Stonewall's "Bigot of the Year" Award is offensive and out of date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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What kind of Christian is Theresa May?

And why aren’t we questioning the vicar’s daughter on how her faith influences her politics?

“It is part of me. It is part of who I am and therefore how I approach things,” Theresa May told Kirsty Young when asked about her faith on BBC Radio 4’s Desert Island Discs in November 2014. “I think it’s right that we don’t sort of flaunt these things here in British politics but it is a part of me, it’s there, and it obviously helps to frame my thinking.”

The daughter of a Church of England vicar, Rev. Hubert Brasier, May grew up an active Christian in Oxfordshire. She was so involved in parish life that she even taught some Sunday school classes. She goes on in the Desert Island Discs interview to choose the hymn When I Survey the Wondrous Cross sung by a chapel congregation, and recalls being alone in church with her parents, kneeling and singing together.

Despite her intense attachment to local CofE life, Theresa May’s role as a Christian in politics is defined more by her unwillingness to “flaunt” (in her words) her faith.

Perhaps this is partly why, as a Christian, May avoided the scrutiny directed at Lib Dem leader and evangelical Christian Tim Farron over the past week of his stance on homosexuality and abortion.

As Farron wriggled – first saying he didn’t want to make “theological pronouncements” on whether or not being gay is a sin (and then, days later, announcing that it isn’t) – May’s critics scratched their heads about why her voting record on such matters isn’t in the media spotlight.

She has a socially conservative voting record when it comes to such subjects. As the journalist and activist Owen Jones points out, she has voted against equalising the age of consent, repealing Section 28, and gay adoption (twice).

Although her more recent record on gay rights is slightly better than Farron’s – she voted in favour of same-sex marriage throughout the process, and while Farron voted against the Equality Act Sexual Orientation Regulations in 2007 (the legislation obliging bed and breakfast owners and wedding cake makers, etc, not to discriminate against gay people), May simply didn’t attend.

May has also voted for the ban on sex-selective abortions, for reducing the abortion limit to 20 weeks, abstained on three-parent babies, and against legalising assisted suicide.

“Looking at how she’s voted, it’s a slightly socially conservative position,” says Nick Spencer, Research Director of the religion and society think tank Theos. “That matches with her generally slightly more economically conservative, or non-liberal, position. But she’s not taking those views off pages of scripture or a theology textbook. What her Christianity does is orient her just slightly away from economic and social liberalism.”

Spencer has analysed how May’s faith affects her politics in his book called The Mighty and the Almighty: How Political Leaders Do God, published over Easter this year. He found that her brand of Christianity underpinned “the sense of mutual rights and responsibilities, and exercising those responsibilities through practical service”.

May’s father was an Anglo-Catholic, and Spencer points out that this tradition has roots in the Christian socialist tradition in the early 20th century. A world away from the late Victorian Methodism that fellow Christian Margaret Thatcher was raised with. “That brought with it a package of independence, hard work, probity, and economic prudence. They’re the values you’d get from a good old Gladstonian Liberal. Very different from May.”

Spencer believes May’s faith focuses her on a spirit of citizenship and communitarian values – in contrast to Thatcher proselytising the virtues of individualism during her premiership.

Cradle Christian

A big difference between May and Farron’s Christianity is that May is neither a convert nor an evangelical.

“She’s a cradle Christian, it’s deep in her bloodstream,” notes Spencer. “That means you’re very unlikely to find a command-and-control type role there, it’s not as if her faith’s going to point her in a single direction. She’s not a particularly ideological politician – it’s given her a groundwork and foundation on which her politics is built.”

This approach appears to be far more acceptable in the eyes of the public than Farron’s self-described “theological pronouncements”.  May is known to be a very private politician who keeps her personal life, including her ideas about faith, out of the headlines.

“I don’t think she has to show off, or join in, she just does it; she goes to church,” as her former cabinet colleague Cheryl Gillan put it simply to May’s biographer Rosa Prince.

The voters’ view

It’s this kind of Christianity – quiet but present, part of the fabric without imposing itself – that chimes most with British voters.

“In this country, given our history and the nature of the established Church, it's something that people recognise and understand even if they don't do it themselves,” says Katie Harrison, Director of the Faith Research Centre at polling company ComRes. “Whether or not it’s as active as it used to be, lots of people see it as a nice thing to have, and they understand a politician who talks warmly about those things. That’s probably a widely-held view.”

Although church and Sunday school attendance is falling (about 13 per cent say they regularly attend Christian religious services, aside from weddings and funerals), most current surveys of the British population find that about half still identify as Christian. And ComRes polling in January 2017 found that 52 per cent of people think it’s important that UK politicians and policy-makers have a good understanding of religion in the UK.

Perhaps this is why May, when asked by The Sunday Times last year how she makes tough decisions, felt able to mention her Christianity:  “There is something in terms of faith, I am a practising member of the Church of England and so forth, that lies behind what I do.”

“I don’t think we’re likely to react hysterically or with paranoid fear if our politicians start talking about their faith,” reflects Spencer. “What we don’t like is if they start ‘preaching’ about it.”

“Don’t do God”

So if May can speak about her personal faith, why was the nation so squeamish when Tony Blair did the same thing? Notoriously, the former Labour leader spoke so frankly about his religion when Prime Minister that his spin doctor Alastair Campbell warned: “We don’t do God.” Some of Blair’s critics accuse him of being driven to the Iraq war by his faith.

Although Blair’s faith is treated as the “watershed” of British society no longer finding public displays of religion acceptable, Spencer believes Blair’s problem was an unusual one. Like Farron, he was a convert. He famously converted to Catholicism as an adult (and by doing so after his resignation, side-stepped the question of a Catholic Prime Minister). Farron was baptised at 21. The British public is more comfortable with a leader who is culturally Christian than one who came to religion in their adulthood, who are subjected to more scrutiny.

That’s why Gordon Brown, David Cameron and Theresa May can get away with talking about their faith, according to Spencer. “Brown, a much more cultural Presbyterian, used a lot of Biblical language. Cameron talked about it all the time – but he was able to do so because he had a vague, cultural, undogmatic Anglicanism,” he tells me. “And May holds it at arm’s length and talks about being a clergyman’s daughter, in the same way Brown talked about his father’s moral compass.”

This doesn’t stop May’s hard Brexit and non-liberal domestic policy jarring with her Christian values, however. According to Harrison’s polling, Christian voters’ priorities lie in social justice, and tackling poverty at home and overseas – in contrast with the general population’s preoccupations.

Polling from 2015 (pre-Brexit, granted) found that practising Christians stated more concern about social justice (27 per cent) than immigration (14 per cent). When entering No 10, May put herself “squarely at the service of ordinary working-class people”. Perhaps it’s time for her to practise what she preaches.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

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