Yesterday, by 400 votes to 175, the House of Commons approved a marriage equality law that finally allows gay men and women to marry on (almost) the same basis as heterosexuals. It was a historic step for the UK, especially as the bill had been pushed hard by Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron, who is desperate to modernise his party (or at least, to convince the public that the Tories have modernised).
It was a great day for progressives; the Commons split roughly along the same lines that the public had done in polls. Many people looked back in astonishment at the fact that homosexuality had only been legal in the UK since 1967, and public tolerance of gays only reached a tipping point in the past two decades. We’ve come a long way, Britain.
However, Cameron seems to have miscalculated. While his popularity in the country was no doubt lifted by yesterday’s vote, his own party split down the middle; those Conservatives voting in favour of gay marriage were outnumbered by those voting against, and a number abstained, wavering between a personal wish to support the measure, but pressure from their local parties to oppose it. We learned two things yesterday: Britain has become a more tolerant place; and the Conservative Party still has a long way to go. Rather than demonstrate that the Tories have modernised, Cameron helped expose the fact that they haven’t; and in the process he antagonised the powerful right wing of his party. He emerges from these events weaker, and will now be under immense pressure to bring the dinosaurs back on board.
And that’s where we should worry. The Tory right (and its inbred cousin, UKIP) has been on the warpath recently on a number of social issues. Abortion has been put back more firmly on the agenda than at any time since its legalisation, with the Health Minister Jeremy Hunt declaring support for halving of the time limit from 24 weeks to 12. And just as worrying, the “sexualisation” bandwagon (which is an all-fronts attack on “explicit” sexuality in the public eye, from music videos to children’s clothing) seems to have gained mainstream acceptance.
The obvious reaction to the “sexualisation” panic is to introduce more “morality police” to oversee TV programming, approve Internet censorship controls and create a “slut-shaming” atmosphere in the public space. Right-wing Tory MPs such as Claire Perry and Nadine Dorries have long been pushing for such actions; an angry, mobilised Tory right may now be in a position to force a weakened David Cameron into giving way on these issues.
The short-term outcome from yesterday’s win on gay marriage may be some rapid government moves against abortion and in favour of more censorship. Once we’ve finished celebrating yesterday’s victory, we may have more battles to fight.