Stonewall's "Bigot of the Year" Award is offensive and out of date

By continuing to have a Bigot of the Year award, Stonewall is indulging in playground politics that sits ill with its new role as a facilitator of best practice in the public realm.

At a lavish awards ceremony at the V&A last night, the gay rights organisation Stonewall honoured Ruth Davidson, leader of the Scottish Conservatives, as its Politician of the Year. That such an award is possible shows just how much society has changed in the twenty-three years since Stonewall was founded. The idea that there would one day be an openly gay leader of a British political party - and a Tory, at that - would have seemed like a wild dream a generation ago. Indeed, it's a measure of how far we have come that an organisation that started out as a pressure group campaigning for the basic human rights of a marginalised and unpopular minority should now be staging a swanky awards ceremony at a top London venue, backed by top corporate sponsors such as Barclays and royal bankers Coutts.

Stonewall's awards are supposed to "celebrate the outstanding contribution of individuals and groups towards lesbian, gay and bisexual equality". The mood turned somewhat sour, though, when Davidson used her acceptance speech to criticise Stonewall for continuing to single out a "Bigot of the Year" alongside the awards for top entertainers, sportspeople and "heroes". Davidson argued that it was "simply wrong" to use the term bigot of opponents of same-sex marriage, as well as being counterproductive. "The case for equality," she said, "is far better made by demonstrating the sort of generosity, tolerance and love we would wish to see more of in this world."

She left the stage to a chorus of boos and jeers.

The Bigot award, meanwhile, was handed to Scotland's Cardinal Keith O'Brien, the most senior Roman Catholic clergyman in Britain, largely on the strength of his ill-advised remarks about same sex marriage earlier this year. O'Brien, you may recall, described the proposal as "a grotesque subversion of a universally accepted human right" and likened its proponents to people who would legalise slavery. Even many who shared his opposition to equal marriage were embarrassed by these comments. But the real question, perhaps, is not so much whether O'Brien is accurately described as a bigot but whether it's wise or appropriate for Stonewall to continue to single out a "bigot" for annual abuse. 

The "bigot of the year" category was already controversial after the unlovely pressure group Christian Concern, and later the Catholic Herald, embarrassed some of the sponsors into threatening to withdraw support for the event. A spokesman for Barclays said that "to label any individual so subjectively and pejoratively runs contrary to our view on fair treatment." Barclays also distanced itself from the "bigot" award by stressing that its sponsorship was limited to the sports personality award. This may be technically true but is also subtly misleading, since the name Barclays appeared among the sponsors in all the awards publicity, much of which mentioned the existence of the "bigot" category. 

Barclays is in a rather delicate position here. By sponsoring the Stonewall Awards it is demonstrating its commitment to equality and diversity. Indeed, until the row blew up it was not so much a case of Barclays endorsing Stonewall as Stonewall endorsing Barclays: an institution mired in claims of tax avoidance and mis-selling of insurance burnishing its progressive credentials by associating itself with a leading LGBT organisation. On the other hand, the view of same-sex marriage being denounced as "bigoted" is one which many Barclays customers will share.

Some might say that by accepting corporate sponsorship at all, Stonewall is selling out. But such sponsorship is only possible because so many of the group's original aims have already been achieved. Stonewall was founded, in 1989, in response to the Thatcher government's notorious Clause 28, a vindictive piece of lawmaking that banned the "promotion" of homosexuality in schools. In those days, while the tide was slowly turning, an unthinking homophobia pervaded much of national life. Many gay celebrities still dwelt uneasily in the closet, scared of exposure in the Sun and or the News of the World. The age of consent for gay men was still 21. There were no openly gay politicians, though plenty who were furtively and fearfully so. Local authorities that dared to suggest equality for gay and lesbian people were ridiculed as being "the loony left", while a Chief Constable (Greater Manchester's James Anderton) could go on the record describing Aids as "a self-inflicted scourge" caused by gay men "swirling about in a human cesspit of their own making."

Now that's bigotry.

Such attitudes still persist, but they are scarcely mainstream, as the ridicule that greeted O'Brien's somewhat milder comments about same-sex marriage demonstrates. Stonewall itself has diversified from its original role as a pressure group. These days, a significant proportion of its work involves giving advice to business on Equality and Diversity issues via projects such as the Diversity Champions Programme. It is part of the establishment now. It's the opponents of LGBT equality, groups like Christian Concern, that are on the margins.

In such a climate, continuing to nominate a "Bigot of the Year" suggests an organisation partly stuck in the mindset of twenty years ago. Then it stood out bravely against a society mired in casual bigotry. Now it stands firmly in the mainstream. That's a much more comfortable place in many ways, but it requires some adjustment. There's no need, these days, to indulge a victim mentality by indulging in playground insults and scapegoating. It makes Stonewall look childish and intolerant, and only serves to vindicate the "bigots". Time to grow up.

 

Cardinal Keith O'Brien was named "Bigot of the Year" by Stonewall. Photograph: Getty Images
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Britain has built a national myth on winning the Second World War, but it’s distorting our politics

The impending humiliation of Brexit is going to have a lot more in common with Suez.

The Crown, Peter Morgan’s epic drama covering the reign of Elizabeth II, ended its first series with a nemesis waiting just off-stage to shake up its court politics. In the final episode, Egyptian president Gamal Nasser gives a rip-roaringly anti-imperialist – and anti-British – speech. The scene is set for the Suez Crisis to be a big plot point in Season 2.

Suez has gone down in history as the great foreign policy debacle of postwar Britain. The 1956 crisis – which saw Israel, France and Britain jointly invade Egypt to take control of the Suez Canal, only to slink off again, nine days later, once it became clear the US wasn’t having any of it – is seen as the point at which it became clear that even the bigger states of Europe were no longer great powers in the world. “President Eisenhower’s humiliation of Britain,” Jack Straw wrote in his 2012 memoir, “had been total.”

This was, though, a fairly limited sort of humiliation. Britain was not invaded or occupied; there was no sudden collapse in living standards, let alone a significant body count. Our greatest national debacle is nothing more than the realisation that Britain could no longer do whatever it wanted without fear of reprisal. As humiliations go, this one’s up there with the loss of status men have faced from the rise of feminism: suddenly, Britain could do what it wanted a mere 80 per cent of the time.

The Crown begins in 1947, when Prince Philip gives up his Greek and Danish royal titles and becomes a British subject, so that he can marry Princess Elizabeth. That year saw another British foreign policy debacle, one on which the show remains oddly silent. In the partition which followed India’s independence from the British Empire, 70 years ago this week, upwards of a million people died; in the decades since, the borders drawn up at that time have been the site of numerous wars, and Kashmir remains a flashpoint.

All this, one might think, might count as a far bigger regret than Suez – yet it doesn’t feature in the national narrative in the same way. Perhaps because partition was about the withdrawal of British forces, rather than their deployment; perhaps it’s simply that it all happened a very long way away. Or perhaps we just care less about a body count than we do about looking bad in front of the Americans.

I think, though, there’s another reason we don’t talk about this stuff: the end of empire is hidden behind a much bigger part of our national myth. In the Second World War, Britain is undeniably one of the good guys; for 12 months, indeed, Britain was the only good guy. Never mind that it still had the largest empire the world had ever seen to fall back on: Britain stood alone.

The centrality of the Second World War to the national myth warps our view of history and our place in the world in all sorts of ways. For starters, it means we’ve never had to take an honest account of the consequences of empire. In a tale about British heroes defeating Nazi villains, British mistakes or British atrocities just don’t fit. (Winston Churchill’s role in the 1943 Bengal famine – death toll: three million – by ordering the export of Indian grain to Britain rarely comes up in biopics.) In this dominant version of the national story, the end of empire is just the price we pay to defeat fascism.

More than that, our obsession with the Second World War creates the bizarre impression that failure is not just heroic, but a necessary precursor to success. Two of the most discussed elements of Britain’s war – the evacuation of Dunkirk, and the Blitz – are not about victory at all, but about survival against the odds. The lesson we take is that, with a touch of British grit and an ability to improvise, we can accomplish anything. It’s hard not to see this reflected in Brexit secretary David Davis’s lack of notes, but it’s nonsense: had the Russians and Americans not arrived to bail us out, Britain would have been stuffed.

Most obviously, being one of the winners of the Second World War infects our attitude to Europe. It’s probably not a coincidence that Britain has always been both one of the most eurosceptic EU countries, and one of the tiny number not to have been trampled by a foreign army at some point in recent history: we don’t instinctively grasp why European unity matters.

Once again, Suez is instructive. The lesson postwar France took from the discovery that the imperial age was over was that it should lead a strong and unified Europe. The lesson Britain took was that, so long as we cosied up to the US – Athens to their Rome, to quote Harold Macmillan – we could still bask in reflected superpower.

Until recently, Britain’s Second World War obsession and national ignorance about empire didn’t really seem to affect contemporary politics. They were embarrassing; but they were also irrelevant, so we could cope. Brexit, though, means that hubris is about to run headlong into nemesis, and the widespread assumption that Britain is a rich, powerful and much-loved country is unlikely to survive contact with reality. India will not offer a trade deal for sentimental reasons; Ireland is not a junior partner that will meekly follow us out of the door or police its borders on our behalf. The discovery that Britain is now a mid-ranking power that – excepting the over-heated south-east of England – isn’t even that rich is likely to mean a loss of status to rival Suez.

Morgan says he has planned six seasons of The Crown. (This looks entertainingly like a bet the Queen will be dead by 2021; if not, like Game of Thrones before it, he might well run out of text to adapt.) It’ll be interesting to see how the show handles Brexit. It began with the royal family facing up to a vertiginous decline in British power. As things stand, it may have to end the same way. 

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Brexit. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear