Tuesday 9 February 2010

No need to give reasons: a letter from David Cameron

Last week I posted - alas, somewhat tetchily - about the recent debate in the House of Lords on the proposal to allow civil partnership ceremonies to be performed on religious premises. The proposal, put forward as an amendment to the Equality Bill, was purely permissive, designed to allow religious groups (e.g., Liberal Judaism, Quakerism) who favour such ceremonies to carry them out but leaving other religious groups (e.g., the Church of England) free to refuse them.

One of my friends wrote to her local MP about the matter.

It so happens that her MP is David Cameron. We thought that readers of Next Left would be interested in what David Cameron, leader of the new 'progressive' Conservative party, had to say in reply to her letter.

David says:

'Thank you for writing to me about civil partnerships in religious buildings.

'I appreciate that many people share your strong feeling about the issue. There are genuinely-held concerns on both sides of the debate, so I am very grateful to you for sharing your thoughts with me. As the amendment in question was debated in the House of Lords, I was unable to exert any direct influence over this issue.

'When civil partnerships were first introduced it was intended that they would be treated in the same way as civil marriages, which are also not allowed to take place on religious premises or include religious aspects in a marriage ceremony.

'However I know that many people in civil partnerships would like to change the current arrangements so that civil partnership ceremonies can take place on religious premises, or can at least include some religious aspects in the ceremony. I understand these concerns and I do not rule out changes in the future, but for the moment I think it best for the current arrangements to continue.

'Thank you for taking the time to write to me.'

Next Left is interested to learn that David, though leader of the Conservative party, apparently exerts so little influence over what it does in the Lords.

That's a great shame, because had the Tories supported the amendment proposed by Julia Neuberger and others, this could have given it the crucial bit of extra support and momentum it needed to get past the resistance of the bishops. Would the government really want to be seen standing out in opposition to this amendment if the Conservatives supported it? Here was a real opportunity to make 'progressive Conservatism' a reality, here and now, prior to the election. Cameron passed up the opportunity.

The letter ends with David simply reporting his view: '...I think it best that the present arrangements continue.'

Yes, but why? David seems to think there are things to be said on both sides of the debate. What is to be said against allowing civil partnership ceremonies on religious premises? Why do these considerations, whatever they may be, outweigh the considerations in favour of allowing such ceremonies?

Recall that there is no issue here of 'religious liberty versus equality'. The amendment in question would leave the Anglicans and others perfectly free to refuse civil partnership ceremonies on their premises. No equality requirement is being imposed over the conscience of Anglicans or any other religious community that does not want to let their premises be used for civil partnership ceremonies.

The issue is simply one of whether or not one supports religious liberty. What weighty consideration does David Cameron think justifies refusing Liberal Jews, Quakers and others the freedom to follow their consciences and allow civil partnership ceremonies on their premises? Surely David cannot believe that because Anglicans think collectively that something contradicts their religious convictions, they can legislate to prevent other religious groups from following their own, distinct religious convictions?

And then there is David's suggestion that a change in the law might be called for at some point in the future. Why, if a change in the law is wrong now, would it be alright in the future? What is likely to change to make the balance of weighty considerations - whatever these may be - change in this way?

We are not told. All is shrouded in mystery.

Is this, then, the essence of 'progressive Conservatism'? Express a feeling of sympathy for 'progressive' ends, but balance that with a firm and unreasoned conservatism in action: '... I think it best for the present arrangements to continue.'

1 comment:

Sunder Katwala said...

Good scoop! The challenge to the 'now may not be the right time' for change argument is amusing: as you say, this may become a ProgCon staple

'Lord, make me progressive, but not yet'.