Nick Herbert, Conservative Shadow Environment Secretary, on gay rights
On Wednesday, the Cato Institute, a US libertarian think-tank, hosted a talk, “Is There a Place for Gay People in Conservatism and Conservative Politics?”, with Nick Herbert, Conservative MP and Shadow Environment Secretary, Andrew Sullivan, blogger with The Atlantic, and Maggie Gallagher, President of the National Organization for Marriage.
Though I’m fond of Sullivan’s arguments and can understand his perspective, he can seem a little angry at times, even if justifiably so. In any case, Nick Herbert’s speech (audio here) was certainly the highlight of the event, laying out a vision of the Conservative Party that would treat sexuality as a completely unexceptional in how it governs. He talked of how there could be more openly gay Conservative than Labour MPs after the upcoming general election and how allowing gay people to enter an institution such as marriage fitted in nicely to a conservative vision. He finished his speech strongly:
So let us be clear about the kind of society we want to build: One where a child can go to school without being bullied because of his or her sexuality. Where the terraces at football games do not ring with homophobic abuse. Where a public declaration of lifelong commitment to another person can be made by anyone. Where communities are safe and no-one is fearful because of who they are. Where anyone can serve their country without being asked who it is they love. Where no-one is held back and opportunity is available to all. And where the Prime Minister of the UK or the President of the United States could just as easily be gay as black.
The record of the Conservative Party still leaves a lot to be desired on the question of gay rights. I do not highlight, as I have done before, the arguments for marriage equality from a conservative perspective as a conservative myself. I do not consider myself to be conservative in outlook. Even if I share views on many issues with conservatives, I am more of traditional liberal, believing in free minds and free markets. I have a more secular outlook than most conservatives would, and have more of a instinct towards individuals and innovation than traditional institutions and practices.
It is for two reasons. The first is pragmatic. This country is moderately conservative, as the fact that Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil, both centre-right parties, won 69% of the votes cast in 2007 indicates. The change to allow gay couples to marry will only happen when TDs in these parties feel willing and confident to vote for it. So it makes sense to address the question on their terms.
But the other is that I actually want them to agree with me, not just vote for this. After the electorate narrowly voted for divorce in 1995, those who opposed it had to accept the situation, even though they wished it hadn’t passed. Even people who consider divorce the best outcome under a given circumstance would usually consider it unfortunate. I don’t want this to be the case when marriage equality is introduced, that some would wish such marriages would not take place, even if they have to accept them. I think it worthwhile to convince people that it is a pro-family outlook to encourage a gay or lesbian couple in a committed relationship to marry, just as they might encourage a man and a woman in a similar situation to marry. Unlike the LoveAction umbrella campaign, I do not wish for any amendment to the Constitution, as I believe we should argue that in no way is it an attack on the institution of Marriage, guarded against attack in Article 41.3.1°.
This is in ways an abstract and distant question for me, and I do hope that if it does become more immediate and pressing for me personally, that it will no longer be a political issue. I have no particular interest in writing about gay-specific topics per se. Of course being gay affects how I see certain things, but ideally it would be the occasional piece on Hume and Holmes rather than on the marriage question. When I started this blog, I hadn’t planned that as great a proportion of posts would be in the category of Gay Issues that I would feel after I while I should separate them from politics in the post categorization.
But as an active member of a political party, I can’t avoid the matter. It is why, perhaps, I take more of an interest in political pronouncements on the subject than some of my friends. The political process in general is slow, but it is something I find myself inexorably drawn towards. And this is one of many issues that I try to be one small cog in the wheel of that process.