One doesn’t or, jam and ‘Jerusalem’ all round, I think…

By skepticlawyer

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.


  1. Posted April 18, 2012 at 5:54 am | Permalink

    As always, superbly written, intelligent, and inviting rational thinking.

  2. Posted April 18, 2012 at 7:50 am | Permalink

    Onya Boris.

    “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.”

    Lovely wordcraft.

  3. Ripples
    Posted April 18, 2012 at 8:34 am | Permalink

    I always seem to remember the Brits having some special issues in regard to homosexuality. It was one of those strange open secrets. Everyone knew so and so was gay but it was impolite to discuss it. Not so much accepting but more a case of ignoring something so you don’t have to actually recognise it.

    I think this taps into something much larger than just the Brits having to adapt their culture to change. Cultures far and wide seem to be struggling with the influx of ideas provided through the internet. I am an indifferent student of history but wonder if there is a comparison to be made with other expansions in information access?

  4. Mel
    Posted April 18, 2012 at 1:48 pm | Permalink


    “It is also reasonable to suggest that the one below scored something of an own goal”

    No it isn’t actually. I think you really do need to provide some hard empirical evidence.

    It is worth recollecting that plenty of “moderate blacks” and “white liberals” said Dr King was pushing too hard too fast and creating a backlash that would ultimately harm the cause of American black emancipation. That argument turned out to be bullshit even though it is true that Dr King directly incited some rednecks to kill and maim. You don’t make omelettes without breaking eggs.

    I would also ban the Christian nutjobs from advertising their hate campaign since the sentiments expressed in the campaign do kill through increased gay youth suicide etc… I think a reasonable distinction may be drawn between advertising that discriminates against who one is, whether that be one’s sexual orientation, ethnicity, gender or disablement and what one believes, for instance political and religious beliefs. I have no problem curtailing free speech re the first category when serious and significant harm (like suicide) is at issue.

  5. Posted April 18, 2012 at 3:10 pm | Permalink

    Cultures far and wide seem to be struggling with the influx of ideas provided through the internet. I am an indifferent student of history but wonder if there is a comparison to be made with other expansions in information access?

    Pamphleteering just after the expansion of the printing press around the English Civil War, I think Ripples. But you’ve just made the point yourself that even when there’s access to information it can be deliberately ignored for social reasons, and by extension could be ignored for political ones.

  6. kvd
    Posted April 19, 2012 at 4:29 am | Permalink

    [email protected] I’m uncomfortable with the “it gets better” tag. Two things: it sort of implies there’s nothing that can be done immediately, and does it really “get better” or just more subtle? Sorry to be so disagreeable; must be the (wet) weather.

  7. Ripples
    Posted April 19, 2012 at 9:25 am | Permalink

    Dues Ex @ 6
    I was thinking more along the lines of trying to supress ideas in the face of improved communication and information access. I am minded of the web and China’s monitoring of it. I will have a peek at the pamphleteering though as is sounds like an interesting idea.

  8. Posted April 19, 2012 at 6:27 pm | Permalink

    Apologies for not commenting earlier; I was hoping to get a few more responses on this. Maybe the fact that I am undecided on this issue (I am doing the awful lawyer’s thing of seeing both sides and, because I am not involved in the relevant litigation, utterly failing to take a side) means that the whole thing seems too tentative for people to weigh in.

    I suppose the usual comments apply: ‘public policy is hard’ and ‘to every complex problem there is always a simple solution, and it’s always wrong’.

    I do think the Guardian piece I quoted is absolutely spot on when it comes to one point, however: gays have been reminded that there are whole organisations (not just individuals) who hate them. And hate them qua individuals, too. There is something really nasty and toxic about that.

  9. Posted April 20, 2012 at 5:22 am | Permalink

    [email protected]: I was at a conservative dinner-talk I attend regularly (and most greatly enjoy) when a prominent Oz conservative intellectual made a dismissive remark about gay professional friends of his feeling oppressed when they struck him as comparatively privileged.

    There was an immediate round of sounds of agreement.

    It was only on the way home that I thought of the obvious rejoinder “and the success of the Rothschilds showed that the Jews had nothing to worry about”.

    Any group whose status as acceptable humans is contested have something to worry about.

  10. Posted April 20, 2012 at 9:11 am | Permalink

    Exactly, Lorenzo. My partner and I live in apparently enviable retirement, but the successes we have enjoyed have come at a personal, mental and social cost, and despite repressive laws and community rejection. Instead of us now rejecting all social contacts, had we not suffered rejection for so long, we could now be of use to our fellow citizens in many ways.

  11. Mel
    Posted April 21, 2012 at 7:41 am | Permalink

    Says it all really:

    “And then you have the legacy of Martin Luther King, a Christian minister who struggled for equality. Remember, in his day he was perceived by many as radical and too extreme. He was urged to be patient, to wait this out. His civil disobedience was perceived as potentially dangerous.

    While we do well to honor King, we should remember that his methods were deemed too radical and his dreams too grandiose. If we desire to honor him today, we should start asking, “What should we be dreaming and what should we do to make these dreams a reality?”

    Skeptic Lawyer = Billy Graham 😉

  12. Posted April 22, 2012 at 5:59 am | Permalink

    It’s a bit odd to bring King into this argument, Mel. King was demanding equality, these religious fundies are demanding inequality.

  13. Posted April 22, 2012 at 6:29 am | Permalink

    Rigby, Mel is referring (I think) to my tendency to make ‘pick your battles’ arguments (this gets me in trouble with various atheists and skeptics, too). I think the evidence is in that when minorities overplay their hand, they can finish up alienating even their allies: in other words, sometimes one has to ask nicely. That’s why I think the chap in the Guardian has a point about Stonewall’s bus campaign being misdirected.

    To continue with the King analogy (since he’s come up), there’s a reason why King is remembered with affection while Malcolm X is viewed much more equivocally: Malcolm X overplayed his hand, King didn’t. In the context of gay rights, I think this piece by Jonathan Rauch sets out my concerns far better than I could. I think he’s too optimistic about the US, to be honest (so maybe take that with a grain of salt), but his argument certainly applies in Britain:

    FWIW, I suspect both gay and women’s rights will have to be guarded pretty jealously in Western countries for quite a long time because we (ie, the liberal – British definition – majority) have overplayed our hand when it comes to religious tolerance. This is why some really quite outstanding misogyny and homophobia is now accepted from religious groups, mainly Muslim, but also from some evangelical Protestants and conservative Catholics — all in the name of multiculturalism and religious tolerance.

    It’s this that makes me undecided on Boris Johnson’s decision to ban the ads: on one level, it’s a fairly straight attack on freedom of speech, but on another I think it’s legitimate for people in Britain (like the Mayor of London) to reject the public nastiness of American style religious morality debates. It’s the US, as Mel points out, that is undergoing a rash of gay suicides, not Britain, and while I can’t prove that they’ve been caused by the toxicity of US debate on issues of religious morality, I’m willing to bet that there’s a link.

  14. Posted April 22, 2012 at 6:40 am | Permalink

    Thanks for that. I misunderstood, and am in accord with you, especially the need for all minorities to watch their backs. I had just ticked your box in the best blogs vote, and this response confirms my opinion. As for gay suicides, there are no reliable statistics, but for a while a couple of years back there seemed to be a spike every time George Pell made another crack about god deliberately leaving flaws in his ‘creation’ – gays being one of them.

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