A queer attack on personal conscience

It is the liberal elite’s fear of ordinary people’s consciences that is driving the attacks on Chris Grayling.

Tim Black

Tim Black
Columnist

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They have the youthful, Tony Blair-lite leader. They have a raft of managerial policies. And they are obsessed with image. Yet some – in the media as well as in opposing parties – just won’t take David Cameron’s Conservative Party on its own vapid terms. They are desperate to see it as the old Tory Party in New Labour clothes, a modern electoral machine with a 1980s, Margaret Thatcher-shaped darkness at its core. Beyond the PR sheen and the unblemished complexion of its leader, the old Tory Party lurks. And it’s still very, very nasty.

This is one reason why the recent comments of shadow home secretary Chris Grayling regarding the right of Christian Bed and Breakfast owners to turn away gay couples prompted barely concealed excitement amongst long-term Tory-haters. Recorded at a meeting organised by the think tank Centre for Policy studies, this is what Grayling said: ‘I think we need to allow people to have their own consciences… [I]f it’s a question of somebody who’s doing a B&B in their own home, that individual should have the right to decide who does and who doesn’t come into their own home.’ He was, however, keen to distinguish hotels from B&Bs: ‘I really don’t think that it is right in this day and age that a gay couple should walk into a hotel and be turned away because they are a gay couple, and I think that is where the dividing line comes.’

So there you have it. On the basis that B&Bs occupy – for Grayling at least – a strange space, straddling both the private and the public sphere, owners ought to be able to act according to their beliefs. Hotel owners, however, offering an unambiguously public service, do not have this liberty to decide who should and who should not enter their premises.

This looks at first sight like an argument about liberty, about the social limits of individual liberty – of thought, of conscience, of will. In fact, it could be the starting point for a debate about freedom. Except Grayling’s opponents aren’t really concerned about liberties or freedom. They are ostensibly concerned with attacking what they believe is the Conservative Party’s latent Old Tory intolerance (and enjoying the warm, righteous glow of cosmopolitan tolerance as they do so). This, they argue, is still the party that, during the 1980s, introduced Section 28, prohibiting the promotion of homosexuality in schools. And, more profoundly, at its heart this remains a party of multipurpose, right-wing hatred, whether towards blacks, Irish or, in this case, homosexuals.

Hence New Labour’s Europe minister Chris Bryant suggested that ‘anybody who thinks that the Tory Party has changed should think what it would be like to have Chris Grayling as home secretary’. Culture secretary Ben Bradshaw riffed on Bryant’s theme: ‘Not only is this displaying the fact that the Conservatives have not really changed on this and many other issues, but here you have the shadow home secretary advocating that people break the law.’ Elsewhere human rights activist Peter Tatchell found echoes of ‘the bad old days’. Fears that if the Tories get in, they might make anti-gay sentiment exempt from Labour’s equality legislation are not unfounded, he continued. Given such dark forebodings, little wonder that the chief executive of gay rights group Stonewall, Ben Summerskill, felt that Grayling’s comments could put off gay people thinking of voting Conservative.

But it’s not just a case here of fighting what Mick Hume, writing for spiked, called the ghosts of politics past. There is a deeper reason why members of the media and political class found Grayling’s comments troubling, and the implications for people’s liberties more so. And that is that they fear what Grayling appealed to, namely the private consciences of the masses. It is not just the spectre of the old Tories that scares them; it is our thoughts, and potential behaviour, too. From the perspective of a fearful elite, we simply cannot be trusted to act according to our conscience. This is why the Liberal Democrat home affairs spokesman, Chris Huhne, warned that Grayling could give ‘every bigot’ a chance to opt out of equality legislation. In Huhne’s eyes there are just hundreds of Bible-wielding, gay-haters running B&Bs waiting for the opportunity to unleash their inner bigot. Give them freedom of conscience, and you give them license to act badly, goes the thinking.

This elite fear of the ‘conscience’ of the masses – reined in by legislation, from hate speech to equality laws – marks a strange reversal, particularly on the part of those who think of themselves as liberal. After all freedom of conscience, especially with regards to something as personal as religion, has been a staple of the liberal tradition. As the philosopher John Stuart Mill warned, too often legislators occupy themselves ‘in inquiring what things society ought to like or dislike, [rather] than in questioning whether its likings or dislikings should be a law to individuals’. Underpinning Mill’s liberalism is the belief that an individual ought to be able to determine how best to live his own life. Morality, for Mill, is not something to be forced on to individuals from without; it is something to be arrived at through one’s own reason. The choices we make are, in short, a matter for our conscience.

The problem here is that where thinkers in the liberal, Enlightenment tradition saw morality largely as a practical capacity of the reasoning individual, today’s political class, estranged from any discernable public, suspect the individual of being incapable of reasoning. We are seen instead as impulsive and irrational. Hence, to his opponents, Grayling’s appeal to conscience seemed anachronistic, a blast from a naive past. In place of conscience, there now exist the elite’s synonyms: bigotry, prejudice.

Grayling’s ultimate offence, then, was not to endorse anti-gay beliefs. It was to place trust in the conscience of individuals, to assume, in the words of the Enlightenment philosopher John Locke, that the state should have ‘nothing to do with the good of men’s souls’.

Tim Black is senior writer at spiked.

Previously on spiked

Tim Black argued that the Pope was right to criticise the equality bill and, elsewhere, pointed out that the EHRC is autocratic. Brendan O’Neill criticised state-enforced equality and called for the mainstream to reclaim our Voltaire. In a speech last year, Wendy Kaminer argued that state intervention into everyday life is giving rise to habits of submission. Chris Snowden looked at the nanny state’s successor, the bully state. Or read more at spiked issue Liberties.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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