Mark Ellse: Gay marriage cost Cameron the referendum

Gay marriage was David Cameron's 'poll tax'. Like the poll tax, it passed through Parliament and was successfully implemented. Both measures had something to commend them. So far as gay marriage is concerned, Cameron was 'very honoured to have been prime minister....enabling those who love each other to get married whatever their sexuality.' Even those of us who have reservations about gay marriage can see that the point he was making.

There were arguments in favour of the poll tax too. Reform of domestic rates was a long-held Conservative intention. Who could deny that the little old lady living alone should pay less tax for local services than the smaller house with four earners next door? Reform of domestic rates was long overdue. When the poll tax was explained to Margaret Thatcher, such was the antipathy to rates that Minister William Waldgrave was able to say with a flourish, 'you will have fulfilled your promise to abolish rates.'

And yet both gay marriage and poll tax shared a common flaw. Forgetting the the moral arguments behind both measures, what it comes to is a simple matter of political arithmetic. Both gay marriage and the poll tax upset more voters than they gained. For every little old lady who was grateful to receive a cut in her 'unfair' domestic rates, there were two or three more who were disgruntled by their increase. True, most of these were not Conservative voters. But enough were and the net effect of the poll tax was to lose votes for the Conservative party.

The same is true for gay marriage. So many who voted Leave opposed gay marriage. True, many of us had serous doubts about David Cameron from the beginning but it was the railroading of gay marriage under the 'Conservative' banner during the Coalition that finally and completely lost us from the Cameron camp. After the casual dismissal of deeply held concerns, David Cameron could never again count on the personal support of so many instinctive Conservatives. Like the poll tax before it, gay marriage lost Cameron more political support than it gained. When the big issue - the EU referendum - came along, there was no trust, no personal loyalty and no personal support for the Prime Minister. Had he handled gay marriage differently, likely he would have won the EU referendum and still been in office.

So what about grammar schools? Again let us ignore the arguments for or against selection at the age of 11 but look at the simple matter of political arithmetic. Suppose we have large grammar schools and they offer places for the top 20 per cent of the ability range. A fifth of children will 'pass' their 11-plus exams and get to these highly esteemed schools. On the other hand, four fifths – 80 per cent – of the ability range will fail. Now many of these children 'failing' will be children of parents who would never vote Conservative. But not all. For every Conservative voter who is happy that his child has 'got into the grammar school' there will be two or three who are unhappy that their children have 'failed'. One does not need to have a long political memory to remember that the reason that Margaret Thatcher closed more grammar schools than any other education minister was that they were a political vote loser for the Conservatives. As Simon Jenkins recalls 'The eleven-plus...lost them the 1964 election.'

It may be that, at the moment, neither the Conservative Party nor Theresa May, needs the votes of all potential Conservative voters. But things change rapidly in politics. The reintroduction of grammar schools may make more enemies than friends. The latter, as we know, come and go. But the former just accumulate.

Mark Ellse

  • Tricia

    I think it is the ethos of schools which need to change. The emphasis of independent schools and grammar schools needs to be infused into the education system, instead of the dumbing down process.
    I attended one of the first comprehensive schools in the 1960’s as a borderline fail for grammar school. In those days the comprehensive system streamed for ability. Streams A-D were the higher ability students. We need to return to focussing on ability and for all students getting the best outcome for their ability.
    A major element is also discipline and expectations for behaviour and pride in achievement.
    And can anyone tell me why I now see secondary school children leaving at 3.00 pm in the afternoon? I did not leave school until 4.15 pm. Why cannot extra time be spent in school on homework and extra curricular character building sport.

    • Earthenware

      Because, despite all the bluster, no-one really has the guts to take on the teaching unions.

      • brownowl

        Actually, it’s fair to say that the only person who did was fired for it…

        • John P Hughes

          Yes. Michael Gove was effective as Education Secretary. Nicky Morgan would probably have kept that job this month if she had taken up Gove’s mantle effectively. She didn’t, and was much criticised for it – and gave TM the opportunity to drop her. Justine Greening probably will do better than Morgan but not by much. What are the odds on TM bringing Gove back to the post in 2 years’ time if improvements in standards have tailed off by 2018?

          • Mark Ellse

            Michael Gove told us that he was effective…

      • Greenlander

        Many jobs have been lost to technological advance, teachers will be no different when e learning gets accepted.

      • Mark Ellse

        I really don’t agree with this. The problem is with the children and not with the teachers. There are excellent teachers working in state schools where their hands are tied by government targets – particularly insisting that disruptive pupils are kept in schools. Within independent schools, the teachers are not very different in ability – indeed the easier atmosphere means that they are sometimes worse. But they have fewer discipline problems because the children are much easier.

    • Mark Ellse

      I totally agree with this. It is the ethos of schools that needs to change.
      There is little evidence that different schools – grammar or independent – can improve performance of pupils much. What is the case, however, is that both grammar and independent schools, being selective, can refuse to accept disruptive pupils. Therefore both grammar and independent schools can teach in a civilised atmosphere.
      The number of disruptive pupils is significantly less than 5%. But that means there are usually 1 or 2 pupils in any class who are difficult. When they misbehave, others are inclined to follow their lead and the problem gets bigger.
      Comprehensive schools would be transformed if they did not have to accept these disruptive children.

  • rob

    “Gay marriage cost Cameron the referendum.” I really don’t see any plausible case/evidence presented in the article to remotely justify the headline.

    • Agree. Gay marriage had little to do with the referendum.

      The famous saying, “politicians lose elections not win them” is true of the EU referendum. It was ‘Remain’ campaign lack of argument and positivity that really swayed it.

    • SeeYouAnon

      Agree. There is no evidence for this at all, and I doubt it ever crossed voters’ minds.

      My only problem with this aspect of Cameron’s ‘legacy’ is that it came via an EU equality directive.

      The only work he did was to dress it up as his idea, and pretend it was part of a modernising agenda.

    • Kentish1996

      According to the Ashcroft polls done during the referendum he revealed that Leave voters were mor conservative than Remain voters.

      “David Cameron could never again count on the personal support of so many instinctive Conservatives”
      This is what Mark was getting at. David Cameron alienated the conservative right, many of whom are now voting UKIP, with the gay marriage vote. There was no way he was going to win them back for the EU referendum.

      • SeriouslyChristian

        Agreed! Although I think Gay Marriage and supranational government are both sides of the same “progressive coin” and thus not so much a case of “winning us back” to vote for another progressive cause (the EU).

    • simonstephenson

      OK, I agree with you that gay marriage alone wasn’t the cause of the winning Leave vote, but, like Mr Ellse, I think that it was certainly contributory to it. There is a substantial section of the electorate who take their political attitudes entirely from the recommendations of the leaders of their trusted brands, and who would undoubtedly have followed the leader of the Conservative Party down the Remain route had the leader not so aggressively have shaken their trust in the Conservative brand by pursuing a seemingly never-ending sequence of non-conservative policies, with gay marriage ranking up there with the most starkly non-conservative.

      I think that the attitude of this section of the electorate is that it will accept the fact that it is sometimes necessary for a leader who is “one of them” to make a decision which, on its own, it wouldn’t favour. It’ll do this because it is willing to have faith in the idea that the leader is only taking this action out of political necessity, and not because he is pushing something with which they are in complete disagreement. I’m convinced that gay marriage is one of those policies that convinced a large number of traditional conservatives that David Cameron was not “one of them”, and that therefore it was no longer reasonable to assume that, despite appearances, he was pursuing a conservative agenda.

      He betrayed their trust and has lost his career as a result of doing so.

  • grandpa1940

    I could not agree more with the theme and the sentiments expressed in your excellent posting. As I wrote myself, I happily stated that I would not donate the sweat from my socks in response to a call for donations to the Tory Parties of both the United Kingdom, or the weird bunch up in Scotland. Gay Marriage? Garbage, more likely!

  • James Chilton

    David Cameron is a ‘conservative’ politician in name only. His real position is ‘liberal’ – which is why he boasts about getting same sex marriage legalised as an ‘achievement’.

    • SeriouslyChristian

      And sadly so is May, who also believes Cameron’s great legacy to our nation is what liberals call “marriage equality” and what social conservatives call “the final nail in the coffin of the traditional family unit”!

  • Alan

    The reason Mrs Thatcher ‘closed more grammar schools’ was that reversing the thousands of ‘closures’ already in-train was not possible due to a combination of lack of money and local authority intransigence. She had the choice of fighting the Treasury for millions to keep grammars, or fighting the Treasury for rather fewer millions to keep the only genuinely good thing Wilson ever did, i.e. the Open University. She chose, correctly in my view, the OU.

    I would point out that ‘close’ is not the correct word in any case; they were converted from grammars to comprehensives – almost none actually closed. And Mrs Thatcher did remove the mandatory requirement for counties to comprehensivise the remaining grammars, which is why we still have any at all.

    As to the idea that restoring grammar schools is inevitably a vote loser, the writer appears to have forgotten just how awful comprehensives tend to be. Any improvement would be welcome, and introducing a similar system to Germany with its respected technical schools as well as grammars would in my opinion be a definite vote-winner.

    • Stephen T

      Wilson kept us out of the Vietnam war. Surely a second thing to be grateful for?

  • Politically__Incorrect

    I’m not sure I agree that gay marriage lost Cameron the referendum. Gay “marriage” certainly turned many people off Cameron, not just because of the legislation itself, but because of the undemocratic way it bypassed any real public debate and was bulldozed through Parliament with Cameron having to bribe Labour for its support. Cameron showed that he is not Conservative in any sense. He is a “progressive” liberal. In other words, he believes anything that trashes established and trusted norms is good, whatever the consequences.

    The Poll Tax does not compare to gay marriage. Gay marriage is an attempt to rewrite nature. It is a legal contrivance and a legal fiction. In reality it is meaningless, whether one approves of it or not. Cameron was arrogantly trying to play God, and no doubt, that made many erstwhile supporters desert him. He and Osborne tried to scare and bully people into voting to remain. Many people could see through the bully-boy tactics, and them despise him even more.

  • Stephen T

    The gay community appropriated an institution that didn’t belong to them, but I doubt many people on council estates votes to leave because of this issue.

    There’s no definition of adultery for gay couples, which illustrates what a farce this was. Civil union was equality, but gay couples are not the same as a man and a women who are married.

  • Greenlander

    The people whom Cameron gave the right to marry are no threat to me, the EU and its advancement toward dodgy totalitarianism is. Gay people didn’t demand an army, they just wanted parity, that’s why I voted leave.

  • David

    Well this article certainly applies to me. I had been voting Ukip for some time because five years earlier I had started to disbelieve the Conservatives’ promises regarding the EU. But I still retained an affection for The Conservative Party.
    But once he pulled that stunt, redefining marriage, and therefore attacking my conservative Christian faith, a huge change that hadn’t been mentioned to the nation before the election, my whole relationship to him and his party changed and hardened. I said to myself, “if he can insult the bulk of his supporters like this, then clearly this is not a man to be trusted, especially on regaining our freedom from Europe”. I developed a strong dislike of the man.
    My reaction was to fight back as hard as I could. So I then became a hard working Ukip activist. Then after last Christmas, when we knew that there was a chance for wining back our freedom, I threw in my lot with Vote Leave and helped get a local county branch established and working very effectively. My by now deep and lasting distrust of the Conservative Party, which I had been a member of in my youth, spurred a number of us on to really achieve a good Leave vote in our slice of the county. I am sure that I am not alone in having been motivated to fight back, against that low-life Cameron, a most shifty, unwholesome and socially destructive PM.

  • English Advocate

    I agree that gay marriage was a contributory factor to the Leave vote. It advertised in neon lights that David Cameron is not a social conservative. When Cameron was pleading with voters to support him in the EU referendum there will have been a significant number who, as a consequence, viewed him with disdain. Cameron is a thoroughly modern social liberal – and a thoroughly old-fashioned oligarchical plutocrat.

  • Kingstonian

    And your argument, Mark Ellse, is that while something that is demonstrably good of itself should not be attempted because of the potential loss of votes that it may entail. Is this really what conservatism has become?

    • Phil R

      Demonstrably good?

      Presumably you are referring to the polltax

  • RingedPlover

    ‘Gay Marriage cost Cameron the Referendum’? And I thought we just wanted out of the EU!

  • TheStoneMan

    You say – “On the other hand, four fifths – 80 per cent – of the ability range will fail.”

    And herein lies our society’s problem – The idea of not being in the top, however many percent, means you have failed.

    This is wrong on three accounts

    – firstly, you are branding all non-academically bright children as failures. This is, frankly, just not true. Not being good at one thing does not make you a “failure”.

    – secondly, “failing” at something does NOT mean you have to stay a failure. Watch any of the truly competitive shows on TV and watch the response of the people who have been marked badly. They don’t curl up in a corner and cringe and say the world isn’t fair – no, they gird their loins and say they will do better next time and will “show” the judges.

    – thirdly, often people, and I include children, know they just “aren’t cut out” for something. I would love to be able to draw, or sing, or play a musical instrument or play football for Manchester United, but I just couldn’t. I accepted these failings and got on with life – without thinking I am a failure.

  • Bonce

    Complete poppycock.
    What lost Cameron the referendum was immigration. Immigration being out of control- and him doing absolutely nothing about. Immigration being out of control- and this being impossible to control as members of the EU. This number 1 most important issue was something that the Remain campaign could not address and lost them the referendum…

  • James60498 .

    Anyone who has any experience of the Conservative Party before Cameron knows that this could be true.

    The loyalty that members gave to their leader was legendary. There are many former members who left due to Cameron’s liberalism and many who remained saw that he was definitely not a conservative and shouldn’t be trusted.

    The swing in effort, and finance, from the side of the Conservative leader to the opposition was enormous.