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.
“I don’t support gay marriage despite being a Conservative,” Cameron said in a recent landmark speech on the issue. “I support gay marriage because I am a Conservative.”
Spurred to action by a book about a child with two dads, the Conservatives under Margaret Thatcher rushed a ban through Parliament in 1988 forbidding local governments and schools from promoting homosexuality, with same-sex couples then described by law “as a pretended family relationship.” Twenty-four years later, strategists 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.
To be sure, since returning to power in 2010 after 13 years in the political wilderness, the Conservatives have pursued causes at the core of their founding beliefs: slashing the deficit, cutting public payrolls and moving to lower taxes. Yet the party of Thatcher has also sought to reinvent itself by becoming what one Conservative strategist called “very pro-gay.”
There are at least 12 openly gay members of Parliament from the Conservative Party, more than all other British political parties combined. A majority of those lawmakers were ushered into office with Cameron in 2010. Education Minister Michael Gove, a Conservative, has launched a campaign with the gay rights group Stonewall to combat homophobia in British schools. Cameron has hosted a summit on homophobia in professional soccer and officially apologized for Thatcher-era anti-gay policies, calling the party’s previous stance “a mistake.”
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.”