If anyone told David Cameron that a centuries-old coral reef was about to be destroyed, the PM would rush into action. Yet institutions are the social equivalent of coral reefs, and the PM shows little interest in preserving them. Who would have dreamed that a Tory-led government would propose the effective abolition of the House of Lords, plus a change in the order of succession to the Throne, plus a radical redefinition of the nature of marriage?
These are startling developments. One might have expected them to be preceded by a century of debate and evolution, not scrambled through in a couple of Parliamentary sessions. That said, and however dramatic the innovation, Mr Cameron was almost certainly right about the order of succession. If the Cambridges' first-born were a daughter, I think that there would be a widespread feeling that she should eventually become Queen. Many Tories will be uneasy about any mere man-made interference with the Royal lineage, which they would regard as an almost divine ordination. But it has already been altered, by the Act of Settlement. It is now the right moment to make a further move. That is a successful example of the doctrine of ripe time: of recognising that there has been a realignment in national sentiment, so that a change which would have seemed inconceivable a generation ago has become a mere matter of common-sense.
Common sense may now leave the room. It certainly played no part in the discussions on Lords reform. Nick Clegg has never displayed the slightest affection for this country, or reverence for its history and traditions. Why should he? He would like to see them all swept up into a federal Europe. He wanted the British people to abandon their currency. Thwarted in that, he decided to wreck the electoral system. When that too was denied him, he tried to console himself by destroying the House of Lords. Fortunately, enough Tory MPs were prepared to defy their leadership and thus prevent him. But it is alarming that Mr Cameron was even prepared to entertain such violence to the constitution.
Now, homosexual marriage. It is easy to understand why homosexuals should wish to see this change. It is a route to full psychic emancipation; it will help them to escape from any remaining feelings of inferiority. That case deserves a sympathetic understanding. But the homosexuals and their allies ought to reciprocate, by an equally sympathetic understanding response to those who cannot agree.
Throughout Christendom, marriage as we have known it and the family which it nurtures have been the foundation of civil society: of civilisation itself. The family is social penicillin. About fifty years ago, we in Britain began to be menaced by family breakdown. Social penicillin gave way to bastardy. As a result, lawlessness multiplied, as did lunacy and drug-taking. Education suffered, so that more and more youngsters were thrust into the adult world – unemployable. The homosexuals cannot be blamed for that, nor would homosexual marraige exacerbate it. But the institution – the sacrament – of marriage is still underpinned by a profound symbolism. A change of this nature weakens that symbolism.
Moreover, there is no need to move swiftly. There was supposed to have been a consultation process. How many people were aware of it? How many churchmen were aware of it? It bears all the signs of a hasty and indeed hypocritical exercise, designed to produce the answer that was required with a minimum of serious discussion. There was indeed an argument for a proper consultation on marriage, involving the government and religious leaders, with the aim of strengthening an institution which desperately needs to be strengthened. The question of homosexual marriage would have formed part of that process. The PM could have intimated that he personally was in favour. The impression would have been created that this was only a matter of time. Surely the homosexual lobby could be patient for a little longer, just as fox-hunters have to be about the repeal of the iniquitous ban. As it is, the measure will no doubt be passed, with the maximum of ill-will.
That might diminish if those in favour of homosexual marriage were more intellectually honest. In an article yesterday, Nick Herbert – himself a hunter – claimed that homosexual marriage was at the centre ground of British politics. Tories who opposed it were in danger of bringing down Mitt Romney's fate upon their party. As Mr Herbert knows perfectly well, it would have taken a lot more than homosexual marriage to elect Mr Romney. As for the centre ground, although it does include social tolerance, it is really about how people live: housing, employment, health, education, taxes, the economy. Mr Herbert may have noticed that a lot of those areas are causing a lot of voters a lot of concern. They will not understand why the government is devoting so much attention to a side issue such as homosexual marriage. It is as if the Groucho Club had taken over the Tory party.
Nick Herbert avoided the depths. But one suspects that he is aware of them. Maria Miller arouses no such suspicions. It is worth digging out her article from Saturday's Daily Telegraph, because it is worthy of an award. If there were a Pulitzer prize for platitudes, Mrs Miller would win it. I doubt if a sillier, shallower article has ever appeared under the name of a Minister of the Crown. Maria Miller tells us us that "marriage remains a modern and vibrant institution". Has she ever been to a wedding and pondered its meaning? History is now, and England. Every new marriage is indeed a new vibrancy, but in an ancient epiphany, in which the past is renewed by the present as solemnity embraces joy. Mrs Miller makes it sound like something out of children's television. Then again, she is in charge of Culture, Media and Sport.
She also refers to the "long line of reforms which have strengthened marriage". Really: they must have passed me by. Could she perhaps tell us what they were, and supply the figures which will show how they have strengthened marriage? Finally, she informs us that there is no need to worry about churches being compelled to perform homosexual marriages. The European Convention on Human Rights will protect them. Hallelujah. A Tory Minister invites us to repose our faith in the ECHR to protect our churches. She is beyond parody.
Apropos of solemnity and joy, this is the time of year when grandparents become, if not solemn, a little thoughtful. They are looking forward to the arrival of the littlies. They also know how much havoc a sugar-charged four-year-old can cause in a drawing room. Small, precious, breakable objects are banished to cupboards, beyond the reach of small, precious, breakage-inclined persons. If only it were as easy to protect institutions from Tory ministers.