I still remember attending my first party conference back in 2003. Iain Duncan Smith had just imposed a three line whip against gay adoption and in a 15 year-old’s mix of trepidation and precociousness I challenged the party chairman on the policy.
Seven years later and things have certainly changed with Conservatives not only marching front and centre at London Pride, but being cheered as they did so. It’s a Conservative-led administration which has proposed the first ever lesbian, gay and bisexual agenda for government, a government with gay Ministers for policing, international development and energy, numerous entries in the Independent on Sunday’s “Pink List” and perhaps just as significant, more openly-gay MPs than any other party. Perhaps shrill attacks on “homophobic Tories” will no longer longer wash?
The Tory “Christian right” are clearly not entirely comfortable with this embrace, worrying both that the gay rights movement is merely a vehicle of the left and that in order for gay people to be given equality they might lose their rights of belief and expression.
Recent ConservativeHome pieces such as Melancthon’s ‘On not being homophobic’ typify this attitude by suggesting that the Christian majority is somehow now being persecuted for its beliefs by a vociferous gay rights lobby. He is, however, simply mistaken. I consider myself part of the “gay rights movement”. I care very little whether Melanchthon thinks being a practising homosexual is immoral or not but I certainly defend his right to think and say it, even if from behind his coy veil of anonymity.
His problem, however, is that he wants to have his cake and eat it. If he wants licence to call homosexual practice immoral then surely it’s only right that one is entitled to call him homophobic or anti-gay in response. A vital counterpart of the right to free expression is the right to be held to account for that expression. To accuse people of “hobbling the free expression of an important view” simply because they hold him to account is wildly to distort the debate.
The most obviously cynical reason that the Tory right should embrace gay equality is electoral imperative. Survey after survey has shown that the vast majority of the general public believes in gay equality and unless we’re seen to embrace that agenda too we risk permanently alienating a significant and naturally receptive cohort of voters, something we can ill afford to do if we’re to reclaim the majority. We took great steps towards this in May, but it was clear on the doorsteps, of London in particular, that voters still felt the Conservatives could not be trusted as the guardians of Labour’s legacy on gay rights.
Cynical electoral calculations aside, there’s still no need for the Tory right to fear gay equality. The coalition’s Programme for Government promises to prioritise eliminating homophobic bullying (which doesn’t mean teaching five year olds about sex!). In doing this we improve school discipline and create an environment which has been shown to lead to an increase in attendance and attainment. As for increasing protections for gay asylum seekers, the Tory right has long been understandably proud of Britain’s position as a beacon of freedom to the rest of the world. Any good Christian should recognise that we have a duty to protect the vulnerable and that we can never condone sending people back to societies where they face torture or death.
Shouldn’t we remember that the protections offered by ‘Equality Acts’, often the cause of so much angst, apply not only to sexual orientation but also to religion as well. Far from stifling freedom of expression, ‘Equality Acts’ have enshrined that freedom in law. Should a B&B owner be able to turn away a Christian couple because of their belief? Certainly not. Should schools be allowed to stand silent in the face of anti-Christian discrimination in the playground or hospitals be allowed to offer substandard service to Christian patients? No. No. No. But all too often we see the same faces in the “Christian right” denouncing the measures which offer protection both to them and the gay community.
Real social justice involves Britons working together to support one another and our three million strong gay community is no exception. The right of the party must realise that it has nothing to fear from welcoming them into the Big Society too.