As I’ve argued before on this site, identity politics risks dragging us into very murky waters. Today The Times gives another example, reporting that an SNP councillor has won a preliminary ruling by a judge that his belief in Scottish independence “has a sufficiently similar cogency to a religious belief…to qualify as a philosophical belief” and may qualify as “protected characteristic” under the Equality Act 2010.
There’s some dispute as to whether the protection of “philosophical belief” granted by the 2010 Act was really intended to make protect political belief a protected classification, or whether it was just a politically correct way of trying to ensure that positions such as atheism and humanism were protected in parity with religions. It should have been foreseen that the wording creates a grey area – there are people who hold their political philosophy more dearly than others hold their religious affiliation, for example, and the two often inter-relate. That debate rumbles on, but in the meantime the law continues to give birth to a string of cases like that reported today: attempting to armour political views with the protection of equalities legislation.
The track record of such cases is rather mixed, not least because judgments tend to come down to fine and arguably subjective distinctions of what kind of belief is of sufficiently weighty character to qualify for the Act.
Supporting a political party doesn’t seem to meet the mark. Some claimed beliefs have been deemed implausible conspiracy theories and therefore insufficient to deserve the respect of wider society. Others, like belief in the seriousness of the threat posed by climate change or belief in the responsibility of the public sector to provide value for money, are judged by whether the issues involved are felt by a court to be sufficiently weighty in terms of their importance to the nation or the human race. Then there’s the criteria of whether something is simply a viewpoint or an opinion, or whether it is a “belief” instead. Quite the conundrum for a Monday morning.
It’s a peculiar and invidious position for the law to get into: trying to decide if someone believes something about politics, if they believe it strongly enough, if the thing they believe is worthy of respect by others, if it is in itself important or not, and so on. Not only is this not really what the law ought to be for, but it’s inherently going to produce an appearance of injustice; it’s hard to see how there can possibly be a consistent test and therefore an equal answer in such cases, making part of the law effectively pot luck for all involved.
Most people, of course, wouldn’t dream of getting involved with such wranglings. Predictably it’s the agitated and agitating who try to work every angle to establish a grievance, from fringe fanatics to neo-Nazis to permanently offended separatists. Parliament ought to have been more sensible than to give them the opportunity.
Instead, we should take a robust and common sense approach. Two topical examples spring to mind. As Chloe Westley reports in today’s column, she prefers to use the hostility of her opponents to illustrate their weakness and intolerance. Meanwhile, the attack on Jacob Rees-Mogg’s home and car illustrates the true dividing line between legitimate and illegitimate attitudes to the political beliefs of others – threats and vandalism targeting one’s property and family, for political or other reasons, are already illegal, and should be punished accordingly.