Equality between the sheets

The "right" to discriminate cuts both ways.

Should a Christian hotel-owner be allowed to refuse a gay couple a double-bed, or is such discrimination no more than bigotry which the law should not allow them to indulge?

The case of Christian hotel-owners Peter and Hazelmary Bull is currently before the Court of Appeal. Earlier this year, the Evangelical couple were ordered to pay compensation to a couple in a civil partnership who had been turned away from their establishment in Cornwall. The conflict is easier to describe than to solve: the law regards civil partnership as equal, in almost all respects, to marriage. But the God worshipped by the Bulls does not.

There would be less debate if the Bulls had refused to employ a receptionist because they discovered that she was in a lesbian relationship, or indeed if they had refused to allow a lone gay man to occupy a single room. But the intimate circumstances of bed-sharing do seem to complicate the situation. The Bulls claim that only married couples are allowed to sleep together in their beds, and that any other arrangement would be an indulgence of sin. Put bluntly, the matter at issue isn't sexual orientation, it's sex - or rather the possibility of sex.

There's some dispute about whether, in fact, the Bulls have been quite so strict about unmarried heterosexual couples as they claim. A prominent member of the National Secular Society who stayed at the hotel in 2006 with his female partner reports having had no trouble getting a room (though they were a bit disconcerted to discover "religious tracts all over the place" once they had booked in). Be that as it may, if the bed being offered is a double one, then the owners are in effect facilitating sexual conduct that may go against their deeply-held convictions.

It's no coincidence that religion has emerged in recent years as a major battleground of social and legal rights. There have been rows about Islamic dress, crosses in the workplace, nurses praying for their patients, sex education in schools. In human rights law spiritual belief occupies an ambiguous status. It is both a category of protection -- for religion is increasingly seen as a source of personal identity -- and a cause of discrimination. It's not always easy to distinguish between the two. Behaviour which a believer may regard as intrinsic to his or her religious identity may involve inconveniencing or discriminating against other people, who also have rights. The law, and society, must choose whose right to upheld. Someone must lose.

Can philosophy help? The British Humanist Association has recently put out a pamphlet, Right to Object?, which takes a broader view of some of the issues at stake.

In his introduction, Alan Howarth locates the point at issue in the conflict between two principles: that of obeying the law (necessary for a functioning society) and that of following one's own conscience, without which one can scarcely be said to enjoy moral autonomy. Balancing the two involves defining a sphere of exemption from what would otherwise be legal requirements. Such a definition, Howarth writes, "must appear especially desirable in a society which prides itself upon its liberalism, tolerance, and its respect for the moral autonomy of individuals." This is true enough, but it does suggest that a certain self-congratulation may be at work here, and also perhaps an element of wishful thinking.

As the philosopher Peter Cave points out in his essay, the weighing and balancing that judges engage in when deciding difficult cases "are smokescreens for 'muddling through'". His own view, which I tend to endorse, is that the law should err on the side of liberality, allowing "a thousand preferences to bloom" provided that there are not significant social ill-effects. He would allow the right of a small hotel run by Evangelical Christians to refuse to offer a gay couple a double-bed, but also allow companies to enforce dress-codes that make no allowances for religious dress. What this seems to mean in practice, though - and what may be going on at a deeper level - is the privileging of the interest of both employers and service-providers at the expense of both employees and customers. Is this really sustainable?

In the case of Mr and Mrs Bull, their preference for a hotel run on the basis of traditional Christian morality need not unduly inconvenience gay couples provided that most hotels don't impose such restrictions. Indeed, hotels like the Bulls' might be said to increase consumer choice for Christian holidaymakers who share their unease at being in the proximity of gay sex.

And consider the converse case. There are hotels and guesthouses that specialise in serving members of the gay community, and may wish to turn away heterosexual couples. In February 2011, shortly after the Bull case came to court, the Equality and Human Rights Commission (in a typical piece of empire-building) announced that they would look into whether gay-only hotels discriminated against straight guests, even though it hadn't actually received any complaints.

In response, the owner of a gay hotel in Bournemouth complained that that Equality Act was a "double-edged sword" that was "killing gay culture." And indeed, one hotel in Blackpool that used to boast openly that it was "exclusively gay" now states on its website that it "welcomes all guests, new and old", presumably in response to the EHRC move. This is surely a perverse outcome of laws designed to protect minorities from discrimination. In the name of diversity, a bland conformism prevails, reducing choice and opportunity for customers as well as owners.

I strongly support the right of bar and hotel-owners to run single-sex gay-only establishments, so long as they are clearly signposted as such. They provide an important service to their community which would be compromised if they were forced to open their doors to heterosexuals. The quid pro quo must be the right of a few Christian hotel-owners to run their enterprises upon openly religious lines.

Belief, disbelief and beyond belief
Getty
Show Hide image

In the 1980s, I went to a rally where Labour Party speakers shared the stage with men in balaclavas

The links between the Labour left and Irish republicanism are worth investigating.

A spat between Jeremy Corbyn’s henchfolk and Conor McGinn, the MP for St Helens North, caught my ear the other evening. McGinn was a guest on BBC Radio 4’s Westminster Hour, and he obligingly revisited the brouhaha for the listeners at home. Apparently, following an interview in May, in which McGinn called for Corbyn to “reach out beyond his comfort zone”, he was first threatened obliquely with the sack, then asked for a retraction (which he refused to give) and finally learned – from someone in the whips’ office – that his party leader was considering phoning up McGinn’s father to whip the errant whipper-in into line. On the programme, McGinn said: “The modus operandi that he [Corbyn] and the people around him were trying to do [sic], involving my family, was to isolate and ostracise me from them and from the community I am very proud to come from – which is an Irish nationalist community in south Armagh.”

Needless to say, the Labour leader’s office has continued to deny any such thing, but while we may nurture some suspicions about his behaviour, McGinn was also indulging in a little airbrushing when he described south Armagh as an “Irish ­nationalist community”. In the most recent elections, Newry and Armagh returned three Sinn Fein members to the Northern Ireland Assembly (as against one Social Democratic and Labour Party member) and one Sinn Fein MP to Westminster. When I last looked, Sinn Fein was still a republican, rather than a nationalist, party – something that McGinn should only be too well aware of, as the paternal hand that was putatively to have been lain on him belongs to Pat McGinn, the former Sinn Fein mayor of Newry and Armagh.

According to the Irish News, a “close friend” of the McGinns poured this cold water on the mini-conflagration: “Anybody who knows the McGinn family knows that Pat is very proud of Conor and that they remain very close.” The friend went on to opine: “He [Pat McGinn] found the whole notion of Corbyn phoning him totally ridiculous – as if Pat is going to criticise his son to save Jeremy Corbyn’s face. They would laugh about it were it not so sinister.”

“Sinister” does seem the mot juste. McGinn, Jr grew up in Bessbrook during the Troubles. I visited the village in the early 1990s on assignment. The skies were full of the chattering of British army Chinooks, and there were fake road signs in the hedgerows bearing pictograms of rifles and captioned: “Sniper at work”. South Armagh had been known for years as “bandit country”. There were army watchtowers standing sentinel in the dinky, green fields and checkpoints everywhere, manned by some of the thousands of the troops who had been deployed to fight what was, in effect, a low-level counter-insurgency war. Nationalist community, my foot.

What lies beneath the Corbyn-McGinn spat is the queered problematics of the ­relationship between the far left wing of the Labour Party and physical-force Irish republicanism. I also recall, during the hunger strikes of the early 1980s, going to a “Smash the H-Blocks” rally in Kilburn, north London, at which Labour Party speakers shared the stage with representatives from Sinn Fein, some of whom wore balaclavas and dark glasses to evade the telephoto lenses of the Met’s anti-terrorist squad.

The shape-shifting relationship between the “political wing” of the IRA and the men with sniper rifles in the south Armagh bocage was always of the essence of the conflict, allowing both sides a convenient fiction around which to posture publicly and privately negotiate. In choosing to appear on platforms with people who might or might not be terrorists, Labour leftists also sprinkled a little of their stardust on themselves: the “stardust” being the implication that they, too, under the right circumstances, might be capable of violence in pursuit of their political ends.

On the far right of British politics, Her Majesty’s Government and its apparatus are referred to derisively as “state”. There were various attempts in the 1970s and 1980s by far-right groupuscules to link up with the Ulster Freedom Fighters and other loyalist paramilitary organisations in their battle against “state”. All foundered on the obvious incompetence of the fascists. The situation on the far left was different. The socialist credentials of Sinn Fein/IRA were too threadbare for genuine expressions of solidarity, but there was a sort of tacit confidence-and-supply arrangement between these factions. The Labour far left provided the republicans with the confidence that, should an appropriately radical government be elected to Westminster, “state” would withdraw from Northern Ireland. What the republicans did for the mainland militants was to cloak them in their penumbra of darkness: without needing to call down on themselves the armed might of “state”, they could imply that they were willing to take it on, should the opportunity arise.

I don’t for a second believe that Corbyn was summoning up these ghosts of the insurrectionary dead when he either did or did not threaten to phone McGinn, Sr. But his supporters need to ask themselves what they’re getting into. Their leader, if he was to have remained true to the positions that he has espoused over many years, should have refused to sit as privy counsellor upon assuming his party office, and refused all the other mummery associated with the monarchical “state”. That he didn’t do so was surely a strategic decision. Such a position would make him utterly unelectable.

The snipers may not be at work in south Armagh just now – but there are rifles out there that could yet be dug up. I wouldn’t be surprised if some in Sinn Fein knew where they are, but one thing’s for certain: Corbyn hasn’t got a clue, bloody or otherwise. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser