By Tim Montgomerie
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If only all MPs debated contentious issues with such care and generosity as David Burrowes (left) and Gavin Barwell. Photographs from i-Images.
I was occupied with other things for most of Tuesday and missed the debates on the same-sex marriage legislation. It was, overall, a very high quality debate with both sides making important points. It contrasted with much of the preceding 'debate' in the media, on Twitter and in veiled threats to 'out' MPs who didn't vote the right way. David Burrowes MP used the debate to talk about some of the abuse he has faced. Some of it directed at his children. He worried that this intolerance of his own opposition to gay marriage was a sign of things to come:
"I do not have a monopoly on victimhood. The homosexual community has been subject to abuse which, sadly, has characterised debates about sexuality. It is intolerable, however, that as soon as Members of Parliament put their heads above the parapet and speak to the media, they are called “a homophobe”, “a Nazi”—I have been called that—“a bigot”, and many other expletives that I would not dare to read out. I have been told to be ashamed of myself, and to die: I have received specific death threats relating to my travel plans. I have been told that I am a disgrace, and that I have no right to express my opinion on this subject. My children have been told that their dad is a bigot and a homophobe.
That is only the tip of the iceberg of rude and offensive comments that many Members have received via Twitter. I have broad shoulders, and I can continue to stand up and support marriage in Parliament. Today’s debate has not been characterised by hatred and vitriol—we have shown ourselves in a good light—but I fear for the liberty of the conscience of my constituents who may not have such broad shoulders: public sector workers, teachers and others in the workplace who see no protection in the Bill."
It is a great shame that the Coalition has not done enough to address the fear of religious people that they'll soon live in a country where more traditionalist views might be banished from the public square. There is a lot of illiberalism amongst so-called liberals and a lot of intolerance from those who once preached tolerance. While it's true that Maria Miller and other ministers have done much to address concerns about the narrow implications for religious liberty of the equal marriage bill there has not been a bolder, broader recognition that a whole series of equality laws and cultural changes are causing religious people and communities anxiety. There is, of course, no room for hateful attitudes but there must be room for the great faiths to enjoy freedom of conscience and association.
There must also be balance from the party leadership. The socially liberal Team Cameron needs to remember the social conservatives in the party and in the electorate. Gavin Barwell MP – a supporter of same-sex marriage – made this point very well last Sunday, kindly mentioning me:
"I’ve spent the last few months trying to persuade my colleagues that, provided there is unambiguous protection for faith groups that don’t wish to conduct such marriages, people who love someone of the same sex should be able to benefit from being married just as I have. I’ve been working alongside people from the more conservative wing of the Party, like Tim Montgomerie the founder of the ConservativeHome website. Their support has been crucial – frankly, they are much more effective advocates than someone like myself who on most issues is known to be on the liberal wing of the Party.
The issue of tax allowances for married couples is hugely important to Tim and millions of people like him. Our party needs to keep their support just as much as it needs to win over swing voters. That’s why it should be bringing forward a tax allowance for married couples at the same time as it changes the law to allow same sex marriage. We have to have a balanced offering – and one that convinces the cynics that same sex marriage is not an attempt to appear modern but part of a package to support marriage and widen it so that all can benefit."
I wish there were more Tory MPs like Gavin and David. Throughout this difficult debate for the party they've been generous to their opponents and very ready to acknowledge the concerns and strong points of the other side of the debate. They've used reason rather than angry emotion, despite both receiving abuse. Their generosity in discussions hasn't reduced the energy they've invested in their campaigning but, if there was more people like them, it would make for a happier parliamentary party.