Academic arguments are as bitter as they are, observed Henry Kissinger, because so little is at stake. I’ve noticed a similar phenomenon in politics. Symbolic issues generate an acrid rage that is often absent from disputes with actual consequences.
Take the current row over gay marriage. On balance, I suppose I mildly favour the idea. There is a pretty good conservative argument for marriage in general; and, just as religious organisations shouldn’t be required to carry out a rite, so they shouldn’t be forbidden from doing so if they want. Tim Montgomerie makes a persuasive Tory case. At the same time, I support direct democracy, and accept that Tim and I might be in the minority.
Compared to past arguments about equality for gay Britons, though, it’s a surely a second-order question. Civil partnerships removed the remaining legal disabilities (inheritance rules, hospital visiting rights and so on), so we are left mainly with a change in nomenclature. Taken alongside the repeal of Section 28 and the levelling of the age of consent, civil partnerships have made all citizens equal before the law. I care very much about that principle, and campaigned enthusiastically for all those reforms (unlike one or two leading Tories who now lecture the rest of us about not being modern enough).
Since then, though, I have struggled to become worked up one way or the other; which puts me in a minority. Do you remember, for example, the vicious row about allowing gay couples – as opposed to individuals – to adopt children? Each side accused the other of bigotry (against, respectively, gay people or religious people). Yet it was hard to think of single a case where a child would be adopted or not adopted as a result of how the vote went. A same-sex couple, like any couple considering adoption, will have many considerations to weigh; the question of whether you have one or two names on the official forms is unlikely to be among them.
Of course, that debate wasn’t really about children, or homosexuality, or even about the principle of equality in the abstract – not, at any rate, for the most vocal advocates on either side. Rather, it was about letting MPs and campaigners flaunt their virtue. One lot portrayed themselves as broad-minded liberals taking on hateful bigots; the other as decent moderates speaking up for the majority against proselytising fanatics. Paradoxically, each side sought to signal its niceness by being nasty about the other. We’re seeing the same phenomenon over same-sex marriage.
Part of the problem is the determination of lobbies and interest groups to keep themselves in business by fabricating new rows. Hence, for example, the ludicrous demands for hate crimes and other forms of separate legal categorisation. It is depressing to see pressure groups which spent decades honourably campaigning for the right to be treated equally now demanding the right to be treated differently.
The bigger problem, though, is the modern obsession with declamatory legislation – that is, the passing of laws designed to ‘send a signal’ rather than to effect an outcome. Do we really need more statutes? Aren’t things bad enough already?