Feature: Vote Blue, go Pink? After equal marriage, a gay Tory asks ‘What’s Next?’

Illustrated rainbow pride flag on a white background.

In an extract from a new book, Conservative Nigel Fletcher reflects on changes within his own party after equal marriage, and society as a whole, as well as asking “what’s next?”

It seems almost a requirement of modern political life to be a fan of The West Wing.

Although the TV series finished in 2006, plenty of politicians and Westminster hangers-on remain, like me, unable to look at any issue of current affairs for long before being struck by some reference from it. So when I consider the Conservative Party’s approach to LGBT issues, one of Aaron Sorkin’s lines swam into my head: “What’s next?”

In the series, this seemingly innocuous question was raised almost to the status of a defining philosophical approach. Once a knotty political problem had been resolved – for good or ill – Martin Sheen’s President Bartlet would lay the matter to rest by uttering the businesslike phrase. As he explained in one episode: ‘When I say “what’s next?” it means I’m ready to move on to other things.’

I don’t know if David Cameron shares an obsession with the programme, but I can imagine a similar scene last year as the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act 2013 received Royal Assent and equal marriage became a reality in the UK. The Prime Minister had taken the brave and commendable decision to give the issue his unequivocal personal support, and led from the front in the face of considerable opposition from within the party. But once it was done, the business of government rolled on, with scarcely time to raise a glass to the happy couples who have now begun to get married.

As we watched the first same-sex ceremonies take place, the reality of the victory left many advocates of equality feeling rather dazed and confused. The pace of progress on LGBT issues over the last 15 years has been dizzying. An equal age of consent was followed by the repeal of Section 28, then adoption rights, Civil Partnership, and now equal marriage. Perhaps just as extraordinary has been the transformation in the prevailing attitude of the Conservative Party to such changes– from pained discomfort, to tolerance, to acceptance and now to celebration.

That story is excellently told in Michael McManus’ 2011 book Tory Pride and Prejudice. The temptation for metropolitan, socially liberal Conservatives like me is to read it as history, tutting at the bigots, cheering the heroes, and smiling as the battle is gradually won. It is all too easy to find yourself thinking as you consider, for example, the fact there are now more LGB Members of Parliament in the Conservative Party than in the other parties put together, that the work is done, and it’s time for a Bartlet-esque ‘What’s next?’.

We should resist this temptation. The ‘What’s next?’ we should be asking is what more needs to be done to embed and advance the party’s positive attitude (and record) on LGBT issues – rather than ticking it off as mission accomplished.

When David Cameron expressed his support for equal marriage, he tellingly did so by stressing that he was not backing it in spite of being a Conservative, but because he is a Conservative. Equalising marriage is in fact a very Conservative approach to LGBT issues – recognising the importance of personal responsibility and commitment regardless of sexuality– rather than simply seeing minorities as distinct groups requiring assistance.

Equality should mean your political preference has nothing to do with your sexual preference. Some, however, seem determined to retain a bigotry of their own. At the 2009 Conservative Party conference there was a well-attended and enjoyable ‘Conference Pride’ party at a bar on Manchester’s Canal Street. Sadly, a group of demonstrators picketed the event and hurled abuse at those going inside.

The usual homophobic faux-religious fundamentalists? No –it was actually a group of Labour LGBT activists. This was not an isolated incident. One of the things I find most infuriating at Pride events is the sight of LBGT Labour activists with their “Never kissed a Tory” slogan emblazoned on T-shirts and stickers. The line may have been mildly amusing once (if demonstrably untrue in many cases), but after many years, it just looks pathetic.

Pride marches are supposed to be a demonstration of LGBT unity, but this Labour line reveals a divisive mindset which sees campaigning together for positive change as less important than scoring party political points and insulting Tories (even those Tories who agree with you). It isn’t just on stickers and t-shirts – it is worryingly ingrained in the tone and approach of many Labour activists and MPs. I find it personally offensive, and the increasingly effective LGBTory group should call them out on it.

But the best way to answer these attacks is to turn our attention to answering the substantive ‘what’s next?’ question ourselves. This isn’t an easy task, ironically, precisely because of the success of progress to date. There is now no obvious totemic law or legally enshrined major injustice around which the campaign for LGBT equality in the UK can be rallied. So what IS next?

There is, of course, the significant issue of appalling abuse of LGBT people overseas. It is to the credit of PinkNews and campaign organisations like Stonewall that they have become increasingly focussed on global issues in recent years.

It seems many activists have answered ‘what’s next?’ by looking outwards, and politicians should do the same.

There is also work still to be done at home. Conservatives know better than most that passing a law isn’t a magic wand, and that there are limits to the effectiveness of legislation to solve all ills. Despite much progress in social attitudes, casual homophobia remains endemic – from playgrounds where ‘gay’ is in widespread use as an insult, to streets where same-sex couples would never dream of holding hands for fear of attracting abuse. Even amid the positive coverage of the first same-sex marriages in England and Wales in March 2014, a poll for the BBC found 22% of the population would refuse an invitation to such a ceremony.

None of this can be be solved by government decree, but politicians can and should take a lead. Specific initiatives to challenge homophobia in schools and in sport are right in themselves, but are also a powerful symbol of our values as a party. Writing on PinkNews at the time of the equal marriage vote, David Cameron argued: “There will be girls and boys in school today who are worried about being bullied and concerned about what society thinks of them because they are gay or lesbian. By making this change they will be able to see that Parliament believes their love is worth the same as anyone else’s love and that we believe in equality.”

Like many of his statements on LGBT issues, it was heartfelt and rather moving – as were the speeches of many Conservative MPs and peers in the debates. By taking a lead on this issue, Cameron has embodied the argument he made when he first sought the party leadership, that a ‘modern, compassionate conservatism is right for our times, right for our party and right for our country’. He was right then, and as a party we need to continue to find ways to live up to that aspiration.

Nigel Fletcher is Deputy Leader of Greenwich Conservatives and the founder of the Centre for Opposition Studies, a cross-party think-tank. He was a policy adviser in the Conservative Research Department from 2004-08, and was the party’s lead researcher on the Civil Partnership Bill in 2004.

This is an edited extract from ‘The modernisers’ manifesto’, published by Bright Blue on April 30. The views contained do not necessarily reflect those of PinkNews.