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Two steps forward, one back, for same-sex marriage

Same-sex marriage wins a breakthrough vote in France, but David Cameron is having trouble with his party over the same change in Britain.

With opinion polls now showing majorities even in the United States (and of course Australia) in favor of the legalisation of same-sex marriage, you’d think by now it would have ceased to be controversial in western Europe. Eight countries there have already made the change – apparently without the social fabric disintegrating – and it’s on the agenda in several more.

But there is still resistance; massive demonstrations were held in Paris and other French cities last month in opposition to the proposed legalisation. So it was a milestone rather than a mere formality on Saturday when the French National Assembly voted by a large majority, 249 to 97, to approve the key article of the government’s legislation for marriage equality.

It will take another week or so for the whole bill to pass, but there is no doubt about its ultimate success. Nor should there be, since the Socialist government of Jean-Marc Ayrault enjoys a substantial majority and has a clear mandate for the change.

The centre-right opposition has mostly opposed the bill and obstructed its passage in parliament, although many of its members abstained on Saturday. But there is no serious suggestion that the next centre-right government will repeal it. This has been the pattern generally: same-sex marriage is usually promoted by the centre-left, but once the change is made, it stays. Spain’s centre-right government, for example, opposed same-sex marriage when in opposition but since its 2011 election has left it undisturbed.

Opposition to same-sex marriage is therefore fed by the knowledge that it has to be stopped in the beginning if it’s to be stopped at all. There is something of an air of desperation about its opponents, since by now it’s clear that in western Europe the idea has become thoroughly mainstream.

Which brings us to Britain, where, against the usual trend, it’s a conservative government, or at least a conservative-liberal coalition, that is introducing same-sex marriage. But it’s the exception that proves the rule, since David Cameron is running into some serious trouble with his backbench. It’s looking increasingly likely that the majority of his party will vote against the measure in the House of Commons next week.

Local Tory activists have warned the government that “resignations from the Party are beginning to multiply and we fear that, if enacted, this Bill will lead to significant damage to the Conservative Party in the run up to the 2015 election.”

That won’t prevent it becoming law, since it will have strong support from both the Liberal Democrats and the opposition Labour Party. But it’s a sign of how limited the modernisation of the Conservative Party has been and how, despite his having brought them into government after 13 years of opposition, Cameron is still little liked by much of his party.

Andrew Rawnsley in the Observer draws a more general moral about the Conservative Party’s ability to turn on itself: “The trademark of much Tory history is that the party frequently kills its leaders and its leaders often betray their friends.” (Sadly enough, there are few political parties of which the same could not be said.) His verdict on Cameron’s modernisation is worth quoting:

It was never resolved – probably because he was not sure in his own mind – whether his modernisation project was intended as a root-and-branch reconstruction of the Tories to make them a majority party over many elections or merely a public relations makeover to try to snatch one victory. Because he was not clear, the enemies of modernisation within his party were never fully confronted and defeated. He campaigned for the leadership on the slogan “change to win”. But it only half-changed and then it only half-won.

Same-sex marriage will happen in both Britain and France, with more to come. But it looks as if it will be a while yet before the parties of the right manage to come to terms with social change.

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