228,000 people have responded to the government consultation on same-sex marriage, and 50,000 to that regarding HS2, so from a population of 62,641,000, the overwhelming majority did not respond at all. It’s not that folk don’t care about spending £32.7 billion knocking 40 minutes off a trip to Birmingham, or if civil partnerships need a nudge in the nuptial direction, it’s just that most of us are rather busy.
Some however, may not be busy enough. Such was the clamour when Nick Clegg’s office released details of last night’s speech, in which opponents of the ‘equalities agenda’ were allegedly about to be branded as ‘bigots’, that the wording was withdrawn within an hour and a half. The Deputy PM said it was a mistake, just a rogue draft that slipped out, possibly under a door, and that bigot is “not the kind of word that I would use.” Ok, why not?
Bigotry is intolerance to others opinions, and referring to bigots is an opinion in itself. If we have reached the stage where it is not tolerated to discuss intolerance, then free speech is really only free for those who agree.
Clinking glasses to the coalition’s consultation on gay marriage, Mr Clegg was apparently due to declare that “continued trouble in the economy gives the bigots a stick to beat us with…” Hardly incendiary, even in a dry summer, and yet his aides duly dashed out a denial, such was the size of the stick they in turn were hit with. No-one was to be directly accused of bigotry, and neither has the Lib Dem leader been, he is merely guilty just of almost uttering the word. None-the-less, Conservative MP Peter Bone said he should really resign, to a chorus of others tut-tutting on Twitter. Whether you agree with same sex marriage or not, surely the reaction is ridiculous.
Of course, the speed with which this semantic scandal was sanctioned owes much to the memory of Gordon Brown’s brush with one Mrs Duffy of
Rochdale. The former PM famously failed to
field her questions on the economy, or politely pick her up on her reference to
“flocking Eastern Europeans” for that matter, before mumbling “bigoted woman”
into the smouldering ashes of his election chances.
It was Brown’s predecessor, Tony Blair, who championed the Civil Partnerships Act, affording same sex couples equal rights under law. In seeking to secure his own liberal legacy with same-sex marriages, David Cameron has no harder sell than to the barracking benches behind him. There may be ‘bigots’ abiding on both sides of the debate, but surely the strength of our democracy is in the tolerance of others opinions. In an ideal world, our collective task is to ensure that even attitudes from extreme ends of the spectrum have the right to a voice, but within that, taking individual responsibility, so that no voice disrupts the harmony of another. We don’t live in an ideal world of course, but that is not an excuse to stop trying to.