Wednesday, 12 September 2012

Why Nick Clegg Mustn't Trivialise Gay Marriage

Nick Clegg has been attracting a great deal of media attention this week over the issue of gay marriage. No doubt he wishes to be seen valiantly defending the rights of a part of society that has historically been cruelly overlooked and abused by marriage laws. "Continued trouble in the economy gives the bigots a stick to beat us with, as they demand we 'postpone' the equalities agenda in order to deal with 'the things people really care about'", he has declared, urging social issues once more to the forefront of political debate.

Such a move hardly commends Clegg's qualities as a politician, however. It appears as a sadly transparent move to return to such an emotive topic at a time of such extraordinarily poor government approval ratings, immediately after a reshuffle that has failed to successfully boost public opinion.

Gay marriage is certainly controversial, prompting vocal opposition on both moral and technical grounds and achieving over 228,000 responses in a government consultation. Indeed, as I noted in a previous post, it is possible for someone to be an ardent supporter of equal rights while still finding issue with the manner of government involvement. It is a complex matter that deserves a reasoned debate. It is, however, a policy point that draws huge support from all corners of the political spectrum, making it the ideal issue for politicians to wheel out in times of need. This makes it especially useful for Clegg, whose ratings have been very low for a while. It is therefore very difficult to see this episode as anything other than a spot of cynical populism deliberately designed do incense.

In any case, he appears to have failed to successfully exploit this issue in any meaningful way, finding his words drowned out by recent unemployment figures and an unfolding international incident, leaving him with only an embarrassing gaffe. If anything, his "bigot" comment is likely to galvanise opposition to reform, hurting the chances of same-sex couples to enjoy marriage on equal terms.

The early indications are that Nick Clegg's popularity will not be improved by this incident. Hopefully the Prime Minister's response will be more mature, if he has even noticed it at all.