Read: The decline of the American world
During the debate over the legislation, many other Conservatives spoke in support of it. “Marriage is a very serious, lifelong commitment, and we all enter into it in that spirit,” said one, Anne Marie Morris. “It is very clear that it is the best outcome for a stable family life, and, indeed, delivers the best outcome for children. But we live in the real world.” Even the staunch social conservative Fiona Bruce, a vocal opponent of liberalizing abortion, told the Commons, “I accept that not every marriage can be maintained and that it is sometimes better for one to end.” Only 16 members of Parliament voted against the second reading of the Divorce, Dissolution and Separation Bill this year. It passed its third and final reading on June 17 without needing a vote.
When making his case in Parliament, Gauke was helped by the fact that the current legal system in Britain for ending a marriage is widely agreed to be a mess. Unless one half of the couple agrees to take the blame for the breakdown of the relationship, through adultery, desertion, or “unreasonable behaviour,” the couple must be separated for two years. Even then, to use separation as grounds for divorce, both parties must agree that the marriage is over—otherwise the waiting period is five years. In 2018, a woman named Tini Owens was told by a court that she could not obtain a divorce after two years apart because her husband refused to accept that they would not reconcile. (It is hard to imagine taking his wife to court made that possibility more likely.)
Gauke outlined how the existing adversarial system harmed youngsters, who were caught in the middle, and who often ended up being used as pawns. In doing so, he relied on one of the most well-worn socially conservative arguments in existence—Won’t someone think of the children?—to pass a piece of socially liberal legislation.
Borrowing the clothes of your ideological opponents is an underrated political technique. When former Prime Minister Tony Blair promised to be “tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime,” it was a pledge to address inner-city deprivation cloaked in the right-wing language of law and order. A later Labour leader, the much more left-wing Jeremy Corbyn, pulled off a similar move after a 2017 terror attack in London. Support for the police is a position associated with the right, but Corbyn defended the service by winding his remarks into a criticism of austerity, arguing that the government was trying to “protect the public on the cheap.” Look right, talk left, and vice versa: This is how you reach swing voters.
Unfortunately, examples such as these also reveal how much more attuned we are to tribal signaling—whether politicians are speaking the language of our “side”—than policy detail. Selling liberal policies in conservative clothes might reach the middle, but it won’t get you much credit from your own supporters.