just 126 voted for. Later, Tory MPs tried to ruin the bill by adding a “wrecking amendment,” and the government bill was only saved by the intervention of the left wing opposition Labour Party.
The issue, alongside European Union membership, soon became an issue that Conservative grassroots activists used to attack Cameron, who is seen by some as part of a cosmopolitan urban elite that it out-of-touch with many middle-class, rural Conservative voters. Cameron has largely kept his cool, however — throughout the bill’s progress, he has said he is “proud” of the bill, and he appears confident that he will be on the right side of history, even at the risk of alienating his own supporters.
Contrast this situation with the United States. In the 2008 and 2012 Republican caucus, the only “semi-major” candidate who didn’t openly oppose gay marriage was Ron Paul, who said the government should stay out of the debate. Last month Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) became just the third senator to support same sex marriage.
Of course, there are a lot of cultural and political differences that make comparing the U.K. and the U.S. a little tricky, but it still raises the question: could a Republican 2016 candidate battle their own base like Cameron did? Last year a memo circulated by Jan van Lohuizen, a respected Republican pollster, advised GOP insiders that the Republican party needs to update its rhetoric on gays and lesbians. As Andrew Sullivan pointed out at the time, one key point advised Republican candidates to push for gay marriage based on the “conservative nature of gay marriage, to say how it encourages personal responsibility, commitment, stability and family values.” That certainly sounds a lot like Cameron’s blueprint.
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