Cameron and Clegg Find Common Ground in Gay Marriage—But Party Dissent Lingers

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Britain's Prime Minster David Cameron (left) and Deputy Prime Minster Nick Clegg attend a reception to mark International Women's Day at 10 Downing Street on March 8, 2012 in London, England

On March 11 priests at Britain’s 2,500 parish churches glided down the aisles as worshipers sang a welcome hymn. After taking their place at the altar, they made the sign of the cross, and greeted churchgoers in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. They then read out a letter condemning efforts by Britain’s Coalition Government to legalize gay marriage.

The calling to do so came from above—and, more specifically, from Archbishop Vincent Nichols, the leader of the Catholic Church in England and Wales, and Archbishop Peter Smith, the Archbishop of Southwark. In a move that intensified their campaign against the proposal, they co-wrote the letter, which encouraged the faithful “to ensure that the true meaning of marriage is not lost for future generations.” They went on to say that the “profoundly radical step” proposed by the government would undermine the sanctity of institution, which they believe exists to foster procreation and the education of children. “The law helps to shape and form social and cultural values. A change in the law would gradually and inevitably transform society’s understanding of the purpose of marriage,” they wrote. “It would reduce it just to the commitment of the two people involved.”

That argument doesn’t sit well with Prime Minister David Cameron, who sparked the debate in October by announcing his plans to push for gay marriage during the Conservative party conference. “We’re consulting on legalizing gay marriage,” he said at the time. “To anyone who has reservations, I say: 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 despite being a Conservative. I support gay marriage because I’m a Conservative.” On Sunday night, during the closing session of the Liberal Democrat’s spring conference in Gateshead, Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg expressed his support in even more visceral terms: “Let me just say, if you are a young gay person, your freedom to love who you choose is a fundamental right in a liberal society—and you will always have our support.” He promised that the U.K. will see same-sex marriage before 2015.

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In the fractious arena of coalition politics, gay marriage has emerged as the latest issue unifying Cameron and Clegg. But as the party leaders find common ground with each other, they’re also watching as a gulf opens up between them and their respective party members. On the gay marriage front, Cameron will face a tougher fight than Clegg, whose Liberal Democrats were the first and most vocal supporters of gay marriage. The Conservatives, on the other hand, were the party that, in 1988, under Margaret Thatcher’s government, pushed through a Local Government Act, Section 28 of which barred the “promotion of homosexuality” in schools and defined gay partnerships as “pretended family relationships.”

The ideology lingers among many Tory members, despite efforts to modernize and cast off the “nasty party” image. On March 11 an ICM poll revealed that half of the party’s supporters oppose the move to legalize gay marriage. And its socially conservative wing still includes several MPs—notably Nadine Dorries and David Burrowes—who are motivated by their Christian convictions. On March 1 Peter Bone, a conservative MP for Wellingborough in Northamptonshire, dismissed those calling for the legalization of gay marriage while speaking in the House of Commons: “Wouldn’t it just be very simple to write back and say: ‘Marriage is between a man and a woman so this is completely nuts’?”

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But Clegg faces internal battles of his own. Over the weekend Liberal Democrats refused to fully endorse reforms to overhaul Britain’s National Health Service as set out in the coalition’s controversial Health and Social Care Bill. Activists voted to remove a line that called for peers to support the bill—though the motion doesn’t require them to oppose it. And on Sunday, infighting also broke out over Clegg’s proposal to introduce a so-called “tycoon tax” that would make sure the country’s biggest earners did not use loopholes to pay less than a fifth of their income in tax. Lord Oakeshott, a senior peer, called it “a superficially attractive measure that falls apart under scrutiny.”

When David Cameron arrives in the United States on Tuesday, those quarrels will no doubt remain on his radar. But in observing the more glaring partisanship of U.S. politics—not to mention the very public squabbling of the candidates vying for the Republican presidential nomination—he may take comfort in his country’s political landscape. The sound and the fury of American politics makes Britain’s political scene look rather civil. And the fact that 30 American states actually have amendments banning same-sex marriage is a reminder of just how progressive the British system is to even be proposing the legalization of gay marriage in the first place. Same-sex couples in Britain have, since 2005, been entitled to civil partnerships that afford all the legal rights and protections of marriage. No British politicians are openly campaigning to overturn that. For a man committed to commitment—regardless of gender—that’s something to be proud of.

William Lee Adams is a staff writer at the London bureau of TIME. Find him on Twitter at @willyleeadams or on Facebook. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.