I have been reading the Guardian for the last week. I get it on my Kindle, on which the first two weeks of a newspaper subscription is a free trial: and I have to say that reading the Guardian really is a bit of a trial for an old reactionary like me. Unlike the Independent, which does at least try to be dispassionate, every word of the Guardian is dripping in its own variety of Left-wing bias. The paper seems to me now a very long way from the vision of its most famous editor, C P Scott, who in a famous piece marking the Manchester Guardian’s centenary in 1921 wrote that the “primary office” of a newspaper is accurate news reporting: in his words, “comment is free, but facts are sacred”. Even editorial comment, he said, has its responsibilities: “It is well to be frank; it is even better to be fair.” Well, the comment in the Guardian, signed or unsigned, is to my mind sometimes so grossly unfair that it’s practically unreadable: the very names of its two most prominent commentators, George Monbiot and Polly Toynbee, are almost synonymous with unfairness and spite (as Lord MacAlpine in the case of Monbiot discovered to his cost). And even the news reporting often needs to be checked against other sources.
But I digress. I mention the Guardian because of its (credible) front page splash on Wednesday: “Ukip plans to derail David Cameron over gay marriage.” Nigel Farage has, it seems, spotted what many others saw some time ago, but what Cameron himself has apparently not yet understood: that this, not Europe or the economy, could be the issue which will destroy his leadership of the Tory party and lose him the election.
The main group campaigning against the change – the Coalition for Marriage (whose petition, ignored by the government, as I write has 620,505 signatures) – is warning Tory MPs that the issue could bring about what it is calling Cameron’s “Iraq moment”. Tony Blair needed the support of Tory MPs to win the Iraq vote after 139 Labour MPs rebelled. But winning that vote with the help of his enemies did lasting damage to Blair’s authority within his party from which he never recovered. That seems to me an entirely valid parallel.
Cameron thinks this is all about the modernisation of the party and bringing it into touch with modern Britain. But if he loses the trust of his party, in the country as well as in the House, he will find himself walking on very marshy ground; and if he goes any deeper into this swamp (as he can now hardly avoid doing) it could (and I predict will) swallow him up. Members in the constituencies are resigning in record numbers. And it’s not just the Guardian which is reporting that. According to Iain Martin in the Telegraph, “Tory MPs say they are getting a steady stream of letters from outraged constituents and party members who are resigning. One MP, a supporter of gay marriage, admitted that the letters have been running 6-1 against over the past six months.”
And many of those who resign are defecting in the direction of Nigel Farage. That’s why Mr Farage, as the Guardian tells us, “plans to put the issue of gay marriage at the heart of Ukip’s campaign for the 2014 European elections”. “Amid signs that Conservative associations are losing members in their droves,” the paper reports, “over what is being dubbed the prime minister’s ‘clause IV moment’, the Ukip leader, Nigel Farage, warned that gay marriage could ‘rip apart’ the Conservative party. He plans to put the issue at the heart of Ukip’s campaign for the 2014 European parliamentary elections”.
These elections, it should be noted, will take place a few months after the gay marriage legislation is due to come into force (though my own guess is it could still be bogged down in the Lords, whence it may never emerge unless Cameron, with the general election looming, foolishly invokes the Parliament Act, thus signing his own death warrant as party leader).
This is how Farage explains his tactics: “David Cameron’s proposal has the potential to rip apart the traditional rural Tory vote. While Ukip wholly respects the rights of gay people to have civil partnerships, we feel the prime minister’s proposals will present an affront to millions of people in this country for whom this will be the final straw. The division between city and rural is absolutely huge. In my village pub in Kent they are just completely against.”
Farage thinks the gay marriage issue will benefit Ukip by highlighting the impact on this country of the European court of human rights and by giving his party a touchstone issue around which it can rally. “Ukip is not a one-issue party,” he says. “But the gay marriage case is closely interwoven with the European Court of Human Rights, as is so much of our life. Ukip will be seen to be a party campaigning not just about who governs Britain but about how we think that Britain should be governed.”
Farage is right to invoke the spectre of the European Court of Human Rights. For, whatever legislation the government introduces to give national Churches the freedom to accept or reject the right to celebrate gay marriages in their own buildings and according to their own rites, any Church which forbids any such enactments on its premises and by its ministers will undoubtedly lay themselves open to proceedings in Strasbourg. In the words of the Anglican blogger Archbishop Cranmer, writing on the occasion of the government’s original bogus “consultation” (tell us what you think, then we’ll ignore it)
“The intention of the Government … presents a very high risk of Churches and Faiths being forced to marry gay people. Their right to manifest their religion or belief, in worship, teaching, practice and observance will be struck down at the Altar of Equality.
“It cannot be that legislating for religious gay marriage could be justified under Article 9.2 [of the European Convention on Human Rights] but we strongly fear – as do most of the Churches and Faiths of our country that, whatever the intentions of the Government are in this regard, such will be forced on them by the Strasbourg Court – a court which has a well-established track record of forcing the United Kingdom to adopt positions, such as votes for prisoners, which are anathema to our people. We [the Libertarian Alliance] believe that this case will be no different.”
I agree. The fact that whole Churches, as national institutions, may be given the right to (may even be legally forced to, in the case of the C of E) refuse to “marry” people of the same sex will not protect them at Strasbourg. Any Anglican, any Catholic, will have the right to take his own Church to the European Court, especially if other Churches have been given the right to go through some kind of “marriage” ceremony: this will simply, in the eyes of Strasbourg, compound the unfairness of those Churches who don’t allow it. So the latest concessions simply hasten Mr Cameron’s forward lurch into the swamp he has conjured up for himself. His leadership of the Tory Party has surely now gone beyond the point of no return. And it could indeed be Ukip which will finish him off, with the votes of many of those Conservatives who will never again (as in “never again glad confident morning”) vote for the party as long as he is its leader.