Nov 012012
Barclays and Coutts

The fizz has been slightly taken out of tonight’s Stonewall awards,Barclays and Coutts having suggested they may withdraw their sponsorship next year if the charity continues its “bigot of the year” category. This year the shortlist includes two Catholic bishops and one of the architects of the Northern Ireland peace process.

There’s something rather Animal Farm-like about a bunch of people attending a £155-a-head (plus VAT) equality dinner which pokes fun at church leaders, many of whose flock don’t see that amount of money in a week and have families to feed and clothe.

There’s something stranger still about Left-wing journalists complaining that they’ve been let down by Coutts. Doesn’t the very fact they’re now on the same side as an exclusive bank tell them something about how far their Left-wing ideals have travelled?

For those opposed to gay marriage there’s something very unpleasant about this sort of name-calling, which some call “intimidation”, although Lord Maginnis, the target of repeated assassination attacks by the IRA, can probably handle it.

Bombs and bullets may break your bones, but words like bigot do end dialogue, sending the message that an opponent’s view is worthless and therefore not worth engaging with. What it doesn’t do is persuade any of your opponents around to your viewpoint. Every study of psychology and politics produced has shown that insulting the opposition hardens their position, while engagement, moderation and humour can break it down(illustrated by this article about George Bernard Shaw and GK Chesterton).

Why do Stonewall do this? Is it because they’re angry with people they associate with abuse they’ve suffered in the past, they think opponents cannot be reasoned with, or that hardening opinions on both sides suit them? I don’t know.

Certainly many Catholics feel that the time may come for the Church’s views on homosexuality to change. Some support gay marriage, but more have legitimate doubts, based not on hatred but on different ideas about what marriage is about. Calling their leaders bigots is not going to win them over, only further their frustration with liberal elitists.

The reason David Cameron’s surprise announcement on gay marriage angered so many people is not just that many Conservatives oppose change, but that it meant that yet again the three main parties were of one mind on an issue, and the public another. The isolation of the political class from the public at large has been a growing feature of our democracy in recent years, the most extreme example being immigration, where the three main parties have been wildly out of touch with public opinion for decades.

Public opinion is diverse on gay marriage, but the political elite are uniform. In Scotland all five parliamentary parties now share the same view, while the public is split down the middle.

The Yes campaign in Scotland is run by the Equality Network, a sock-puppet charity funded by the government, and if gay marriage becomes law it will be the first great social reform campaign to be almost entirely state-funded. So in terms of winning the marriage debate, Stonewall only has to win over the political class, because no one else has any say on the matter; a fact illustrated by the Coalition’s open declaration that they were going to have a consultation on gay marriage, but were going to go ahead with it whatever anyone proposed.

So where is the incentive for Stonewall to engage with opponents? Where is the incentive for opponents to be reasonable when their opinion counts for naught?

Stonewall also receives a great deal of money from the taxpayer (including poor Catholics), accounting for a fifth of their income, and wields great power because state organisations are keen to be seen as gay-friendly.

But one of the great things about capitalism is that it is the most effective way of breaking down bigotry. A company that didn’t welcome gay, black or women customers would lose them to a rival. People’s natural self-interest forces them to interact with different people and overcome their prejudice. Most businesses do not need the government to make them gay-friendly because gays are customers like anyone else.

But though the market brings social reform, natural self-interest also prevents capitalists from heading too far towards the other extreme.

When the Catholic Herald first approached Barclays and Coutts about their sponsorship, the difference in their responses was noticeable. Barclays immediately denied any association with the bigot award and said they did not support it; Coutts, on the other hand, were unapologetic and gave a statement about “valuing diversity”. The two banks have different customer bases, of course, but the other difference is that Coutts is now 84 per cent government-owned.

Barclays has Catholic and gay customers, so the bank must adopt a moderate middle ground on politics and not fund a culture war. But if you worked for a state-owned bank, just as if you worked for a state-run charity, and were answerable to the man in Whitehall, might the temptation be to parrot all the lines one hears from him?

Government interference ends up corrupting democracy, and it’s this lack of genuine democracy that has made the gay marriage debate so low in intelligence and civility. There are plenty of articulate, reasonable and civilised people arguing on both sides, but they tend to be drowned out by the haters.

Wouldn’t it be nice if Stonewall and other SSM supporters agreed to stop using such words, and in return opponents agreed to drop the dubious “slavery” or “Nazi” analogies. Maybe, dare I suggest, might the leaders on both sides, such as Ben Summerskill and Dr George Carey, agree to meet for coffee and talk over their differences? You never know, they may get on.

Ed West