Contradictions at the Conservative Conference: gay marriage and benefits claimants

It won’t astonish you to learn that I am not a Conservative (insofar as I am represented at all within conventional electoral politics I am a Green, although it’s important to stress that I mean the rational, technology-is-our-friend wing of the Greens, not the irrational, halt-all-progress wing of the party). Given my lack of sympathy with Conservative politics, it’s not a surprise that I have found much to disagree with in the pronouncements emanating from their annual conference. That’s as anticipated – I expect to disagree with most of what most Conservatives say about most things (although I sometimes agree, as when David Davis speaks up for the freedom of the individual from state surveillance). What I find rather more concerning is that Conservatives are contradicting themselves within their own speeches, but still getting cheered to the rafters regardless.

Take George Osborne’s keynote speech yesterday, for example. Lots of what he said in it were just things I disagree with, like the idea that people should give up their employment rights in exchange for shares in the company. I think that’s grossly unfair because an ordinary employee’s tiny shareholding will be worth very little, but if they are unfairly dismissed they lose their entire livelihood – i.e. their ‘remedy’ for being unlawfully fired is completely unequal to the losses they sustain. And the idea that people should give up their redundancy rights is even worse. If a firm becomes insolvent and can’t meet its redundancy commitments to its workers, they can currently claim statutory redundancy pay from the National Insurance fund in place of the payment they should get from their employer; but if the employees have given up, or been stripped of, their right to redundancy pay then all they have are their shares – which are worthless, because the firm is insolvent.

Anyway, all of this is par for the course (and, like most policies announced at party conferences, unlikely to actually happen). I want to draw attention to the blatant contradictions in Osborne’s speech. Near the beginning, he says

We’re not going to get through this as a country if we set one group against another, if we divide, denounce and demonise.

So, just to be clear: we must be careful not to divide, demonise, or denounce. Got that? Ok, good, now let’s fly, by the magic of the internet, to a later point in the speech

Where is the fairness, we ask, for the shift-worker, leaving home in the dark hours of the early morning, who looks up at the closed blinds of their next door neighbour sleeping off a life on benefits?

So let’s notice first of all the dividing of one group from another: those who leave home in the dark hours of the early morning, and those whose blinds are drawn at that time of day.

Now let’s notice the demonisation of those who have their blinds shut: the presumption that everyone who has their blinds shut is ‘sleeping off a life on benefits’. (Surely a shift-worker, of all people, is likely to recognise that someone might be sleeping in the early morning because they work the back shift?) Note also the demonisation inherent in the implication that those who are on benefits and asleep are shirkers and skivers – not, say, one of the 685 people who were being laid off as George Osborne spoke yesterday afternoon, or someone who is terminally ill.

And let’s, at the last, note that the whole intention behind this part of Osborne’s speech is to denounce this supposed group of benefits-claiming, life-sleeping, blind-closing shirkers.

Possibly you assume this must have been an aberration, that having been so careful to disclaim division, demonisation and denunciation, Mr Osborne wouldn’t go and do exactly the same thing again. Well, if you were assuming that, then I’m sorry to say you were mistaken. Let’s skip forward in the speech again, to the point where Osborne said

How can we justify giving flats to young people who have never worked, when working people twice their age are still living with their parents because they can’t afford their first home?

How can we justify a system where people in work have to consider the full financial costs of having another child, whilst those who are out of work don’t?

Again, let’s notice the division: there are people who are out of work and get flats and cost-free children (yeah, right…), and there are people in work who get neither. (Let’s ignore, for now, the fact that the crippling shortage of affordable housing isn’t the fault of either the people who get the flats, or the people who don’t get the flats, but the fault of government policies that limit the supply of affordable property to such an extent that it can only be made available to people in the direst need – i.e., not to single people with no kids who at least have a permanent roof over their heads at their parents’ house.)

Let’s notice the demonisation: the presumption that a person’s need for a place to live and support for their kids is the result of irresponsibility, not circumstances beyond their control. No room in this world view for the disabled person who’d been living in the spare room of their parent’s rented house until their parent died, leaving them homeless. No room in this world view for the recently bereaved stay-at-home mum who suddenly finds herself without an income or a place to live, and with a new baby on the way.

And, again, let’s notice that the whole point of this section of Mr Osborne’s speech is to denounce the supposedly work-shy, unfairly-flat-obtaining, irresponsibly-child-birthing shirker.

Clearly, I disagree with the views expressed and implied by George Osborne, but it’s perfectly legitimate to hold those views and to express them. The Conservatives clearly think that there is political capital to be made in dividing the country into ‘all those who aspire, all who work, save and hope’ on one hand and those who ‘just take out’ on the other. So why not just have the courage to say that? Why not make it absolutely clear that they are dividing and denouncing, and that they stand for one group against another? Presumably it’s an attempt to have their cake and eat it – to please those who want denunciation, whilst reassuring those who recoil against it – but it doesn’t work. Giving a speech that involves a very large measure of division, demonisation and denunciation but prefacing it with a statement that those very things must be avoided doesn’t make the Conservatives appear balanced and centrist; it just adds a layer of incoherence and contradiction, and muddies a message that might otherwise be clear.

The same phenomenon was in evidence at a fringe meeting called by the Coalition to Restrict Marriage to People We Like Coalition for Marriage. Much of the coverage of the meeting – not that it got a great deal of coverage – focussed on the contribution of George Carey, the former Archbishop of Canterbury. It was unfortunate, certainly, that Lord Carey decided to make a comparison between opponents of marriage equality and Jewish people under the Nazis:

Let us remember the Jews in Nazi Germany. What started against them was when they started to be called names. And that was the first stage towards that totalitarian state. We have to resist them [those who describe anti-equality activists as bigots].

It was unfortunate because, well, if you’re interested in having a sensible discussion it’s always as well not to imply that your opponents are Nazis (especially when, earlier in the same meeting, you’ve deplored the tendency for name-calling). It’s also unfortunate because – although they were not subject to the same kind of systematic extermination as Jews – gay men were amongst the groups targeted for persecution by the Nazis, while individual Christians only fell foul of the Nazi authorities if they acted or spoke against them; in other words, gay men were targeted just for being gay, but Christians were not targeted just for being Christian. I’m sure, on reflection, Lord Carey would recognise that invoking a Nazi parallel in these circumstances is not just silly, but also in rather poor taste. Quite apart from anything else, Nazis were not known for their defence of the rights of Jews, whereas those of us who support marriage equality defend absolutely the right of religious organisations not to marry same-sex couples – and more, their right to preach against homosexuality as a sin, and denounce gay activists as wicked.

What Nazi persecution actually looked like: gay men wearing the pink triangle

Anyway, while the media attention, such as it was, was directed at Lord Carey, comparatively little notice was taken of a comment made by another keynote speaker at the meeting – the former Conservative MP Ann Widdecombe:

This is not an anti-gay rally. It is defending marriage.

The comments are not persuasive, since those who attended the meeting envisage the ‘defence’ of marriage as requiring that gay people be banned from marrying each other. This is, axiomatically, anti-gay: it is an insistence that gay couples be treated differently to straight couples simply because they are gay. It is anti-gay in the same way that the ‘separate-but-equal’ provision of drinking fountains in the segregated south of America was racist – yes, everyone gets the same (or similar – see below), but it makes an unnecessary and offensive distinction between people.

Separate and unequal

As with George Osborne’s speech, the mystery is why Ms Widdecombe and the other speakers at the meeting don’t have the courage to say what they mean. It’s obvious that they believe (at a minimum) that gay relationships are not of equal value to straight relationships, and that attempts to treat them as such will destabilise the institution of the family and, ultimately, the country – so why not say that? Holding a meeting at which anti-gay sentiments are promulgated but prefacing them with an announcement that they are not anti-gay doesn’t make the minority of Conservatives who attended the meeting appear balanced and centrist; it just adds a layer of incoherence and contradiction, and muddies a message that might otherwise be clear.

As an aside, speakers at the anti-equality meeting yesterday made the claim that gay marriage is not necessary because civil partnerships already give gay people everything they (we) need. This is a claim that’s often repeated, but it’s not true.

  • Civil partnerships are recognised only in the UK, but marriages will be recognised in any of the growing number of countries that allow same-sex marriage – so, for example, a British couple who retire to Spain won’t have to get re-married if they want next-of-kin rights in a medical emergency.

  • The distinction between marriages and civil partnerships requires established couples where one or both partners undergo a change of sex to dissolve and re-form the legal relationship between them, potentially multiple times. Given that the tortuous process of getting a gender recognition certificate can take years, this forces couples either to delay their wedding plans for the very long term, or to go through a process that is as expensive, upsetting and humiliating as it is unneccesary.

  • And, as mentioned above, the provision of separate institutions for same- and opposite-sex relationships unnecessarily and offensively implies a difference between the two types of relationship.

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