Friday, 7 October 2011

Two different animals

If you needed evidence of just how different the British Conservative Party is from the American Republican Party, this week's party conference provided two particularly illuminating illustrations.

Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron stood before the yearly gathering of Conservative Party members – similar to the 'national conventions' in the US – and said he wholeheartedly supports gay marriage and will work to enact it in the UK next year (to replace the current civil unions). This was met with thundering applause in the hall. Try to imagine the reaction if a presidential candidate said this to the Republican National Convention!

In the second example, a huge row has developed after the Conservative Home Secretary Theresa May used an incorrect fact in her speech to the conference. Explaining why she wants to dismantle the Human Rights Act, which is the British transposition of the European Convention on Human Rights, she listed as an example a case where the act's requirements meant that there was an "illegal immigrant who cannot be deported because – and I am not making this up – he had a pet cat."

As it turns out, she was making this up. As the decision shows, the actual verdict against deportation had nothing to do with a pet cat, the decision was instead due to a mistake made by the Home Office's prosecution. A pet cat, which had been mentioned in the appellant's brief along with his partner as reasons why he has a home life in the UK, was merely mentioned by the judge in his verdict as an attempt at humour. It was later revealed that May had taken the cat story from a speech made by UK Independence Party leader Nigel Farage.

In the United States, such half-truths are common in debates and speeches. In fact, analysies have shown that in the Republican primary debates so far the candidates have uttered more half-truths and outright fabrications than truths. But they are seldom called out on these misstatements because untruths have become such a normal part of political dialogue in the United States.

But in the UK, after the Home Secretary made the erroneous statement, she was called out on it by a member of her own party. In fact it was a member of her own cabinet, Justice Secretary Kenneth Clarke, who levelled a blistering attack on her for using the false example, calling it "laughable and child-like". These two are not competing with each other for any office, so there was no reason for Clarke to level this attack other than the fact that he was legitimately offended by her outright lie.

I was thinking about these two developments this week, and I was trying to imagine either of them occurring in an American context. And I just couldn't place them. It's hard to imagine even a Democratic presidential candidate endorsing gay marriage in front of the Democratic National Convention. And the idea that a half-truth uttered during a political speech would turn into a national controversy nicknamed "catgate" is, these days, inconceivable. The political dialogue is now centred around half-truths, so what would be the point of calling a candidate out for one false statement when it is merely one out of many?

As for the gay marriage comment, in fact the leaders of all three main UK political parties have promised to upgrade the UK's civil partnerships to full marriage. In essence the current civil partnerships grant all of the rights of full marriage (with a few exceptions), but gay rights advocates have said separate is not equal and there is no need for a parallel institution for gays. Here's what the prime minister said to the party conference:
“I stood before a Conservative conference once and I said it shouldn’t matter whether commitment was between a man and a woman, a man and another man or a woman and a woman.
“You applauded me for that. Five years on, we’re consulting on legalising gay marriage.
“And to anyone who has reservations, I say this: Yes, it’s about equality, but it’s also about something else: commitment. Conservatives believe in the ties that bind us; that society is stronger when we make vows to each other and support each other.
“So I don’t support gay marriage in spite of being a Conservative. I support gay marriage because I am a Conservative.”
Radical stuff right? Not in the UK. In fact this statement got no mainstream media coverage as far as I can tell, because it was so enormously non-controversial. So the assertion that gay marriage is a conservative value gets no coverage, but a half-truth uttered in passing by the home secretary turns into a scandal.

The UK really is a very different country!

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