THE LATEST SCANDALS surrounding the UK government have raised serious questions about how, and in whose interests, key decisions are made. Laws are being changed so that future critics of state abuse of power can be silenced or ignored.
Poverty and lack of access to NHS and other vital services are blighting yet more lives in 2022. Yet even campaigners for a better world sometimes seem unconvinced of the value of, human rights for all, making it harder to defend democracy and justice. To achieve a more just and equal society or even protect basic freedoms, willingness to grapple with difficult issues may be needed.
Scandal and silencing
The latest revelations about undisclosed WhatsApp messages between the Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, and the Conservative donor who initially paid for his flat refurbishment are disturbing. So are allegations of a peer’s possible links to a company fast-tracked for over £200 million worth of personal protective equipment contracts .
Many people are struggling to cope with an NHS and social care crisis caused largely by government choices, soaring fuel costs, other price rises and job insecurity. That vital decisions may be made on the dodgiest of grounds, the truth hidden and accountability avoided is all the more shocking, to people of all faiths and none who are concerned about ethical standards in public life.
Yet things may become drastically worse, if the government succeeds in forcing through a flurry of legal changes which will allow it to ignore or punish those raising issues it finds awkward. These include a Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill to which further draconian measures are being added to block or crush protesters, and a Nationality and Borders Bill which would not only prevent asylum seekers from reaching safety but also leave an estimated two-fifths of British citizens of colour at risk of arbitrary banishment.
The Official Secrets Act is due to be changed so that investigative journalists can be treated like enemy spies. The ability of courts to halt abuses of power are to be cut back, while an Elections Bill is likely to deprive many in marginalised communities of their right to vote.
Attorney General Suella Braverman’s threat to interfere, after four defendants were cleared following the pulling down of a statue celebrating a slave trader in Bristol, indicates a worrying impatience with a jury system which does not always deliver ministers’ favoured verdicts. There is no reason to suppose the decision was legally incorrect .More generally, the independence of public bodies, and checks and balances on ministerial powers, are being whittled away.
Responses to European judgement in ‘gay cake’ case and culture of rights
Against this background, the response in some quarters to a European Court of Human Rights decision on the case of Gareth Lee versus the UK government is disappointing. The court refused to overturn the Supreme Court’s 2018 decision on the so-called ‘gay cake’ case
Judges had found (correctly in my opinion) that Ashers, a Christian-owned bakery in Northern Ireland, did not discriminate unlawfully by refusing to make a cake iced with the slogan ‘Support Gay Marriage’. The proposed design also included Bert and Ernie, two characters in the children’s television programme Sesame Street, and the logo of an organisation, QueerSpace.
The court recognised the difference between allowing discrimination against people, for instance on the basis of sexual orientation, and not forcing others to promote a view with which they disagree. As a Christian who has long campaigned for equal marriage, I disagree with the theology of the family which owns Ashers, while believing it would be wrong to compel them in this instance.
The gay man who put in the order was upset, which is understandable, Yet there are many people who are not lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT)+ who support marriage for same-gender couples and some people who are LGBT+ yet do not. And enabling such an interference with freedom of belief and expression could have damaging consequences.
For instance, in Northern Ireland, tensions between Loyalist and Republican communities might be heightened if self-employed people and small businesses could be needled with orders likely to annoy them. And if applicable outside (where different equalities laws apply), minorities could be humiliated and divisions deepened. There is a world of difference between expecting a local Jewish design and printing service to prepare invitations for a Christian’s birthday party and produce posters with an image of the Trinity and slogan ‘Jesus Christ is Lord!’
I am not the only pro-inclusion activist relieved by the European Court of Human Rights decision; for instance, Peter Tatchell tweeted, “#Ashers bakery: #ECHR was right. Discrimination against people is wrong but discrimination against political messages is legitimate freedom of expression. I cannot endorse legal compulsion to require people to promote a message with which they disagree.” While it can be painful when someone is reluctant to amplify a message which one feels affirms one’s identity, coercing them to do so would be even more costly in the long term.
Others are entitled to feel differently. Yet I was concerned that an organisation as influential as Stonewall seemed to misunderstand what was decided, as well as not grasping why human rights matter even for those with whom it disagrees. This may unintentionally encourage discrimination, as well as fear-mongering among LGBT+ people. A Twitter thread claimed that “No business should discriminate against their customers, and no discriminatory behaviour should be held up by equality law. Today’s decision leaves the door open for legal uncertainty across the UK and causes continued unease for our communities.” In reality, discrimination is generally unlawful, as before.
History surely underscores how untrustworthy the state can be in dealings with LGBT+ people. The government would be better placed restoring the rights of employees, tenants and others which it has eroded, with speedy access to justice for those facing discrimination, rather than forcing people to communicate what they do not believe. It is time too, to crack down on the lavishing of resources on the personal interests or pet projects of those with contacts in high places, while minorities are further marginalised.
But Stonewall’s reaction perhaps points to a more general failure by those of us who believe in the importance of consistent support for human rights to convince others of why this matters. In tackling the threats facing the people of the UK, and of other countries where far right regimes are rolling back basic freedoms, it is worth underlining the links with political, economic, social and cultural rights.
© Savitri Hensman is an Ekklesia associate and respected commentator on welfare and other issues. She is author of the book Sexuality, struggle and saintliness: same-sex love and the church (Ekklesia, 2016) and has been involved in seeking greater inclusion. She wrote on ‘Health or Wealth?’ in Feast or Famine? (DLT, 2017). Her latest articles can be found here. Archived articles (pre-2020) are here.