The Coalition Government had a long time to prepare its
presentation of its Mid-Term review. It had two and a half years to the actual
middle of a five year parliament. Then it gave itself another couple of months
before producing this anodyne review of its first half and the preview of its
So the Conservative and Liberal Democrat leaders could have
chosen any metaphors whatsoever to describe what their coalition is, what it is
not and how it operates.
It is intriguing, therefore, that they found themselves
drawn to the very two concepts which are causing them so much trouble, their
reform of the law on marriage and their propensity to ignore their manifestos.
These two issues intersect. The government is criticised by the Church for a
radical re-definition of marriage that was not what people voted for and then
playing fast and loose with the consultation.
More generally, people who are sceptical about the marriage
law reform proposal tend to make the point that if the Prime Minister thinks
that the commitment of gay couples in civil partnerships is enough to
constitute a marriage, then are there any limits to what he would describe as
Yes, there are, we now know, because he went out of his way
at the mid-term review media conference to challenge the use of marriage as a
metaphor for the coalition. David Cameron said, of Nick Clegg and himself,
that: “We are married, not to each other. We are both happily married and this
is a government not a relationship.”
So the Prime Minister does accept, after all, that the
concept of marriage has some particular meaning and he can be slightly
irritated if it is used inappropriately, even metaphorically.
This presents opportunities in the new year to debate more
seriously with the government. As explained last week, it was difficult to
engage with the government’s Humpty Dumpty approach in 2012: ‘‘When I use a
word … it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less.” While
Maria Miller, the Secretary of State steering the proposal through the Commons,
helpfully called for a “free, open and rigorous debate”, that can only work if
debaters acknowledge some ground-rules for rational argument.
Inadvertently, perhaps, the Prime Minister has now provided
such an opening. If marriage has some proper and improper uses, then a serious
debate can begin. So why, in this context, did he think the media were wrong to
characterise the Coalition as a marriage? His answer was connected to his other
metaphor, a reference to the Ronseal advertisement of many years ago: “What we
said to people two-and-a-half years ago is that we would come together for a
five-year Parliament. We would tackle these problems. So, to me it’s not a
marriage, it is a Ronseal deal – it does what it says on the tin.”
Nick Clegg added a little joke, that this was the
“unvarnished truth”. While many media organisations played in similar fashion
with this gift for headline writers, suggesting ‘a liberal coating’ or a
‘stain’ on government, Channel 4 News had the inspired idea of tracking down
the people who were responsible for the Ronseal advert almost 20 years ago.
They found Liz Whiston, one of the advertising copywriters
involved. She said that, at the time, there was confusion for consumers as so
many products were competing in the marketplace. Other manufacturers were
relying on pretty tins and puns. So they just told it straight.
Wouldn’t it be nice, she added, if politicians were now to
do the same? Although, since the context is different, she told Channel 4 that
the current need of the country is for “someone who’s going to power ahead and
make Britain work. A little bit more energy please”.
Quite so. Even though the Prime Minister rightly called for
“oomph” back in the summer of 2010, the Coalition could do with some more oomph
in its second half. Hence this week, the Prime Minister and his deputy were
trying to present a united front and a determination to focus on debt, deficit
and incentives to get the country working in challenging economic circumstances
for a highly competitive world.
Yet the two leaders did exactly the opposite of their
Ronseal presentation in that first half of their parliamentary term in
government. First Nick Clegg reneged on the Lib Dems’ explicit manifesto pledge
to vote against any increase in student fees. Instead, he voted for a trebling
of those fees. That is not doing what it said on his election tin.
Then David Cameron announced that he would change the law on
marriage, giving civil partnerships an upgrade, even though that was not in his
manifesto and hardly anyone thought there was a need for such a change, until
he raised it. Since there was a great deal in his manifesto on family, which
has not been implemented, it would have been natural to have mentioned this
reform. As he did not do so when presenting his party to the electorate in
2010, either he deliberately concealed the policy or he had not thought of it
On the benign assumption that the latter is the explanation,
the Church and other opponents of the move might well ask what exactly made him
change his mind and when. Moreover, why did he think that the matter, which had
not been important enough or urgent enough to mention before the 2010 General
Election, could not await his next manifesto and the 2015 election, especially
if the Government is meant to be focused on the economic challenges?
Last week, I suggested that the bishops and other opponents
of the marriage reform proposals would get further with the Humpty Dumpty point
about language than with talk of Nazis and Orwellian manoeuvres. Now the two
leaders of the Coalition have shown a sudden sensitivity to the meaning of the
word marriage and an equally surprising enthusiasm for Ronseal’s “what it says
on the tin”, opponents can keep bringing them back to these two points.
What the Prime Minister seems to take for granted is that it
is not enough for a marriage that partners agree a Ronseal deal, namely, to
abide by what their commitment to each other says on the tin. So 2013 can now
witness a constructive discussion about what is the tin in question, what does
it say and what more is needed to constitute marriage.
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