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.
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.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated April 10, 2010