Graeme Archer is a statistician who lives in Hackney, has his own blog and is about to be civilly partnered "to the long-suffering Keith".
I don’t know how to express myself politically except through personal demonstration, so please bear with me. We woke up yesterday morning, as we always do, to very strong cups of Teasmaid tea and "Farming Today" (god the rubbish they speak about organic produce on that programme). Then "Today" started up and the second headline was about a demonstration, planned for yesterday evening, outside Westminster, by a coalition of Jewish, Christian and Muslim groups, hoping to sway the vote in the House of Lords on the Equality Act (Sexual Orientation) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2006, an Act which will make it illegal to discriminate against self-defining gay people with respect to the provision of goods and services. The Spiritual were hoping to persuade the Temporal that it’s wrong to make discrimination against gay people a criminal offence, since such discrimination is a matter of personal and moral conscience.
Would you like to know my thoughts when I heard this item, struggling as I was at 6.02am to fully regain consciousness? Probably not – I mean, why would you – except it’s maybe a bit more complicated than you’d expect from a fully-paid up member of the Gay-Tories-R-Us club. My first thought was "good". And then "bugger" (ha ha). And then "I hope the government wins". And then "I hope the government loses". It’s this internal conflict that interested me as much as the law itself (debated fiercely yesterday on Conservative Home).
Here are two diametrically opposed responses, both of which I could just about convince myself I hold utterly:
(1) The Richard Dawkins response. As well as being gay, I’m also an empiricist, by virtue of inclination and of training. I believe there are two components to knowledge: evidence, and belief, but I believe (ha ha, again) that belief is nothing without evidence. That is, I believe in the epistemic supremacy of evidence with respect to the evaluation of any hypothesis, but also that you can’t "know" anything about any particular hypothesis without the incorporation of belief. Officially, this makes me a "Bayesian" (type "Likelihood Principle" into wikipedia if you’re reallly interested). Therefore I’m atheist, because there is no evidence for the existence of a supra-human deity. In his article in the Telegraph yesterday, the Lord Mackay of Clashfern (a man I rate extremely highly & have done for decades: he’s self-evidently a good man) moved that this law is wrong because it might cause religious people problems, and he advanced as an argument for his case that "the faith of many Christians, Jews and Muslims includes the view that homosexuality is sinful". From my point of view, this "argument" is neither here nor there, since the mere observation that an identified group of people have convinced themselves that their tradition makes a particular practice Not Good is not "evidence" that the practice is Not Good, in any meaningful sense of the word. It’s just a belief. And without evidence I don’t understand (nobody does, for once this isn’t just a personal failing) how to refract that belief experience into a decision about how to act. So while I’m very sorry that people who are religious have problems about some legal protection for gay people, I think the demonstrable evidence of the experience of gay people is more important. I don’t want to live in a country that makes a harmless group of folk (gay people) feel bad because another group of folk (the religious who feel that their belief gives them a de facto right to legislate) feel bad. Ergo, I hope the government wins. Evidence trumps belief.
(2) The "Conservative" response. Well I’ve been accused often enough on Conservative Home of Not Being A Real Conservative so this might shock some people, but in the abstract I think this law is dreadful. What on earth has it got to do with the government whether or not a hotelier offers or declines to offer a room to a gay couple? I have exactly the same abstract response as I did to the ban on fox-hunting (I can think of few things I’d less like to do, and few things I’d less like to ban) or the soon-to-be ban on smoking in pubs (for god’s sake). One of the tenets of our Tory principles is the importance of private property. And if I were to own a hotel (the important verb is "own") why should the government have a say in to whom I let out my rooms? Why should the state interfere in the contract between myself and my potential customers? Ergo, I hope the government loses. Principle trumps personal experience.
There was something in Lord Mackay’s article which caused me to laugh
out loud. Lord Mackay is concerned about some possibly unintended
consequences of the legislation: "Will it be unlawful for a bookseller to stock books advocating marriage and deploring homosexual practices?"
(Let’s leave aside the false dichotomy between being gay and the
support of marriage: purile, my Lord). This quote reminded me of
nothing so much as the hyperbole (to which I was party) put out at the
time of the introduction of the infamous Section 28 of the Local
Government Act in the 80s, the act which brought me to my gay
consciousness (another unintended consequence, and a not uncommon one).
Those of us who (correctly) thought that the legislation was intended
purely to tell us that we weren’t very nice people produced leaflets by
the thousand which purported to raise the concern that books by Oscar
Wilde (and E.M. Forster etc) would not be stocked by public libraries
lest the exposure of young people to good literature by a public body
would fall foul of the Act’s stated intention to stop the "promotion of
homosexuality as a pretended family relationship". I think Lord Mackay
can rest easy. Even in the early ’90s you could still purchase Howard’s End
and I’m sure, given the amount of anti-western "literature" which one
can pick up anytime on the Whitechapel Road, that there won’t be
prosecutions for the publication of works which denigrate
I wish I could wrap all this up into a resounding conclusion which
serves as a call to arms for one or other party in this farrago. (The
government won the vote in the end). All I’ve resolved though is that
the government should stop legislating on matters for which its primary
intention is to urge people to be nicer to one another. I’m not ashamed
of the word "nice", by the way, and I don’t disdain the very concept of
a government urging society to move in a particular fashion (is this
what’s meant by the "bully pulpit?"). I think a nice society is a great
objective. And I think David Cameron understands this when he says
"we’re all in this together" – a soundbite, maybe, but quite a profound
one if you dwell on it. Gay people aren’t about to disappear, and
neither are religious people (Graeme Archer aside, they’re not exactly
mutually exclusive groups!). So perhaps we should focus on what we have
in common, rather than what divides us (there’s another article hidden
within that sentence about what’s happening to the concept of tolerance
in the UK). It’s not ever easy to be kind to people who don’t share
your world view, and it’s not even always the right thing to do; but I
think it’s a decent baseline from which to commence discussions.
It does hurt, you know, the thought that some people would look at
Keith and myself and judge us as some sort of sinful reprobates, rather
than seeing the love and kindness we try to evince, but I don’t think
I’d pass a law against it. If the government focused on prosecuting
people who commit real crimes of hate, who go out of their way to make
the lives of their fellow citizens less pleasant (try living off the
Roman Road, E3 for a few years, you’ll soon know the definition of
"anti-social") maybe we’d become the sort of country where people
didn’t feel the need to run for legislation to protect their (often
real) grievances. Section 28 was egregious and wrong: if councils in
the 1980s really were obsessively determined to turn kids gay, they’d
have been voted out of office. So this new law is also unnecessary: if
there really is a mass of private providers out there who go
out of their way to make gay people feel bad, then I’m convinced
(through personal experience) that most people would react against it.
I’m sufficiently optimistic to believe that the fear is not real; but
any country which requires legislation for basic human decency is
almost certainly missing the real problem.
Related ToryDiary link: Lord Mackay on whether religious beliefs should bow to the rights of homosexuals