I took a week off last week. However, I used some of the time to research the next article.
It is quite easy to find, on the Internet, the full text of parliamentary debates for recent-ish periods for the House of Commons, House of Lords and the Scottish Parliament (the three legislatures which directly concern me), but then the hard work comes - it is necessary to READ very lengthy texts to find the salient points. A tedious task I agree, but if no-one does it, at least for subjects of special interest, then we have only ourselves to blame if politicians come to believe their accountability begins and ends on the day they are elected.
The second article tries to see behind the tolerant image presently being spun for Iain Duncan Smith's modernised Conservative party, to see if it represents reality.
Civil Partnerships Bill [HL] Second Reading
This bill was given its second reading in the House of Lords on Friday 25th January 2002. The main purpose of the bill is to grant some of the protections currently available only to those who have married. The principal beneficiaries would be heterosexual couples who have, for whatever reason, chosen not to marry, and same-sex couples who are not permitted to marry.
Over the past couple of weeks there has been much media speculation that the Conservative Party was about to announce significant changes to its policies in favour of a more 'liberal' attitude toward partnerships (heterosexual or homosexual) outside marriage. Much of this media speculation was fuelled by, in my view, carefully timed 'briefings' and appearances by various Conservative figures. For example, John Bercow wrote a letter to Conservative members in his constituency in which he stated his belief that the Conservative Party is widely viewed as "racist, homophobic, sexist and anti-youth"; this view was rebutted a few days later by Iain Duncan Smith, Conservative Party Leader, in an interview with Sir David Frost, when he stated: "There's nothing peculiarly different about the Conservative Party out there in the country. The problem for us is the perception of us has been obsessed with specific issues, unable apparently to be able to take key decisions that are relevant to peoples' lives ...". This was covered in my comments for 21st January 2002 - click to go there now.
Subsequent to Duncan Smith's interview, John Bercow honoured a long-standing engagement to take part as a member of the BBC1 'Question Time' panel on 24th January 2002, during which he reiterated his belief that existing legislation discriminated against same-sex partners in a number of important areas, to the obvious [pleasant] surprise of some of the others on the panel.
It had been 'trailed' during the week by, amongst others, Steve Norris (a vice-chairman of TORCHE and generally considered pro-'gay rights') that he was happy with what appeared to be the developing policy of the Party, to his pleasant surprise as he had been very much against the election of Duncan Smith as Leader, notably during an appearance on BBC2 'Despatch Box' at the beginning of the week of the debate in the House of Lords. During an interview later in the week, however, his tone seemed to have changed somewhat - he warned that unless the Party was to change its policy on Section 28 then it was unlikely that many of those who might otherwise do so would contemplate voting for the Conservative Party (this encapsulates my views very neatly, as it so happens). It had further been trailed by political journalists that one of the policy changes was to permit a 'free vote' by Conservative members of the House of Lords on the 'Civil Partnership Bill', but that the Party's official policy would remain opposed to the Bill.
On the morning of 25th January, the day the Bill was to be given its 'Second Reading', an article by Oliver Letwin (Shadow Home Secretary) appeared in The Daily Telegraph in which he explained the Party's reasons for opposing the Bill. Amongst these was that it would undermine the institution of marriage because those who COULD marry if they wished, namely co-habiting heterosexual couples, already had a method of availing themselves of various rights conferred only by marriage, so it was 'unnecessary' to provide another route. He agreed there was injustice in the present regime as it affected same-sex couples - he said that his Party intended to address this and that "we intend to do so", although he gave us NO indication of when and how this might occur.
In summary, it appears that the Conservative Party has 'spun' its story that they are favourably inclined to right the admitted injustices of existing legislation as it affects same-sex couples, whilst at the same time trying to seek to justify its continuing opposition to a piece of legislation which would eliminate at a stroke much of the injustice, with what I consider to be spurious objections about the need to safeguard the "institution of marriage".
I am certainly not the only one who thinks this; Lady Howe (wife of former Conservative cabinet member Sir Geoffrey Howe), who sits as a Crossbencher, gave her views as follows:
My Lords, I support the Bill for a number of reasons, not the least of which is the considerable respect I have formed over many years for the forward looking yet infinitely well balanced judgment of the noble Lord, Lord Lester, which he brings to his distinguished work in the human rights field.
But the main reason I support the Bill is that it seeks to create a reasonable, inclusive framework for today's society to live in--a very different society from the one which existed when, like myself, perhaps the majority of noble Lords present in the Chamber today entered the adult world. Then we married or we stayed single. Divorce was difficult. Most people who married did so in church. A second marriage, unless through the death of a previous spouse, was a register office affair, whether one wanted that or not.
It was a simpler world, certainly, than is today's, but it too had drawbacks. As the noble Earl, Lord Russell, pointed out, many people were trapped into unhappy marriages, not necessarily always of benefit to their children. And the role of women, unmarried women in particular--noble Lords will remember how that awful word "spinster" did not quite equate with the word "bachelor"--who lacked today's career opportunities, was thus still decidedly second class.
A number of statistics cited in the debate have informed us that in today's world the number of marriages has halved since 1970, divorces have doubled and the variety of individual lifestyles--same sex, heterosexual, sexual and platonic--seems infinite.
All that is set against a background where working life has changed dramatically as well. Few people today are in jobs for life. Flexibility to accommodate employees' other responsibilities--increasingly borne by both sexes, I should say--often concerning children from more than one relationship, is growing. Career and job changes and necessary up-skilling have become routine and, equally important, women are now very much seen as an increasingly accepted and valued part of competitive employment success. Add to that scene a longer potentially active working and leisure life for both sexes and a shrinking younger workforce to underpin state pension benefits--I fear that the encouraging words of the noble Lord, Lord Elton, will not change that; alas the numbers will be smaller than they have been in the past--then the proposals embodied in the Bill will seem even more eminently reasonable, encouraging as they do people to make mutual financial as well as emotional support arrangements, not least for their extending old age. There are advantages for the taxpayer, too--the bottom line--with less need for the surviving partner to rely, if left unprovided for, on the state.
Let me be clear. My preference for men and women wishing to enter into a life-long relationship--particularly where children are involved or hoped for--remains marriage; and, because I am a Christian, for Christian marriage. Of course there will be those who say that accepting the Bill--a number have said this already--will further undermine the institution of marriage. I do not accept that view. When society has changed to the extent that it has, it is unwise not to reflect this fact in the legal and financial arrangements made to recognise the way people actually live.
Obviously one group--we have heard this emphasised--likely to welcome the protection of being able to register a civil partnership, will be the same-sex, cohabiting gay or lesbian couple. In the words of the guidance on the Bill, it will, "enable them to live together within a stable and coherent framework of rights and responsibilities". Surely such arrangements must be beneficial to society as a whole and help reinforce the decision, taken some time ago now, that, over a certain age, each individual's sexual preference is a matter for them.
But, as an article in The Times by the noble Lord, Lord Rees-Mogg, pointed out, there are other groups which can also benefit. The number of young men and women who marry may have halved since the 1970s but, as has been mentioned, the number of heterosexual couples who live together in the full sense of the word I find worrying. I would like to think that the possibility of a registered civil partnership for such couples would be--I hope the Bill will ensure that it could be--a first step towards commitment to a full marriage. But, in any event, should a disaster occur or the relationship break up, it would at least provide some security for both the adults and any children involved.
The noble Lord, Lord Rees-Mogg, also mentions a third group, which I hope can be included, of those--whether family relations or friends--who decide to pool resources, share their lives and live together in the same house or flat. The possibility of formally registering such an arrangement would surely help to avoid complications when the partnership ends, through death or for any other reason. The Government rightly put emphasis--a high priority, indeed--on building an inclusive society and valuing diversity in all its many forms. With the rich variety of cultures, faiths and accepted patterns of sexual behaviour that exists in the UK today, the more we can share and value the same institutions and not disadvantage people because of their chosen lifestyles, the more likely we are to create the kind of mutually supportive and tolerant community we all wish to see.
One may not agree with every word the good Lady uttered, but for me it seems like a sensible, humane and pragmatic approach with which I have little difficulty in concurring.
If you would like to read the complete text of the House of Lords debate, I warn you that it is very lengthy - click to go there now; this will take you to the first of five sections; there is a link to the next section at the bottom of each; you can come back here by pressing the back-button on your browser the appropriate number of times.
It seems to me that there continues to be a huge internal battle going on in the Conservative Party - the 'modernisers' are significantly outnumbered by the 'traditionalists' at present (people like Bercow, Maude on the one hand and Duncan Smith, Letwin and Firth on the other). Even the traditionalists, though, seem to recognise that Conservative electability will only be enhanced if the 'appearance' of the Party is perceived to have changed - but 'appearances' of change will only take them so far; people like me (former Conservatives and activists) will only vote for the Party again if there is genuine change, quite apart from a new generation of younger voters. The traditionalists seem still to have to make the mental leap to recognise the true gravity of the Party's situation. On BBC Radio 4 "Any Questions" last evening [1st February 2002], Sir Malcolm Rifkind was one of the panelists; he is certainly well-known and reasonably well thought of, I think, but his comments were mostly received in stony silence, even when he was saying broadly the same things as other members of the panel. The image of the Conservative Party is so bad that even people like Rifkind are seen as largely irrelevant to modern-day Britain.
Even if Duncan Smith 'gets it' (which I doubt), his ability to push through reforms with the reactionary thinking of a largely aged membership is never likely to be easy - he appears to have had some success with the 'spinning' done last week, leading up to the Civil Partnerships Bill 2nd Reading in the House of Lords, in that a lot of media comment has been broadly favourable, but a quick look below the surface reveals that almost nothing has changed - unless the perception of the Party can be changed across the country then people, in the numbers required, will simply not vote for it and no amount of media punditry can disguise that.
Conservative Tolerance - Reality or Wishful Thinking?
Over the past couple of weeks, we have been told by various people that the Conservative party is in fact a tolerant one that welcomes people from all backgrounds, ethnic groups and of varying sexual orientations. Some of those we have heard, postulating this theory, are not surprising - for example Mr Iain Duncan Smith a couple of weeks ago on 'Breakfast with Frost' (see Comment Archive for 21st January 2001). Others have been more surprising, and if what they say is true it would would indeed be heartening - for example, Steve Norris and Francis Maude have both said they are relatively happy with the first few months of Mr Duncan Smith's leadership, having been much opposed to his election.
Last Saturday (2nd February), there appeared an interview in 'The Daily Telegraph' with Nicholas Boles, recently-appointed director of 'Policy Exchange', the new 'think-tank' set up by Francis Maude and Archie Norman. Mr Boles is a Conservative councillor in Westminster and is also openly-gay (one of the few such politicians in the Party).
He is quoted as saying: "I couldn't leave and join another party, because I would find myself disagreeing with it so much more often about things that are far more political than whether people are gay or straight." (I sypmathise with this - even though I have in fact left the Conservative Party, I cannot see myself joining another Party, for the same reasons Mr Boles mentions.) He goes on to say: "But the Conservatives have got to put to bed the romantic longings for an age which I don't believe was half as rosy as people think it was - and even if it was, it's not coming back." Later he says: "I'm immensely encouraged by everything that Iain Duncan Smith has done, frankly I think I, and quite a lot of other people, rather underestimated him." (I disagree strongly with this; far from underestimating Mr Duncan Smith, I recognise what a clever, sophisticated and urbane person he is and, because of this, just how dangerous he is, along with what he represents.)
Mr Boles goes on to give details of his experiences before the last election, when he applied to almost 20 constituencies to become a parliamentary candidate, being short-listed in three, but despite an impressive CV and possessing a talent for public speaking he was rejected by all of them. As the interviewer, Rachel Sylvester, continued: "Some suspected that the blue rinses had taken against a candidate who, not so long ago, would have been described as a 'confirmed bachelor' ".
Mr Boles, however, rejects the notion he was a victim of prejudice - there are a few people in the party who are bigoted, he says, but he contends that most are just "uneasy with things they don't know" and willing to listen to new ideas.
I agree with much of what Mr Boles is quoted as saying, but cannot help wondering if he is guilty of a degree of wishful thinking. Interestingly there is a letter in today's 'Daily Telegraph', in response to the interview, which gives a somewhat different point of view and one which I consider gives a more accurate impression of the problems facing the Conservative Party. I quote it in full:
|A letter from Mike Smith, Southsea, Hants - published Monday, 4th February 2001 in 'The Daily Telegraph"|
|Gay-friendly Tories won't last long
Sir - So gay Tory Nicholas Boles seriously believes that a Conservative selection committee would not discriminate against an openly homosexual candidate. I wonder which planet he has been living on.
In my 30 years' membership of the Conservative Party, I served on three parliamentary selection committees, sifting a total of around 1,000 parliamentary hopefuls. During the course of many of our discussions, open or thinly veiled allegations of homosexuality were routinely employed to dispose of unwanted individuals. One memorable session was deftly puppeteered by the party's then area agent. A nod and a smirk, accompanied by the formula "he's another one", sealed the doom of scores of potential candidates.
Mr Boles bravely expects people to accept him as he is, warts and all, but he would be wise to extend the same philosophy to the party itself. Otherwise, he might find himself well out on a limb when the party's gimmicky flirtation with political correctness comes - as it well - to an abrupt end.
Certain things Mr Smith writes most certainly resonate with my experience. It is very rare, for example, that any overtly racist or homophobic comments are made at Party functions in my experience, but veiled allusions are frequent.
On the few occasions when something more overt was attempted, the reaction was ALWAYS one of slight embarrassment - I thought a lot about the motivation for this embarrassment and came to the conclusion that it represented merely a worry that an unsympathetic listener might have heard, not necessarily embarrassment (or disgust) that the remark had been made. I NEVER EVER heard any such remarks being challenged, and I have to report (in the interests of scrupulous honesty) that I did not do so myself, although on one notorious occasion I took grave exception to remarks made by a Conservative MSP at a private Party meeting and fired off a strongly-worded e-mail to her parliamentary office explaining in great detail just how offensive I had found her remarks during the meeting, held just before the debate in the Scottish Parliament to abolish Section 28 (clause 2a in Scotland), when the public debate had reached pretty vicious levels; it was really the shock of her remarks and the use made of propaganda material produced by Brian's Soutar's 'Keep the Clause' campaign, and the reaction [i.e. generally favourable] amongst others present that made me begin to question whether I could remain a member, culminating in my resignation about 20 months later, with the election of Iain Duncan Smith as Leader.
I know nothing about Mr Mike Smith, other than having read his letter, but I shall be most interested to see if he is the subject of any future correspondence and, if so, its tenor.
Conservatives to target under-30s?
It is reported today that the Conservative Party is to appoint its first dedicated youth spokesman in a bid to "make it fashionable to be a Conservative". Charles Hendry, will try to change its starchy reputation among young people. Starkly, only 10,000 of about 320,000 party members are under 30 and the Conservatives lost to Labour most severely in the 18-to-34 age group in the last election.
Apparently, Tory leader Iain Duncan Smith will today use a speech to A-level students at Westminster to outline his plans for the new role. Mr Hendry, 42-year old Wealden MP, party whip and father of four, will be charged with listening to the views of the under-30s and voicing their concerns in Parliament. "We can make it fashionable to be a Conservative", he promised.
It is recalled that John Bercow, shadow chief secretary to the Treasury, warned in a letter last month to Buckingham constituency members that the Tories were widely seen as " antiyouth" as well as racist, sexist and homophobic.
I wish the Conservative Party luck, but if they think that a 42-year old father of four can really convince 16-30 year olds (or anyone under 40 for that matter) that it is 'fashionable' or 'cool' to be Conservative, it seems to me it is a stark exposure of the desperation of the Party. If Mr Hendry can gather around him a group of people under thirty, and preferably under twenty-five, who can interact with younger voters as their peers then, perhaps, this may work - otherwise, it sounds like just one more sad gimmick.
Copyright © 2002 William Cameron