One hundred and thirty-six Conservative MPs voted against gay marriage. It was a free vote and it was, they knew, a futile gesture, but they made it anyway.
No doubt some of them genuinely believed (and will, presumably, continue to believe) that gay marriage is inherently wrong. That’s not an opinion I share, but as it happens they’re not the MPs I’m concerned with. The more interesting ones, the ones who surely formed a considerable bulk if not the majority of the 136, are the MPs who voted against because they felt, as Conservatives, that this was something they should be against. Even if, as individuals, they weren’t.
In one way this is a strangely laudable thing to have done. “We only hold our seats because we’re Tories,” they must have thought. “We were elected as Tories, not as individuals, and we will therefore vote as a true Tory should.” Humble to the last, they’ll ignore their own opinions and vote as their inner whip (not to be confused with a conscience) tells them to.
Someone should tell them their inner whip’s got it wrong.
There used to be a time when you were a Tory or a Whig. And then there came a time when you could vote Labour, too. After a while certain “blends” became acceptable – you could be, say, a fiscal conservative but lean socially to the left – but within those boundaries there wasn’t much room for manoeuvre. Either you bought the whole package, or you didn’t buy the package at all.
And that’s where the 136 have got stuck, back in the days where voters bought their opinions wholesale, where if you didn’t like Trade Unions you couldn’t like blacks or lesbians either, where if you hated McDonalds you had to somehow justify Stalinism. They haven’t noticed that the revolution in access to information over the last few decades has brought a corresponding freedom to form opinions. We’re no longer bound by our own views – we can like hunting and gay rights, Barack Obama and Nigel Farage. We can, if we want to, be socially liberal and socially conservative at the same time. We can vote conservative and (without the slightest sense of contradiction) be in favour of gay marriage. Woolworths may have gone, but we’ve never been freer to pick and mix our views.
Whether you like him or you hate him, it’s to David Cameron’s credit that he gets this. The Liberal and Labour MPs who voted against get it too, ironically.
But some of those 136, I’m convinced, just don’t get it at all.