Given that Prime Minister David Cameron has also flirted with lowering the abortion time limit, we have a paradox. The UK Conservative Party is committed to legalising gay marriage yet it exhibits flashes of pro-life sentiment. Ordinarily, this would be a contradiction. But it might also reflect the growth of a new conservative consensus on both sides of the Atlantic about social issues. Young people - the so-called Generation Z - are increasingly pro-gay yet also pro-life.
I’m making a show for the BBC (due out on October 27 on BBC2) that explores America through its sitcoms. The argument is that because these shows succeed or fail by ratings, they hold up a mirror to American society (and often what isn’t on screen is as important as what is). One thing I've noticed is that while in the 1970s gay sitcom characters were either invisible or crude stereotypes (think Jodie Dallas on Soap), today there are more gay and lesbian characters on TV than ever before. By contrast, the sitcoms of the 1970s were prepared to deal with abortion (Maude), whereas today the subject is a total taboo (Family Guy made an episode about abortion that the network refused to air). The exception is probably South Park, which often satirises abortion as a political totem. When a post-gender-change Mrs Garrison shows up at a Planned Parenthood clinic, she demands that they terminate her phantom pregnancy because it's her right as a woman. Meanwhile, Eric Cartman's mother, worried that she can no longer raise her son, lobbies President Clinton for an abortion in the 42nd trimester.
All this reflects the polling, which indicates that significant numbers of young Americans are tolerant towards gays and lesbians yet uncomfortable about abortion. Likewise, in the UK it is often young people (and women, by a huge margin) who tend to favour limits on abortion. This new generation is “life-affirmative.” Having grown up around gays and lesbians, Generation Z accepts their personhood and wants to see them take the full advantages of human happiness – get married, have kids, commit adultery, get divorced, retire to Deal etc. It makes perfect sense that they would extend that right to “live life fully” to the unborn. Marriage affirms life, hence they support it. Abortion ends life, so they oppose it. Or, at least, are anxious about it. Given that the pro-life young tend to favour limits on abortion rather than an outright ban, it could be that they only extend that definition of humanity to people who look fully human (ie, a foetus past the first trimester). Their views are shaped less by theology or philosophy than by emotional instinct. Social conservatives might find the lack of logic frustrating, but the response is unselfish and human. It might be of political use.
In the coming years, the US Right might see greater bifurcation between libertarians and traditionalists over the role of faith and morals in their movement. However, both will probably stick together out of a shared veneration of life and both will continue to resist government promotion of cultural change (even if the libertarians don’t particularly mind the consequences of the latter). In the UK, the situation is more complex. Britain lacks both the religious imperative and the libertarian impulse that are found in the American Right; British social conservatives have to make a case for themselves and build a movement from scratch.
One strategy might be to abandon some traditionalist positions in an effort to win young people over to the cause. Put crudely, the British social Right would drop gay marriage as an issue in order to modernise its image and better advance the cause of abortion limits. Such a course would be controversial. There is an argument that to advance traditionalism by abandoning one of its main planks would be both cynical and counter productive. That would probably be the attitude of the vast majority of the Conservative Party's membership; opposition to gay marriage is much greater among older Brits, which means that any move made to appeal to the young could alienate the middle-aged ... and undermine the entire movement. Ultimately, it's better that people are guided by conscience rather than ambition.
Nevertheless, David Cameron’s premiership may end up being viewed by historians as the moment when a new, more conservative social contract was born. Welfare reform, redefining debt as a moral issue and limiting access to abortion – perhaps this government is quietly redefining social conservatism for Generation Z.