Reason has triumphed over bigotry! That’s what we thought last year when concerned citizens banded together to torpedo a proposed alliance between the Bank of Scotland and the bouffanted televangelist Pat Robertson.
The bigots are on the run, we imagined. But we’ve been rudely awakened from that pleasant dream by the protracted campaign of homophobia conducted by Cardinal Winning and Brian Souter, culminating in what was laughingly called a referendum.
Souter’s referendum in Scotland became a classic example of how rich men can buy the political process.
For weeks before the voting slips were distributed, Souter was decorating billboards around the country with messages of hate. Together with his Catholic cohort, Souter succeeded beyond his wildest dreams in creating a panic about Section 28 – not only in Scotland but in England, too, much to Tony Blair’s astonishment.
The so-called referendum on Section 28 was such a mess that it was easy for liberals to dismiss. As Magnus Link in The Times wrote: “The result suggests that anyone with enough money to fund a poll on this scale can pick their own subject – be it capital punishment or barring refugees – and effectively by-pass the democratic process.”
But, as Hugo Young said in The Guardian: “The Souter referendum may also set an example for a pattern that begins to gather pace. When Mori asked last year whether referendums should be obligatory on Parliament on the petition of, say, 1 million electors, 77 per cent of the British said yes.”
It’s easy to understand why. On the face of it, referenda seem like the perfect expression of the democratic will. With a referendum, the people truly speak and what the majority wants is what the law will become. What could be fairer than that? It doesn’t take much thought to see what dangers referenda pose to minorities. The Souter exercise was unofficial, illegitimate and unbalanced.
As Jenny Ferguson pointed out in The Daily Telegraph letters page: “Brian Souter’s opinion poll was not a referendum in the true sense of the word. In a true referendum there are strict limits on campaign spending to make sure it is fair and balanced… this poll was organised after three months of one-sided propaganda.”
But let us not delude ourselves. Even if the referendum had been officially recognised and properly conducted, it was unlikely to have gone our way. Repeated research has shown that if the country were to be ruled by referenda, gay rights would soon fly out of the window.
Magnus Link again, in The Times: “Tis, one might argue, the modern equivalent of mob rule, the masses pouring out into the streets shaking their pikestaffs and throwing their rocks…”
In America, some states frequently resort to referenda over contentious issues. In California, in March, Proposition 22, which rules that gay marriage can never be introduced in the state, was carried overwhelmingly after a vitriolic campaign by religious groups and the political Right.
Other referenda on gay issues have also ended up retarding our progress, sometimes quite drastically. As the religious Right has found there, and is increasingly finding here, it is very easy to create the image of the sinister homo in a culture that is deeply ignorant on the topic.
There is no law to stop you saying whatever you want about gay people, however nasty and defamatory. Other minorities may have protection against hate-mongering. We have none. All that is needed is the money to disseminate propaganda, a few newspapers willing to frighten the punters and the referendum result is in the bag.
And each time a referendum on gay issues is lost, equality is pushed further from our grasp and our public image is irreparably damaged. Those citizens who had previously been on a “live and let live” frame of mind suddenly find themselves taking an active anti-gay stance.
They have become convinced – often by malevolent and dishonest advertising – that their children are at risk or that society is going to be damaged in some way by homosexual. Tolerance rarely figures in these campaigns.
Souter’s cohort, Cardinal Winning, was pushing his own nasty agenda throughout all this and was a willing accomplice in these weeks of consistent distortion, exaggeration and scare-mongering.
The Daily Record, too, became an organ of hostility, using its power to promulgate a totally one-sided version of the debate. Sham or not, before we dismiss Souter’s referendum, we should take a warning from it. For as Hugo Young informed us in The Guardian: “There are politicians who want to enrich and expand the referendum culture… Lord (David) Owen along with Lord Healey and Lord Prior, is promoting an amendment to make referendums obligatory before any measure of ‘first class constitutional importance’ can become law.”
They have since gained support from William Hague. These politicians do not make clear how this would work. They propose perhaps leaving it to the Speaker to decide what qualifies. Although the proposals are really an attempt to interfere with any further integration with Europe, it is a step in the direction of the referendum culture. You can be sure that if the Christian Institute or the Conservative Christian Fellowship have any say in it (and they seem to have an awful lot of say in Parliament these days) referenda will soon be extended from constitutional issues to those of social reform. Especially homosexuality.
But now, it seems, it’s money that talks. Souter has created a precedent in Britain that is well established in the USA. There, as Nick Cohen said in The Observer, business men who want to control public policy, for whatever reason, can use their fortune to push themselves into public life. He cites Rodd Perot and Steve Forbes as examples.
Souter’s ambitions are inspired by the Church of the Nazarene, a fundamentalist American sect based in Kansas City. “Although it takes a hard line on all things sexual, it allows him to get on with business,” said Cohen.
Meanwhile, Trevor Royle, in The Guardian tells us that the unholy alliance of Souter and Winning “sent Scotland into such a spectacular spin that the Parliament seems incapable of controlling it. Between them and their media advisors they have thoroughly unsettled Scotland by placing moral fundamentalism at the heart of mainstream politics. Indeed, so confident does Souter feel about imposing his own standards on the country that there is talk of him funding candidates to stand against politicians opposed to his views.”
It may be that when Souter and Winning engage with the Parliament on other issues that are on its agenda – namely reforming divorce laws, changing the status of illegitimate children and better contraceptive care for teenagers – the Scottish public might not be so eager to go along with the gruesome twosome. After all, these issues will affect far more people than just an unpopular minority that can be easily dismissed.
I’m hoping the Scottish people will see sense and give this evil pair their marching orders.
But, as The Guardian reported: “Last week a group of scholars and politicians met in Aberdeen to study the links between Scotland and Ireland. As one representative put it, given the predicament within the country, the comparison might be better made with Iran.”
Buoyed by what he sees as his great triumph, Souter will be eager to further bash the underpinnings of the democratic process with his chequebook. Who needs politicians when you’ve got money in the bank and God in your heart?
Much as we may disagree with our elected representatives in Parliament, at least we can expect them to make decisions on our behalf after looking at the issues in detail, examining the evidence and discussing them at length.
In the House of Commons and the Scottish Parliament there is genuine debate in which all voices can be heard, and MPs and MSPs will be held accountable for their decisions at the ballot box. Mr Souter got his result by exploiting ignorance and by-passing debate.
In the world of the referendum, the winner is likely to be the one with the loudest and most expensive megaphone. Appeals to prejudice are easy in such circumstances and minorities, however innocent and right they might be, don’t stand a chance.
But, in the end, all democracies must be judged by how they treat their minorities. As Earl Russell tried to explain to the readers of The Times: “The question of the limits of the rights of a majority in a democracy is a real one. The essential obligation of the majority is to get the consent of the minority. Without that the majority is useless. Experience has shown that getting the consent of the minority is conditional on their right to equality before the law. Were there to be a clear majority in favour of allowing citizens the right to refuse to sell their houses to Roman Catholics, I would have no hesitation as a legislator in over-ruling that majority. Without this equality, consent disappears, as we have seen in Northern Ireland.”
On a lighter note, and also in The Times, Miles Fothergill wrote: “I know only one or two heterosexuals, so I have no idea what goes on – except for a rather peculiar image created by the media: child-molesting, abusing their own children, rape, divorce – all very sordid. I hope no-one sends me a form asking me to vote as to whether these antics should be promoted in schools. I think I would probably vote that I don’t think they should. But then, I don’t really ‘know’ this type of person very well, so perhaps I’m a ‘don’t know’ and more than a little ignorant.”
The latest Christian excuse for homophobia is a corker and comes from the same mould as “God Moves in mysterious ways”. It goes like this: Jesus was hated for his opinions and told his followers that they would be hated, too. Therefore, whatever Christians say, however foul and disgusting, it must be OK because those they are attacking come to hate them for it and being hated makes them more like Jesus.
Being hated is good, so let there be no restraint. I heard it from Anne Atkins on the R4 programme Why People Hate Christians and Cardinal Winning repeated it in a slimy article in The Spectator. It’s worth seeking out as an example of the frightening fanaticism that is such a threat to our rights,