Gay marriage debate pulled from Tory Conference
As the Conservative Party Conference kicks off in Birmingham with its (now) usual sequence of staged, set-piece events aimed (principally) at the media and sundry lobbyists, the 'real' conference (ie discussion, debate, healthy disagreement) is taking place on the Fringe. And there you'll find disputation on all the main topics of the day, courtesy of The Freedom Association.
They have put together a full programme of over 50 speakers, including Liam Fox, Dan Hannan, Roger Helmer, Ruth Lea, Tim Montgomerie, Patrick O'Flynn, Eric Pickles, Paul Staines and Toby Young, all discussing inter alia online campaigning, taxation, the EU, the Anglosphere, the Communications Data Bill, the moral case for capitalism, trade union reform, surveillance in schools...
But there's one debate which isn't happening, and it's not the fault of The Freedom Association.
Back in July, the Conservative Party's favourite think-tank Policy Exchange produced a booklet entitled 'What's In A Name? Is there a case for equal marriage?'. They came down firmly in support, with glowing endorsements from the likes of Ben Summerskill, Chief Executive of Stonewall, to whom all opponents are simply 'bigots'.
Representatives of Anglican Mainstream contacted Neil O'Brien, Director of Policy Exchange, asking if they'd be prepared to debate their booklet and defend their conclusions at a fringe meeting. Anglican Mainstream is a non-partisan information and education charity for mainstream orthodox Christians (particularly Anglicans), and they said that they were 'very concerned at the publication's superficial, badly researched and weak "conservative case" for equal/gay marriage'. The invitation was aimed specifically at authors David Skelton and Robert Flint, but Anglican Mainstream was prepared to debate with other representatives and ensure an impartial, mutually-agreed chairman.
Policy Exchange already had a large fringe programme at the Conservative Conference, but it excluded all debate on the vital issue of gay/equal marriage. But David Skelton replied that he would, in principle, be very happy to participate in the debate. A meeting took place in the offices of Policy Exchange a month ago, and (with an independent chairman from the Bow Group) they thrashed out the details of the debate which included that both sides would try to find a Conservative MP to lead for their respective side in the debate. There was no suggestion that the participation of Conservative MPs was a prerequisite to the debate taking place.
Unsurprisingly, both sides had difficulty finding MPs who would put their heads above the gay marriage parapet and debate against each other. But Anglican Mainstream had, in the meantime, booked accommodation, paid deposits for catering, and spent an awful lot of money on advertising and promotional flyers.
Interestingly, Policy Exchange did have a speaker lined up, but he/she 'had to drop out'. They proposed to postpone the debate until next month (ie out from under the aegis of the Conference). But, having forked out the best part of £1000, Anglican Mainstream was keen to proceed, asking simply that Policy Exchange defend its own publication.
It was clear that there was considerable interest in this debate irrespective of the participation of MPs. But Policy Exchange decided to pull the plug, despite Anglican Mainstream suggesting alternative speakers for a lively and informative debate, which would then have been available to the rest of the world via the video recording.
Anglican Mainstream had worked intensively researching and writing a 55-page response to 'What's In A Name?'. One of their number even took days off work to get it done in time. They had intended to argue for 'Real Marriage' while Policy Exchange argued for 'Equal Marriage' - the categories encapsulate the essence of each sides 'conservative' argument. They had booked hotels and made personal and travel arrangements to be in Birmingham for the debate.
But it isn't happening.
Policy Exchange profess to have developed a conservative case for gay marriage, which they refuse to debate with social conservatives at the Conservative Party conference. The point of the debate was to have it at the Conference: a public debate itself was not the issue. They now insist that Policy Exchange 'do not hold conference events without MPs present'. This was never disclosed in the formative discussions: at no point, even in the final phone discussions, did Policy Exchange say that MP's participation was a condition of holding the debate. Indeed, quite why David Skelton isn't the best person to defend his thesis is something of a mystery.
But Policy Exchange has pulled the plug, quite possibly to spare the Conservative Party Conference embarrassing and distracting headlines about 'homophobes' and 'bigots'. Policy Exchange has lost nothing: Anglican Mainstream are poorer by £1000. Blessed are they which are out of pocket for righteousness' sake...