A restaurant in central London. Photo: Carl Court/AFP/Getty Images
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If you want to know how socially conservative Britain still is, go to a restaurant

Lesbians have been asked not to kiss because “this is a family restaurant”, and a woman having afternoon tea at Claridge’s was told that she wasn’t allowed to breastfeed her baby. We aren’t always as liberal as we think.

When I was about three, my mum explained the rules of restaurant-going to me. You stay in your seat. You use cutlery. You say your pleases and thank-yous. You, preferably, don’t have a tantrum. In adulthood, I like to think I’ve remained true to these instructions. One restaurant rule she failed to mention though is that, if and when I grew up into a great, honking dyke, I should probably put the kibosh on my sexuality until after dessert.

This week, a lesbian couple in a branch of Canteen on London’s South Bank broke that rule. And, horror of horrors, they made their sexuality known to their fellow food-eaters and restaurant staff by briefly kissing. The two women were asked by a member of staff to stop showing each other the most basic human affection, because “this is a family restaurant”. Translation: “Your sexuality is rude.”

Even in the UK, where same-sex marriage is now legal and legislation protecting LGBT people from discrimination is in effect, these sorts of stories are all too common. Sometimes it’s hotels, sometimes it’s restaurants and sometimes it’s Sainsbury’s – on a fairly regular basis, gay couples are asked to either tone down their gayness or leave.

Why is it that in so many cases, every time we go for a burger we’re entering Victorian Britain? And it’s not just the queers who break the rules, and fall under the scrutiny of any given establishment’s selective prudishness. Also this week, a woman having afternoon tea at Claridge’s was told that she wasn’t allowed to breastfeed her baby without pitching a kind of linen tent around the entire situation. According to this batshit, backwater restaurant protocol, getting out a tit for a hungry baby (literally the most innocent thing a person can do) is the equivalent of getting up and having a wee all over the table. Pissing should be done in private, and so, according to restaurants, should feeding babies and being a homosexual.

A restaurant is somewhere you can get a decent idea of just how socially conservative British culture still is. Many gay Londoners, myself included, see the South Bank as a kind of safe haven. It’s an artsy area, full of people in creative industries, which usually translates as – “here be a buttload of queers”. This makes Canteen’s recent homophobic moment even more telling. Even in the areas that LGBT people have come to trust, deep down, we’re not welcome.

London in particular is somewhere in which gentrification is eating into the gay scene. Venue after venue is shutting down with Madame Jojo’s in Soho and Hackney’s legendary gay club, the Joiners Arms, most recently getting the chop, to make way for “nicer” (read: less gay) things. As a result of this, it’s more important than ever that essentially heterosexual spaces become gay friendly.

As the Canteen incident has proven, same-sex couples are still forced to be careful about where they choose to kiss or even hold hands. Most non-heteros will know just how draining it is, having to consider warily when and where you show your partner even the slightest affection.

As for self-described “family” restaurants like Canteen, someone badly needs to let them know that the definition of “family” is changing.

Eleanor Margolis is a freelance journalist, whose "Lez Miserable" column appears weekly on the New Statesman website.

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Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle