Stonewall's "Bigot of the Year" Award is offensive and out of date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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Let's turn RBS into a bank for the public interest

A tarnished symbol of global finance could be remade as a network of local banks. 

The Royal Bank of Scotland has now been losing money for nine consecutive years. Today’s announcement of a further £7bn yearly loss at the publicly-owned bank is just the latest evidence that RBS is essentially unsellable. The difference this time is that the Government seems finally to have accepted that fact.

Up until now, the government had been reluctant to intervene in the running of the business, instead insisting that it will be sold back to the private sector when the time is right. But these losses come just a week after the government announced that it is abandoning plans to sell Williams & Glynn – an RBS subsidiary which has over 300 branches and £22bn of customer deposits.

After a series of expensive delays and a lack of buyer interest, the government now plans to retain Williams & Glynn within the RBS group and instead attempt to boost competition in the business lending market by granting smaller "challenger banks" access to RBS’s branch infrastructure. It also plans to provide funding to encourage small businesses to switch their accounts away from RBS.

As a major public asset, RBS should be used to help achieve wider objectives. Improving how the banking sector serves small businesses should be the top priority, and it is good to see the government start to move in this direction. But to make the most of RBS, they should be going much further.

The public stake in RBS gives us a unique opportunity to create new banking institutions that will genuinely put the interests of the UK’s small businesses first. The New Economics Foundation has proposed turning RBS into a network of local banks with a public interest mandate to serve their local area, lend to small businesses and provide universal access to banking services. If the government is serious about rebalancing the economy and meeting the needs of those who feel left behind, this is the path they should take with RBS.

Small and medium sized enterprises are the lifeblood of the UK economy, and they depend on banking services to fund investment and provide a safe place to store money. For centuries a healthy relationship between businesses and banks has been a cornerstone of UK prosperity.

However, in recent decades this relationship has broken down. Small businesses have repeatedly fallen victim to exploitative practice by the big banks, including the the mis-selling of loans and instances of deliberate asset stripping. Affected business owners have not only lost their livelihoods due to the stress of their treatment at the hands of these banks, but have also experienced family break-ups and deteriorating physical and mental health. Others have been made homeless or bankrupt.

Meanwhile, many businesses struggle to get access to the finance they need to grow and expand. Small firms have always had trouble accessing finance, but in recent decades this problem has intensified as the UK banking sector has come to be dominated by a handful of large, universal, shareholder-owned banks.

Without a focus on specific geographical areas or social objectives, these banks choose to lend to the most profitable activities, and lending to local businesses tends to be less profitable than other activities such as mortgage lending and lending to other financial institutions.

The result is that since the mid-1980s the share of lending going to non-financial businesses has been falling rapidly. Today, lending to small and medium sized businesses accounts for just 4 per cent of bank lending.

Of the relatively small amount of business lending that does occur in the UK, most is heavily concentrated in London and surrounding areas. The UK’s homogenous and highly concentrated banking sector is therefore hampering economic development, starving communities of investment and making regional imbalances worse.

The government’s plans to encourage business customers to switch away from RBS to another bank will not do much to solve this problem. With the market dominated by a small number of large shareholder-owned banks who all behave in similar ways (and who have been hit by repeated scandals), businesses do not have any real choice.

If the government were to go further and turn RBS into a network of local banks, it would be a vital first step in regenerating disenfranchised communities, rebalancing the UK’s economy and staving off any economic downturn that may be on the horizon. Evidence shows that geographically limited stakeholder banks direct a much greater proportion of their capital towards lending in the real economy. By only investing in their local area, these banks help create and retain wealth regionally rather than making existing geographic imbalances worce.

Big, deep challenges require big, deep solutions. It’s time for the government to make banking work for small businesses once again.

Laurie Macfarlane is an economist at the New Economics Foundation