Conservatives Shift on Gay Marriage

On the front page of the Washington Post a four-column headline reads

Britain’s Conservatives push for gay marriage

This change in Conservative direction was foreshadowed in a widely reported speech at the Cato Institute in February 2010 by Nick Herbert, then the Conservatives’ shadow environment secretary and now Minister of State for Policing and Criminal Justice in David Cameron’s government. Watch the video of Herbert’s speech, with sharp responses from Andrew Sullivan and Maggie Gallagher:

The Post reports

Americans watching the latest push for social change in Britain might feel as if they had stepped into an alternate political universe: Here, the Conservatives are leading the charge for same-sex marriage.

Gay couples in Britain won the right to civil partnerships in 2004, which granted them nearly the same legal status as married heterosexual couples while avoiding the controversial use of the word “marriage.” But Prime Minister David Cameron and his Conservative-led coalition have launched a historic drive to grant gay men and lesbians the option of also entering into civil marriages, touching off a surprisingly fierce uproar in largely progressive Britain and fueling a rebellion on the right as the party comes under heavy fire from traditional allies in the British clergy.

Yet challenging tradition appears to be exactly Cameron’s point. The proposal, put forward this month despite the lack of a strong clamor for marriage within Britain’s gay community, is nevertheless emerging as the cornerstone of a bid by the 45-year-old prime minister and other young leaders on the right here to redefine what it means to be a modern Conservative.

And why this change? Well, no doubt, as both Herbert and Cameron said, they believe deeply in the institution of marriage and the ancient British principle of equal freedom under law. But the Post does suggest some political motives as well:

[S]trategists see Cameron’s decision to champion the gay marriage cause as an attempt to seize the mantle of progressive change from the left and broaden the Conservative Party’s appeal among an increasingly key voting group: young urbanites…

What prompted the shift? “We lost three elections, in 1997, 2001 and 2005,” said Margot James, former vice chairman of the Conservative Party and an openly gay member of Parliament.

“The electorate was not seeing us as a viable alternative in a modern world. But David Cameron came along and changed all that. This is a different Conservative Party now, one that is fully in favor of equal rights. I think the Republicans could learn a lot from us in how to appeal to the center, without whose votes a party cannot hope to win.”

And maybe the Republicans are learning. Politico has a lead story today on the striking lack of interest in the gay marriage issue among House Republicans. I joined a number of other observers at Politico Arena today in commenting on the story. I noted that Republicans too know that “young urbanites” are overwhelmingly supportive of marriage equality, and they don’t want to lose a whole generation. And just to confirm Politico’s report about Republican silence, none of Politico’s usual conservative bloggers have chimed in yet.

But for now I’m just noting, as I’ve done on other issues, that you could have heard it here first—or at least the foreshadowing of it.