Need to be rebranded? Support gay marriage!

As the debate in the UK Conservative Party shows, backing gay marriage is now an entirely self-serving, hide-saving pose.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics Politics

Over the past couple of years, the agitators for gay marriage, all those brave bankers, broadsheet editors and presidents of Western nations, have sought to depict their fight for the right of gays to get hitched as an historically Good cause, on a par with granting civil rights to blacks or the vote to women. Yet today, as the UK House of Commons votes on the Tory-authored gay marriage bill, what is the burning question on every observer’s lips? Is it ‘Will this be a glorious day for human freedom?’ or ‘Are we witnessing the dawning of a new, more tolerant era?’? No, not quite. It’s this – ‘Will the passing of this bill help detoxify the Tories and give them the rebrand they so urgently need?’.

The current gay marriage debate in Britain, as the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill comes before the Commons, explodes the narcissistic bombast of the gay marriage campaign. It exposes the gaping disconnect between the self-serving claims made by the elite elements that are effusive about gay marriage, with their Rosa Parks rip-offs and unconvincing Pankhurst impersonations, and the reality of what making gay marriage happen actually offers these people – a chance to remake themselves, rebrand themselves, distance themselves from their daft traditions and demonstrate their newness and modernness. The speed and intensity with which the gay marriage question has become bound up with the PR fortunes of the Tory Party reveals that this isn’t a campaign concerned with liberating people from alleged bondage, but rather with liberating politicians from their pasts and their problems.

The extent to which gay marriage is now treated as a test of Toryism, a measure of David Cameron’s promise of modernisation, is extraordinary. Gay marriage is openly and casually discussed as a means of remaking this old fart party. Gay marriage was intended ‘as an easy way to cement the detoxification of the Tory brand’, says one observer. It is an opportunity to show ‘how the Tory Party has changed’. Commentators discuss how getting the gay marriage bill through the Commons is a chance for the Tories to show they have ‘shed their image as exclusive, extremist and out of date’ and that their party ‘belongs to modern, twenty-first century Britain’. Across the opinion-forming spectrum, from political observer circles to newspaper cartoons showing anti-gay marriage Tories waving placards saying ‘Retoxify our brand!’, the entire debate has become focused on how gay marriage will benefit the political class over and above how it will (allegedly) benefit society.

Even the news that some Tories plan to vote against the gay marriage bill has been treated, not as the potential starting point for a debate about the substance of the gay marriage idea, but as an ugly blot on the Tories’ gay-friendly exercise in party rebranding. Through gay marriage, Cameron had the chance to ‘parade a modernised party’, observers say, but this rebel camp has exposed ‘a nest of bigots’. Instead of detoxifying the Tory Party, gay marriage could end up retoxifying it, we are told; as one commentator clearly puts it, ‘Perversely, rather than detoxifying the Tory brand… gay marriage has retoxified it’. It’s entirely about brand, image, the PR benefits and pitfalls of gay marriage for modern politicians; it’s about saving cut-off politicians’ hides rather than saving apparently oppressed peoples.

Indeed, it is striking that some gay marriage supporters now make a distinction between the substance (I say substance) of the gay marriage issue on the one hand and the role it can play as a re-fashioner of has-been political brands on the other. As one says, gay marriage is ‘a drama at two levels’. There is ‘the issue itself’, but there is also something ‘altogether different’ – the question of the ‘party images’. A seasoned pollster admits that the public is not very interested in gay marriage (only seven per cent of people said this issue will influence how they vote in the next General Election), but he says gay marriage is nonetheless a massive issue in terms of how the political parties conceive of themselves and their brands. He concludes: ‘Gay marriage is unlikely to feature directly in the 2015 election campaign; but the perceived strengths and weaknesses of the Conservative brand certainly will.’

What is being said here is quite extraordinary. There is a recognition that the public is not moved by gay marriage, as amply reflected in the fact that there have been no marches for this new ‘right’, no mass movements, no genuine public debate at all, in fact; yet gay marriage ought still to be treated as key issue of our time, we are told, because of the benefits it can bring to elite political elements desperate for a new brand, a new identity, an image appropriate to the twenty-first century. The implicit sidelining of ‘the issue itself’ and the single-minded, obsessive elevation of something ‘altogether different’ – that is, the question of what gay marriage can do vis a vis the ‘strengths and weaknesses of political brands’ – captures the extent to which gay marriage is an entirely elite concern, whose rise to the top of the political agendas in Western nations has been driven far more by the existential needs of at-sea political entities than by the hunger of gays to get married or by any public desire to see the overhaul of marriage.

In Britain, gay marriage has become the mechanism through which Cameron seeks to do what all UK party leaders feel the urge to do these days – distance himself from his more traditional supporters and make a great display of the fact that he is New. New what? Doesn’t matter. Just being ‘New’, as in not old, as in not traditional or outdated, is all that matters in modern British politics. Party rebranding has elbowed aside party politics itself; rebranding is now the stuff of politics, having superseded ‘the issues themselves’ to assume prime position in the life of the Westminster village. That gay marriage could be so easily bent to serve the needs of a clapped-out, rebranding-hungry Conservative Party speaks volumes about the hollowness of this so-called cause, about its role as a shiny badge of modernity, a signifier of moral decency, which can be swapped amongst different sections of a visionless elite on the lookout for a new lick of paint.

It isn’t just in Britain that gay marriage has become the political class’s favoured means of rebranding. In the US, President Obama made a huge public display of his support for gay marriage largely as a means of indicating that his Democratic Party is shifting away from its traditional blue-collar base and into the arms of a new, upwardly mobile, urbanite stratum in society. All sorts of financial institutions, who are more desperate than anyone for a rebrand, have pumped cash and energy into the gay marriage cause, including Goldman Sachs, the Bank of America, and the Elliott Management Corporation. Old-world newspapers, such as the London Times, are also effusive in their support for gay marriage. None of this swarming of super-rich or once-traditionalist groups and people around gay marriage makes sense other than as an exercise in rebranding. ‘Look at me! I am not irrelevant or dead! How can I be when I support gay marriage?!’

What we are witnessing is a process of elite reformulation around the issue of gay marriage, the cultivation of a new, off-the-peg moral stance for a political and media class thrown by the demise of traditional morality in recent years. And the fact that the public is defiantly unmoved by this new morality, by gay marriage? That’s all the better, for it allows these suits in officialdom and the finance world to rebrand themselves as brave, too, fighting for a cause all on their own against the shoulder-shrugging of the dumb, probably prejudiced public.

Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked. Visit his personal website here.

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Topics Politics


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