What I wrote at Lib Dem Voice

January 28, 2007

When silence speaks louder than words

Compare and contrast the reaction of David Cameron to the two dominant news items of the last week:
  • On the silly furore surrounding Channel 4’s Celebrity Big Brother: I completely abhor racism. Everyone has got a responsibility here. There's a great regulator called the off button and I think we should use it.
  • On the gay adoption row: “…”
It’s unsurprising the Tory leader felt happy commenting on a reality game show. He was able to take his customary mouthful of waffle confident of offending no-one by accidentally coughing it up. Racism is bad; personal responsibility is good; further regulation is unnecessary. All true enough; all utterly unsurprising.

Personally, I don’t really care what our politicians think about Jade or Shilpa; but he was asked the question, so fair enough. And Mr Cameron at least avoided the ridiculous over-sensationalising of London’s pantomime Mayor, Ken Livingstone: I think everyone is delighted that we got the result we did last night, he ineffably pluralised after Jade’s eviction.

But Mr Cameron’s disinclination to comment publicly on the row about whether Roman Catholic adoption agencies should be excused from discriminating against gay couples is more instructive - worryingly so, both for friends and foes alike.

In today’s Telegraph, that most well-Torily-connected of columnists, Matthew d’Ancona, explains the reaction when he sought clarification on HM’s Official Opposition’s view on this most divisive of subjects:
I was told that David Cameron "sees the difficulty. Our position is: wait and see."
Such trenchant leadership! Such formidable gravitas! Such a rallying cry!

Mr Cameron takes regular delight in accusing the current, Chancellor, Gordon Brown, of burying his head in the sand when the going gets tough. To now act out that precise same charge smacks more than a little of hypocrisy.

Too harsh, you think? After all, it’s the job of governments to govern; of oppositions to hold them to account. Who can blame Mr Cameron for declining to distract the media from Labour-baiting by opening up himself and his party to attack?

And that is really the crunch - for Mr Cameron knows he cannot win this issue. The so-called ‘Christian right’ of the Tory party expects Mr Cameron to stick up for the Catholic Church’s exemption from anti-discrimination legislation. Yet Mr Cameron knows he cannot afford to concede his liberal-lite brand by appearing to side with those whose concept of Christian love elides so smoothly into judgemental condemnation. So, best keep it zipped, button it, stay schtum.

Which is fine if you’re at a Notting Hill dinner party, and anxious to avoid offending your Opus Dei hosts. It’s less fine when you’re offering yourself to the British public as our next Prime Minister.

After all, Mr Cameron believes his great mission is to engender a greater sense of social responsibility through this land; to show that there is a such a thing as society, it’s just not the same thing as the state; and to let a thousand voluntary agencies bloom.

Mr Cameron claims this is about setting a new national agenda in which government’s role is re-defined. At a cultural level, this means decrying chocolate oranges and opining about Big Brother; but not legislating against either. At a more structural level, it means allowing the state to shrink, to be replaced where practical by community organisations.


There is much in this which liberals can, potentially, welcome. However, an enabling government is not the same as an abstaining government.

If government is to hand over money to voluntary organisations to fulfil functions currently performed by the state - to become an investor rather than an owner - it is proper and reasonable for government to use that cash to achieve what, by the force of its democratic mandate, it believes to be a social good. In the case of adoption this means ensuring the best possible home is found for the child; and recognising that the best possible homes come in all different shapes and sizes.


If Mr Cameron truly wishes to usher in a new age of social responsibility, he will need to do more than ‘wait and see’. He will need to do what he accuses Mr Brown of ducking - by putting his head above the parapet, and saying what he actually thinks. Is he a liberal Conservative, or is he a Conservative to the core of his being?

With every passing month in which the Tory leader prefers to keep his powder dry the suspicion grows that he hopes he can keep dodging this question for ever. He cannot. Better to decide now, while you’re ahead in the polls, than to imagine you can continue to retain the support of both ConservativeHome and the Guardian’s leader-writers through a general election.

2 comments:

don j said...

Out of genuine curiosity, I just tried searching on the words "gay adoption" on the LibDem website, www.libdems.org.uk

...and got nothing more recent than a speech from The Earl Russell in January 2004, actually about SVT.

Dodgy search engine, I imagine.

Perhaps if I try the Scots site...

Stephen Tall said...

A fair point, Don. The party has, not before time, put up a statement: http://www.libdems.org.uk/news/no-place-for-discrimination-in-liberal-societies-campbell.11836.html