Not in Britain you don’t, no:
It was the moment that conservative Christian groups’ growing stridency in the British political arena went too far, at least for Boris Johnson. On Thursday evening the London mayor gave the clearest sign yet that radical religion and politics still do not mix in the UK when he slapped an almost instant ban on a planned bus advertising campaign that promoted Christian groups’ belief in a cure for homosexuality. Whether it was the electoral sensitivities of May’s mayoral poll or the feeling that the adverts, due to run on red London buses, were underpinned by homophobic sentiments, Johnson acted within an hour of news of the campaign leaking out to draw a line in the sand. His move will startle conservative Christians who have been agitating to replicate in British politics the American example where religious values take centre stage in campaigning.
The Women’s Institute, of Calendar Girls fame, has also refused to be drawn:
The Women’s Institute has declined to run an advert for equal marriage opponents the Coalition for Marriage over fears it would offend ‘many members’.
The Daily Mail reports that WI Life will not be running an advert for the campaign, which is being directed by some of the UK’s most active gay equality opponents.
The group was told the Women’s Institute magazine did not wish to be seen to endorse their view that gays should be unable to marry.
Helen Evans, advertising manager for the magazine reportedly told the group: “We are a national campaigning charity and your campaign doesn’t fit with any of our resolutions first and foremost.
“As WI Life is the national membership magazine, any promotion of your campaign could be seen as an endorsement … to members.
“We do also welcome all women to the WI and this campaign could offend many of our members.”
Of course, the Women’s Institute has long provided a home to tweedy ladies with a fondness for horses who live in many parts of England’s green and pleasant land. With each other.
It’s not just same-sex marriage where American-style religious campaigns unravel in Britain:
It is a peculiarly British response to a problem – to offer cake. But that was what a couple of friends opted to do when pro-life activists decided to hold a US-style prayer vigil outside a London abortion clinic.
Members of the group 40 Days for Life started a demonstration outside the British Pregnancy Advisory Services, which provides counselling and early abortions, earlier this week. Adopting tactics more commonly used by American anti-abortion protesters, the group stressed it would be a “peaceful vigil”. But the demonstration merely makes life harder for women facing difficult decisions, according to Clare Murphy of BPAS. “We are supportive of freedom of speech, but it is very problematic when a group of people go out of their way to make life harder for women at an already difficult time,” she said.
It also provoked two friends to act. They were especially keen to support the charity after the recent Nadine Dorries amendment aimed at stripping abortion-providers of their role in counselling women. Instead of holding a rival protest and further upsetting women who went to the clinic, Carmen D’Cruz and Liz Lutgendorff decided to “express our opinion through cake” – and 40 Days of Treats was born. For every day the pro-lifers were praying outside, D’Cruz and Lutgendorff vowed they would cheer up staff inside, and launched their idea on Twitter and Tumblr. “We thought it would be nice to show lots of us appreciate the work they are doing. It’s not combative, or confronting the protesters in a way that no one would want,” Lutgendorff explained.
In some places, the 40 Days of Treats people ‘treated’ everyone — protesters, staff and patients — to tea and cake. All very jolly and very British and very disarming, like Boris Johnson wittering on after the Beijing Olympics closing ceremony about ‘whiff-whaff’ coming home.
‘Political Correctness’, which makes Americans (and, to a lesser extent, Australians) seethe (rightly so, as it conflicts directly with well-established and comprehensively articulated histories to the contrary) has always been part of Britain’s sense of self, and it has been pushed in different forms by all sides of politics at different times. While speech in Britain has been relatively untrammelled for many years, it has always been hedged about with notions of propriety and politeness. I think it ought to be said that the prissy version made much of by New Labour was also an American import. It didn’t work — the BNP’s Nick Griffin was instead allowed on the BBC’s Question Time and given the opportunity to shoot himself in the foot, knee and upper thigh. Which he duly did.
It’s fair to say that the BNP’s electoral fortunes tanked from that point in time.
The bus advertisements issue has raised complexities, however, the sort of complexities normally submerged by British reticence. Gay MPs from all parties, along with Stonewall’s director, Ben Summerskill, did not want the ‘gay cure’ bus ads pulled. Tories discussed the issue in a measured way, drawing a distinction between Transport for London (a vastly profitable state corporation that in some respects is the Mayor’s fiefdom) and a privately owned bus company running similar adverts; the latter, many reasoned, would be fine. London Mayor Boris Johnson, for our Australian and American readers, is a Conservative, but it is not as though he behaved any differently from his Labour predecessor, ‘Red’ Ken Livingstone, on this issue. Summerskill and the MPs cited freedom of speech concerns, which in this form are also an import from the USA. Britain has no constitutionally protected speech rights (this fact always shocks American visitors).
In that sense, it may be that Stonewall’s original ads (to which the gay cure ads were a response) were also unBritish. This is best illustrated by a comparative graphic:
That the top advertisement was inspired by the one below it is plain for all to see. It is also reasonable to suggest that the one below scored something of an own goal:
I’m not sure what a project like this brings to the table. If it had no effect, it’d just be a waste of money (which in itself is a poor advert for Stonewall: why give to an organisation that seems to throw cash away on futile campaigns?). But when I saw the advert it occurred to me that it, and that supercilious exclamation mark in particular, could in fact give people an excuse to express their homophobia. Stonewall’s good intentions might simply end up making gay people’s lives more difficult.
And so it came to pass. The Core Issues Trust (“God’s heart in sexual and relational brokenness”) and Anglican Mainstream, a group of hyper-conservatives within a generally quite gay-friendly church, took the bait. They booked space on buses to display a different tagline: “Not gay! Post-gay, ex-gay and proud. Get over it!” Slightly baffling, but definitely homophobic, and obviously intended as a riposte to Stonewall.
Stonewall’s campaign originally formed part of its welcome efforts to draw attention to homophobic bullying in schools (the charity conducted research that showed 65% of gay or bisexual pupils experience homophobic bullying, and 97% hear derogatory phrases such as “dyke” or “poof” used by their peers). It was developed, apparently, in collaboration with 150 secondary school pupils and teachers. So, perhaps it works in some contexts. But I can’t help feeling that even a few moments’ thought could’ve resulted in slogans that, pasted on the side of a bus, would send out a more useful message. How about “Being bullied because you’re gay? We’re here for you!”, or even “It gets better!” (Stonewall could learn a thing or two about campaigning, and changing attitudes, from Dan Savage).
Instead, Core Issues and Anglican Mainstream have won a dollop of free publicity and can portray themselves as victims of persecution and censorship. Gay people have been pointlessly reminded, not that homophobia is unacceptable, but that there exist organised groups that detest them. Defenders of free speech have had their hackles raised and Boris laughs all the way to City Hall.
As is inevitably the case in these litigious times, Core Issues and Anglican Mainstream have reached for the lawyers, in yet another example of people ‘going to law’ in order to deal with the fact that they are absolutely crap at talking with each other about the things that divide them. Part of the problem, of course, is that in large, diverse cities like London, it is no longer possible to avoid people one doesn’t like. This has been the solution in Britain for a very long time (probably close to 200 years, I think). Not any more.
In days gone by, the tweedy country ladies with their horses could be left to their fox hunting and jam, the black people were safely ‘over there’ and overly effusive Christians were either in the USA (‘those Americans, how they go on!’) or in Northern Ireland. In the latter case we killed lots of them (at least, those that didn’t kill each other) and generally policed their society into the ground. Never be in any doubt that British reticence, when it comes to over-the-top expressions of religiosity or politics, has a dark and controlling side — as the Muslims who have been ‘rendered’ to various Hell-holes are learning to their cost.
Now, however, people want to stop the fox-hunting, the black people are ‘over here’ and religionistas of all stripes are trying to import campaigns that work in the US or Islamic world to Britain. And the natives are getting restless, led by the big one with the floppy white hair.
One thing, in all this, is clear to me: we are going to have to get better at rubbing along with people we don’t like, and everyone is going to have to cede some ground before we get to the banning, the lawyers and the violence (all of which Britain has experienced in the past and is experiencing again now). How to do this is a question for the ages, but when the Mayor of London resorts to banning bus adverts about curing gayness, I sense that Britain has taken a small step into the unknown.