X

Create an account to continue reading.

Registered readers have access to our blogs and a limited number of magazine articles
For unlimited access to The Spectator, subscribe below

Registered readers have access to our blogs and a limited number of magazine articles

Sign in to continue

Already have an account?

What's my subscriber number?

Subscribe now from £1 a week

Online

Unlimited access to The Spectator including the full archive from 1828

Print

Weekly delivery of the magazine

App

Phone & tablet edition of the magazine

Spectator Club

Subscriber-only offers, events and discounts
 
View subscription offers

Already a subscriber?

or

Subscribe now for unlimited access

ALL FROM JUST £1 A WEEK

View subscription offers

Thank you for creating your account – To update your details click here to manage your account

Thank you for creating your account – To update your details click here to manage your account

Thank you for creating an account – Your subscriber number was not recognised though. To link your subscription visit the My Account page

Thank you for creating your account – To update your details click here to manage your account

X

Login

Don't have an account? Sign up
X

Subscription expired

Your subscription has expired. Please go to My Account to renew it or view subscription offers.

X

Forgot Password

Please check your email

If the email address you entered is associated with a web account on our system, you will receive an email from us with instructions for resetting your password.

If you don't receive this email, please check your junk mail folder.

X

It's time to subscribe.

You've read all your free Spectator magazine articles for this month.

Subscribe now for unlimited access – from just £1 a week

You've read all your free Spectator magazine articles for this month.

Subscribe now for unlimited access

Online

Unlimited access to The Spectator including the full archive from 1828

Print

Weekly delivery of the magazine

App

Phone & tablet edition of the magazine

Spectator Club

Subscriber-only offers, events and discounts
X

Sign up

What's my subscriber number? Already have an account?

Thank you for creating your account – To update your details click here to manage your account

Thank you for creating your account – To update your details click here to manage your account

Thank you for creating an account – Your subscriber number was not recognised though. To link your subscription visit the My Account page

Thank you for creating your account – To update your details click here to manage your account

X

Your subscriber number is the 8 digit number printed above your name on the address sheet sent with your magazine each week.

Entering your subscriber number will enable full access to all magazine articles on the site.

If you cannot find your subscriber number then please contact us on customerhelp@subscriptions.co.uk or call 0330 333 0050.

You can create an account in the meantime and link your subscription at a later time. Simply visit the My Account page, enter your subscriber number in the relevant field and click 'submit changes'.

Please note: Previously subscribers used a 'WebID' to log into the website. Your subscriber number is not the same as the WebID. Please ensure you use the subscriber number when you link your subscription.

Columnists Matthew Parris

Tired of the bigots, tired of the anti-bigots, my moral certitude faltered

Matthew Parris offers Another Voice

7 April 2010

12:00 AM

7 April 2010

12:00 AM

Over the Easter weekend I experienced something rare among columnists: asked for an opinion, I couldn’t think of one. I didn’t know what to think. Ghastly hiatus. Let’s hope this doesn’t happen again soon.

Sky News telephoned. There were reports that the Conservative home affairs spokesman, Chris Grayling, had been ‘recorded’ (their word) expressing the opinion that Christian proprietors of bed & breakfast establishments might be permitted to refuse admittance to gay couples who wanted to share a bed. What did I think?

Assuming it was true, how should I respond? Sky wanted to send a broadcasting van to our house in Derbyshire to record an interview. I wondered if I should ask my partner to prance across camera shot wearing a pinny and waving a feather duster. Within eight hours, BBC News Channel, Channel 4, BBC Radio 5 Live and BBC Radio Ulster all telephoned with similar requests for an interview.

I looked out of my window. It was a lovely, cold, breezy sunny morning. The llamas were grazing in the field. Two goldfinches were snacking on sunflower seed kernels from the bird-feeder. I tried to work up a head of indignation about some elderly couple somewhere, running a little B&B business, not wanting two gay men to share a bed in their house… and… oh, I don’t know, I just couldn’t get angry about it.

There was also something unpleasantly Orwellian in the lip-smacking way in which my informants were telling me how Mr Grayling had been recorded — caught — expressing his opinion. That Nineteen Eighty-Four feeling was reflected, too, in the un-self-aware failure of irony with which an Observer journalist referred to the view that Britain should not ‘tolerate’ (his word) intolerance. Burn the bigots! To the tumbrels with zealots! Crack down on narrow-mindedness! No to the naysayers!

Could I convey any sense of this amused ambivalence in a three-minute TV interview? Could I heck. Anyway, it wasn’t what they wanted, and if as a media contributor you won’t keep a considerate eye on what a radio or TV producer actually wants, you’ll just end up pissing into the wind.

[Alt-Text]


But for a few seconds I did feel a small, saving rush of something approaching indignation, something approaching an opinion. The indignation was against the new moralism: the growing self-righteousness of the brigade of anti-bigots. Are we really threatened by a few elderly Christians with a crackpot interpretation of some imagined divine code of sexual behaviour? They’re sincere, aren’t they? They’re not bad people. Are we forced to stay in their B&B establishments? Can’t we just leave them alone? Now that Christian fundamentalists are the new oppressed minority, it was enjoyable for a moment to savour a sense of tolerance, large-spiritedness and mercy towards them.

But then those lines of John Clare’s ‘To a Fallen Elm’ that I quote too often — his rant against the enclosures — jogged my arm…

Thoust heard the knave abusing those in power
Bawl freedom loud and then oppress the free
Thoust sheltered hypocrites in many an hour
That when in power would never shelter thee…

…and there rose within me a feeling of disgust at those who persecuted others when they had the power, and would again if they regained it, but in the meantime whine about their rights and their freedoms of conscience. Why should I play a sort of gay Uncle Tom to these bigots? Already I’ve seen my journalism wheeled out by clerics in the House of Lords, in support of the right of the faith community to preach hatred of homosexuality; and I don’t like it. Why don’t I just decide which side I’m on and aim my gatling at the other side?

And for a few seconds I felt a countervailing rush of conviction. As I was gay, I should support gay couples wanting a bed for the night. Full stop.

But then I looked at the Sunday papers — and there was Ben Summerskill, chief executive of the Stonewall Group, a campaigning organisation funded by a registered charity, turning the B&B story into a sly pitch for people not to vote Conservative, and I thought ‘steady on, here, Matthew — the Tories have moved a long, long way. Stay onside and help them move further.’

So I will. For what it’s worth — less, I suspect (or more) than a clip on a media news-commentary show — my judgment is that in striking the balance between state permissiveness and state prescription, there are no absolutes. The domain of moral choice which we rather pompously designate ‘a matter of individual conscience’ we might rather less pompously call the grey area between what we consider obviously innocent, and what we consider obviously disgraceful.

Why do I feel instinctively sure that no B&B owner should be allowed to say ‘No blacks’, unsure whether he should be allowed to say ‘No gay couples sharing a bed’, and sure he should be allowed to say ‘No men with prostitutes’? It is lawful for a black man to stay in a white couple’s home, lawful for a man to sleep with another man, and lawful for a man to pay a woman for sex in a hired room; but any or all of these practices may be judged by some B&B owners to be improper. So where does the state draw the line?

I’m afraid the answer is banal, and can make no advance on that most banal of moral logicians, Aristotle. The state draws the line somewhere slightly to this side of what an overwhelming majority of people strongly feel to be outrageous. So racists are out, homophobes are borderline, and trollopophobes are in; but the situation may change. Watch this space.

Where the state draws the line depends — and in the end entirely depends — on the moral relativities, on three hows: how strong? how sure? and how many? Attitudes to homosexuality being in a state of flux, the moral relativities are inherently arguable. Forgive me a moment of Oxbridge arrogance, but there is nothing more to be said.

So I said nothing, and enjoyed a broadcasting-free Easter. But perhaps in consequence of that fatal faltering of moral certitude, I was tormented all Sunday night (it seemed) by an awful dream. In this dream I was speaking in a debate in which I was taking a stronger stand than I had either facts to back me up in, or confidence to sustain me. I was doing magnificently, ducking (in the nick of time) the gaping holes in my information, and disguising my half-heartedness behind bold phrases and a show of conviction. But the ice was so agonisingly thin. And the speech stretched on and on. And it was all getting terribly tiring. And still I had to talk.

And then I awoke, exhausted. It had been, literally, a columnist’s nightmare.

Matthew Parris is a columnist for the Times.

Subscribe to The Spectator today for a quality of argument not found in any other publication. Get more Spectator for less – just £12 for 12 issues.


Show comments
Close