For God and equality

Is the Equality and Human Rights Commission in total disarray?

"Our business is defending the believer." Thus spoke Trevor Phillips, chair of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, in an interview with the Daily Telegraph back in June. It was a good soundbite, at least a memorable one, but it has now come back to haunt him.

At the time, Phillips' remarks (he also suggested that religious identity was "an essential part of this society" and "an essential element of being a fulfilled human being") raised fears among secularists. But he also had some tough words for politically motivated Christian activists whose "old time religion" meant that they "want to have a fight and they choose sexual orientation as the ground to fight it on." So the Evangelicals weren't too impressed either. No one was quite sure whether Phillips had been announcing a change of direction, to give more emphasis to religion in the whole equality pick-n-mix, or merely trying to rebut suspicions that his organisation was part of "a fashionable mocking and knocking brigade." Perhaps he wasn't entirely sure himself.

A couple of weeks later, the EHRC announced - via a press release - that it intended to intervene in four cases of religious discrimination which had been rejected by British courts but were going to be heard in Strasbourg. This time, the message was much less ambiguous. "Judges have interpreted the law too narrowly in religion or belief discrimination claims," it began. It went on to accuse the courts of giving "insufficient" protection to freedom of religion or belief and having "set the bar too high for someone to prove that they have been discriminated against because of their religion." They had "created a body of confusing and contradictory case law". The Commission intended to "propose the idea of 'reasonable accommodations' that will help employers and others manage how they allow people to manifest their religion or belief."

Christian campaign groups were predictably delighted. The Evangelical Alliance even took the credit for selling the idea ofreasonable accommodation during its meetings with EHRC staff. Secular and gay rights organisations were (equally predictably) appalled, the latter mainly because two of the cases that the EHRC seemed to be supporting involved people who wished to manifest their religious faith by discriminating against homosexuals. Islington registrar Lillian Ladele wanted the right to avoid officiating at civil partnership ceremonies. Relate counsellor Gary Gary McFarlane didn't want to work with gay couples.

There was a huge row. Andrew Copson of the British Humanist Association accused the commission of lending its support to "a deliberate agenda to stir up support for a re-Christianisation of our public spaces as a reaction to feelings of persecution." Behind the scenes at the commission, it is rumoured, feelings were running high. Publicly, nothing further was said.

It now appears that the EHRC has come to the conclusion that the courts' judgement in the Ladele and Macfarlane cases was right all along. An emergency consultation document which they've just put out in advance of the Strasbourg hearing seeking views announces the organisation's intention to oppose the appeals in those two cases while still supporting dissident cross-wearers Nadia Eweida and Shirley Chaplin.

Whatever the organisation is saying now, this wasn't the impression it gave at the time. Pink News was given to understand that the ECHR's proposal "could involve local councils allowing Christian registrars to swap shifts to avoid having to officiate civil partnerships, rather than beginning disciplinary action which then leads to 'costly, complex legal proceedings'". While the public press release wasn't quite so specific, it did feature the quoted words about the cost of litigation. It also implied that it viewed the four cases as involving essentially the same principle.

The intervention of one commissioner in particular seems to have been decisive. Angela Mason, formerly with Stonewall herself, gave a somewhat outspoken interview to the Pink Paper in which she downplayed the press release: "I don't think it fully represented the opinion of the commission." And she announced (and the consultation document confirms) that the commission "has already decided not to put forward 'reasonable adjustment' arguments if we do continue with our intervention."

Instead, the commission is seeking views on whether the concept of reasonable accommodation "would have any practical useful application." This, after several weeks of mixed messages and in a rushed consultation with a deadline only three weeks hence, suggests that the ECHR is in almost total disarray on the issue. The latest press release tries to reflect the blame onto the appeal process itself, complaining that the court has "only given us a few weeks in which to prepare our submissions" and that the principle of reasonable accommodation "needs more careful consideration."

The consultation document devotes most of its space to setting out the arguments in favour of a principle that the commission states that it nolonger intends to put before the court. At the same time, the September 6th deadline is designed to ensure that interested parties' views can be taken into account before the commission makes its final submissions. This makes no sense. It is explicable only as evidence of unresolved internal disputes.

The EHRC was always an unwieldy beast, dedicated to an official fiction that all rights are equal and that there is no necessary conflict between them. A report for Civitas earlier this month called for the commission to be abolished, suggesting that it "contributes very little to meaningful equality in Britain today" and costs the taxpayer far too much money. This latest saga certainly points to a troubled organisation, uncertain of its role, vainly trying to placate contradictory points of view, and bearing the impression of the last pressure group which sat on it.

Belief, disbelief and beyond belief
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The Women's March against Trump matters – but only if we keep fighting

We won’t win the battle for progressive ideas if we don’t battle in the first place.

Arron Banks, UKIP-funder, Brexit cheerleader and Gibraltar-based insurance salesman, took time out from Trump's inauguration to tweet me about my role in tomorrow's Women’s March Conservative values are in the ascendancy worldwide. Thankfully your values are finished. . . good”.

Just what about the idea of women and men marching for human rights causes such ill will? The sense it is somehow cheeky to say we will champion equality whoever is in office in America or around the world. After all, if progressives like me have lost the battle of ideas, what difference does it make whether we are marching, holding meetings or just moaning on the internet?

The only anti-democratic perspective is to argue that when someone has lost the argument they have to stop making one. When political parties lose elections they reflect, they listen, they learn but if they stand for something, they don’t disband. The same is true, now, for the broader context. We should not dismiss the necessity to learn, to listen, to reflect on the rise of Trump – or indeed reflect on the rise of the right in the UK  but reject the idea that we have to take a vow of silence if we want to win power again.

To march is not to ignore the challenges progressives face. It is to start to ask what are we prepared to do about it.

Historically, conservatives have had no such qualms about regrouping and remaining steadfast in the confidence they have something worth saying. In contrast, the left has always been good at absolving itself of the need to renew.

We spend our time seeking the perfect candidates, the perfect policy, the perfect campaign, as a precondition for action. It justifies doing nothing except sitting on the sidelines bemoaning the state of society.

We also seem to think that changing the world should be easier than reality suggests. The backlash we are now seeing against progressive policies was inevitable once we appeared to take these gains for granted and became arrogant and exclusive about the inevitability of our worldview. Our values demand the rebalancing of power, whether economic, social or cultural, and that means challenging those who currently have it. We may believe that a more equal world is one in which more will thrive, but that doesn’t mean those with entrenched privilege will give up their favoured status without a fight or that the public should express perpetual gratitude for our efforts via the ballot box either.  

Amongst the conferences, tweets and general rumblings there seem three schools of thought about what to do next. The first is Marxist  as in Groucho revisionism: to rise again we must water down our principles to accommodate where we believe the centre ground of politics to now be. Tone down our ideals in the hope that by such acquiescence we can eventually win back public support for our brand – if not our purpose. The very essence of a hollow victory.

The second is to stick to our guns and stick our heads in the sand, believing that eventually, when World War Three breaks out, the public will come grovelling back to us. To luxuriate in an unwillingness to see we are losing not just elected offices but the fight for our shared future.

But what if there really was a third way? It's not going to be easy, and it requires more than a hashtag or funny t-shirt. It’s about picking ourselves up, dusting ourselves down and starting to renew our call to arms in a way that makes sense for the modern world.

For the avoidance of doubt, if we march tomorrow and then go home satisfied we have made our point then we may as well not have marched at all. But if we march and continue to organise out of the networks we make, well, then that’s worth a Saturday in the cold. After all, we won’t win the battle of ideas, if we don’t battle.

We do have to change the way we work. We do have to have the courage not to live in our echo chambers alone. To go with respect and humility to debate and discuss the future of our communities and of our country.

And we have to come together to show there is a willingness not to ask a few brave souls to do that on their own. Not just at election times, but every day and in every corner of Britain, no matter how difficult it may feel.

Saturday is one part of that process of finding others willing not just to walk a mile with a placard, but to put in the hard yards to win the argument again for progressive values and vision. Maybe no one will show up. Maybe not many will keep going. But whilst there are folk with faith in each other, and in that alternative future, they’ll find a friend in me ready to work with them and will them on  and then Mr Banks really should be worried.