Travelling back from Glasgow to Edinburgh yesterday evening I found myself cheek by jowl with a couple of guys having a drink. Quite a lot of a drink in fact. There was so much whisky involved that I felt quite intoxicated. It was a curious predicament towards the end of a curious day. And then they started talking about the general election. Two ‘ordinary working’ blokes sat next to a political anorak.
The SNP was mentioned, then Brexit. It was hard to follow the precise line of argument. But no matter. They quickly moved on to the issues that would most likely inform their voting preferences on the 8th June. Council tax, refuse collection and parking. And yes they were definitely talking about the general election, not the vote which will come beforehand on 4th May.
A couple of hours later after a hard training session at a local athletics track (where we mostly talked about running not politics), I sat down to have some tea and catch up with my Twitter feed. Tim Farron was all over it. It appeared to be about Cathy Newman, an interview on Channel 4 News and sinning. I was a tad confused. How were we back there again? Wasn’t that a couple of years ago?
When I caught up a bit more I realised that the questions had been rerun with more or less the same outcome. Lots of people had started objecting. Sue Perkins had tweeted and already been retweeted hundreds of times. Not to be outdone, I retweeted a post I’d written in 2015 when the original storm broke. I’m not a celebrity so even though my tweet included a link to a carefully crafted set of arguments as distinct from a 140 character critique, retweeting didn’t reach double figures.
I should say that just as Tim Farron didn’t appear to have changed his views, neither had I. And neither had the views of more notable commentators than me who also retweeted their posts from 2015. My post had been, in part, a response to some of theirs and I had been grateful to them at the time for retweeting it. Partly because they had more social media clout than me so it got me a bigger readership. But much more importantly because it illustrated that we can disagree well.
I’m not about to beat myself up for taking the opportunity to air my thoughts again. I’m sure no one else is and that’s why I blog. But as the evening wore on I got involved in a bit of a dialogue about the issue. And that caused me to think a bit rather than just restate. Was there a degree to which we were just being haughty about Farron? Surely liberalism is negotiable? Isn’t it the case that making progress depends on a coalition of interests. In short, I felt the answers to those questions were no, but yes and yes.
I stand by everything I wrote in 2015 and what irritated me yesterday was that the same fault lines I had sought to expose then were being replayed. Not the least of which is the implicit suggestion that LGBT people and Christians are somehow mutually exclusive groups. We are not.
But then I asked myself, so what? What would the blokes on the train have said if I’d interrupted them and said, by the way as a gay man I must point out that you shouldn’t vote Lib Dem because Tim Farron thinks I’m a sinner and I’m upset.
Please don’t think I’m trivialising the issue of LGBT rights. I’ve been banging on about them one way or another for nearly 40 years. And in fact, I do think there are issues at stake in the forthcoming election which have a profound bearing on the gains we’ve made. Brexit is no small matter when it comes to human rights.
But neither Tim Farron nor anyone else heading up a serious political party is proposing to undo the progress we’ve made. He has said some pretty toxic things in the past but no, his voting record is not at all bad. It’s better than Theresa May’s and she’s a Christian too. Who and which party I’d have more confidence in on LGBT rights is a moot point. I can remember a time when the Labour Party was a pretty hostile place too. We had to move forward by persuasion. They way people learnt to articulate their support wasn’t always perfect.
Tim Farron has now said he doesn’t think we are sinners. Phew. Good. I hope he means it. And I wish he’d learnt the lesson of 2015 rather better and come up with a decent line yesterday about what we are rather than what we are not. ‘LGBT people are made in God’s image and should be loved and treated with dignity and respect’, was one pretty good suggestion made to me this morning. But hopefully, it’s enough for us all to move on.
Back in the early 80s when we were pushing lesbian and gay rights in the trade union movement, the response was often that we should get back to the bread and butter issues which members really cared about. Our retort was that if you were lesbian or gay you could be sacked for it so it was a bread and butter issue. Thankfully that’s no longer the case and Europe, in fact, played its part in helping us to get there.
But I do think Farron’s response should be enough for us to press restart for now. I don’t agree with the acting chair of the Lib Dem LGBT rights groups when she says (in a piece worth reading) that she doesn’t give a fig about his religious beliefs. Perhaps that’s in part because I’m a Christian. But right now if I care about what he has to say about anything it’s rather more about who he might go into coalition with. And I definitely think the bread and butter issues aired by those blokes on the train deserve an airing too.
In any case in respectful dialogue, there is surely a limit to playing the man rather than the ball.
This post might disappoint some of those who were fans of my original piece but I see no contradiction. I’m not arguing for retreat. But I think some of the shrillness of the last 24 hours has cast rather more heat than light. And I do think that we make progress by teasing out tensions and contradictions in small c coalitions. That is absolutely how we got here. Rights were secured by a coalescence of social and economic liberalism. In the case of equal marriage, even social conservatism played its part.
What leading politicians say matters. What motivates them to vote the way they do matters too. And LGBT rights is by no means job done. But the political landscape we all have to contend with between now and 8th June is tricky enough without looking for shadows that really aren’t there.