I was born in the aftermath of the Second World War, when families had lost lives, limbs and homes to the Nazis, yet Oswald Mosley and Colin Jordan were still allowed to hold their vile meetings. I grew up in the Cold War, but there was still a Communist Party in this country, it was lawful to stand for Parliament as a communist and lawful to sell communist literature on the streets.
I have no doubt that offence taken against both Mosley and the communists was real and rife, but we regarded individual liberty as an absolute virtue, defending any man’s right to speak his mind, while forcing someone to affirm that which they did not believe was rightly recognised as the hallmark of totalitarianism itself.
How different is Britain now! I was recently in Gibraltar, where the parliamentarians are about to vote on gay marriage. One senior politician told me he would be voting for it but that it was important “not to be like Britain” and that diversity must be protected. By which he meant that there were several active faiths on the Rock and their freedom of conscience must be upheld in statute. He quoted the case of Ashers Bakery.
Since that conversation Ashers has lost its appeal. The judgment itself appears to be something of a nonsense for its premise is that the customers were discriminated against on the grounds of their sexuality. But if a heterosexual couple had asked for the same slogan, “Support Gay Marriage”, on the cake it would have been refused; and if the gay couple had asked for a cake emblazoned “Happy Birthday” it would have been made. Thus it is established beyond all reasonable doubt that the issue was the slogan not the sexual orientation of the customers.
This is a step beyond the case of Adrian Smith, the Trafford Housing official who was demoted at work with a 40 per cent pay cut for stating in moderate terms on his private Facebook site that he did not agree with gay marriage. In the old Soviet Union it was, of course, common to find oneself punished at work for deviating from state orthodoxy at home. But at least here a judge ruled that he had been unlawfully treated.
In the Ashers case, the principle of not being allowed to express a view has been extended to being forced to affirm one – an infringement of individual liberty that would have been unthinkable not so very long ago. The gay rights activist Peter Tatchell himself has condemned the ruling.
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