ResPublica Trustee Professor Simon Lee writes for The Universe
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 second.
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 marriage?
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 until later.
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.
Simon Lee is the Emeritus Professor of Jurisprudence, Queen’s University Belfast and was formerly Vice-Chancellor of Leeds Metropolitan University and Rector and Chief Executive of Liverpool Hope University. He is...