Illiberal liberalism claims another scalp: what hope for dissenting opinion?

Another day and another MP walks into an electoral tornado. Today it is the turn of Andrew Turner, MP for the Isle of Wight. It is reported in The Guardian and The Telegraph that Mr Turner, during a visit to Christ the King College, told a class of A-level students that homosexuality is ‘wrong’ and ‘a danger to society’. This was subsequently posted to facebook by ‘passionate campaigner for LGBT rights’, Esther Poucher, who elicited the comments by asking whether Mr Turner was involved in the island’s Pride event. He said he was not and proceeded to enunciate his wider views on homosexuality.

The dissemination of the comments led to Andrew Gwynne, Labour’s election campaign chairman, calling upon Theresa May to ‘intervene and immediately investigate’ Mr Turner, encouraging her to suspend him for the remarks. Mr Gwynne said ‘there is no place for bigotry and hatred like this in modern society and no one holding these views is fit for public office’. The Conservative Party swiftly made clear there was ‘no room in the Conservative Party’ for such comments. Mr Turner subsequently made a statement saying he was not going to stand in the election, making no mention of the political mêlée. It has been suggested Mr Turner agreed to step aside before being pushed. To quote the Michael Saward hymn: these are the facts as we have received them.

Now, as ever, it bears pointing out that I am neither a Conservative Party member nor voter. Nonetheless, there are a few comments worth making. In no particular order, they are these:

First, as I noted in relation to the witchunt surrounding Tim Farron – that is before he succumbed to the pressure and changed his mind, pleasing approximately no one – it would be helpful if Mr Turner made clear precisely what he was saying is ‘wrong’ here. As I commented then:

Does the term ‘homosexuality’ refer to inherent same-sex attraction, gay people as people themselves or specific acts of sexual activity between people of the same sex? Are we addressing whether we think the existence of such people is sinful, their desires (wanted or unwanted; sought or shunned) are sinful or that their sexual activity is sinful?

You can read that original post to see why this distinction matters. Nonetheless, it may possibly matter in the case of Mr Turner (it might not, but it would be helpful to know).

Second, it would be helpful for Mr Turner to explain precisely what he thinks ‘is a danger to society’ about homosexuality (after he has defined what he thinks is ‘wrong’ about it). On the face of it, this is the harder part of his comment to defend. He could mean something akin to Peter Hitchens comments back in 2002. Commenting on Alan Duncan’s public proclamation as an openly homosexual Conservative Party member, Hitchens states:

By asking for open acceptance of his choice as normal, he has joined the dangerous campaign against marriage and family life which has already done so much damage.

If Mr Duncan’s private life is publicly acceptable, then the entire moral system which underpins our civilisation is up for revision. For that system is based on the idea that heterosexual marriage is the ideal and right form of sexual partnership.

The relentless undermining of marriage by our new establishment has gone too far already. It is a principal cause of loneliness, misery, poverty, social breakdown, crime and violence.

Mr Duncan’s action, encouraged and simpered over by the Tory high command (if such a pitiful thing can have a high command), is a gesture of contempt for the millions who look to the Tory Party to defend and protect the married family, the foundation of human liberty and civilised society.

Now, you may not like that view and you may not endorse it – it may even offend you (as if that has anything to do with anything) – but it does bear a certain logic. If your principled view is that marriage is the building block of society, then it follows that anything undermining traditional marriage and the basic family unit is an inherent danger to society. If you believe homosexuality in some way undermines that building block – even if you don’t think it should be illegal and believe individuals have the right to engage in homosexual practices – you may still consider homosexuality, at least those openly practising it, to be a danger to society. I strongly suspect – though, unless he clarifies his comments, I cannot know for certain – Mr Turner was driving at a point along these lines.

If I am correct that Mr Turner was trying to elucidate a point similar to the suggested one above, he has stated his position crassly and without the, unfortunately necessary, wisdom required when voicing such things. If the above is his view (which, I concede, may not be), it beggars belief that a politician would be so foolish as to state it in the terms he did. When Tim Farron was faced with a similar issue – who it should be noted did not proffer his views apropos of nothing and did not voice anything controversial at the first time of asking (which, bizarrely, rather became the controversial issue) – he tried to tread a careful line, recognising this was an issue likely to blow up in the way it inevitably did. Mr Turner appears to have roundly ignored that cautionary tale and, worse, blundered into comments that would sound harsh even to many who do not affirm all that the homosexual lobby insist they must.

Third, it is a sad state of affairs when dissent from cultural orthodoxy is seen as a reason to lock someone out of public office. I do not doubt Esther Poucher’s LGBT activist credentials – the cause of which I am sure she usually argues masterfully – but she errs when she argues:

It’s terrifying that in this age and point in our development as a society, there are still people that can’t care enough about a person’s wellbeing to just accept who they are.

As a dissenting baptist, my tradition is only too aware of what it is to be locked out of high office because you don’t believe the right things. Only, in the 18th century, the ‘right thing’ was not modern liberal orthodoxy but Anglican orthodoxy, of which my dissenting forbears fell foul. It is for this reason that most dissenters are – apart from other political labels they may appropriate unto themselves – essentially classically liberal in their approach to personal beliefs and high office.

The problem with Poucher’s argument – irrespective of where you stand on LGBT rights – is that it presumes refusal to accept her position ought to lock one out of high office. The subsequent calls from Labour, and actions by the Conservatives, suggest they think the same. Ironically, far from being a liberal and progressive defender of minorities, they mimic the illiberal authoritarian stance of the ultra-establishment Anglican ascendancy of the 18th Century. How wonderfully progressive to emulate the 300 year old error of an established church. At least, I should point out, the Church of England repented and relented of that particular sin.

Fourth, those who pushed Andrew Turner out undermine their own rhetoric. Ms Poucher argues ‘the most terrifying thing is that we as an island consistently vote him in to represent us’. This begs the question, why the desperate need to stop him standing? If his views are truly that awful, isn’t a General Election precisely the sort of place to find that out? Evan Harris – former Liberal Democrat MP for Oxford West & Abingdon – will affirm it. Nicknamed ‘Dr Death’ due to his unwavering support for abortion and euthanasia, he was ousted in 2010 by a coordinated effort of the many Christians who found his view unpalatable. The irony here is that Mr Turner’s views, whatever we may think of them, are being judged by a handful of people as unacceptable and yet, time and again, he has been voted into office. It does seem the people of the Isle of Wight do not necessarily feel the same way, or at least as strongly, as has been presumed.

Fifth, we are on the fast-track to a parliament beset by group-think. If we are to deselect all who dissent from cultural orthodoxy, what hope have we got of a truly representative parliament? Last time the politics and media elite joined forces to tell us how we ought to think, Britain left the European Union. It was deemed a disaster by all those who would have us do as we’re told. The only reason that referendum was granted at all was because the group-think of parliament was certain nobody would actually vote to leave. This sort of campaign to rid us of anybody who does not agree with mainstream orthodoxy will lead over and again to the same type of group-think. Nobody with opposing views will be permitted to stand and thus parliament will increasingly become single-minded because there will be no valid opposition – anyone who dissents will be swiftly deselected or blocked from standing.

Sixth, this same campaign will not only affect those seeking to hold office. We are moving to a position where such views cannot even be uttered. This is highly worrying and should be fought against. What Ms Poucher fails to grasp is that the only guarantee she has any right to voice her views – which I am entirely supportive of her being able to do so – is that the likes of Mr Turner, whom she finds detestable, has the right to voice his too. The moment LGBT activists begin clamping down on those who disagree with their agenda – and that moment has long since passed – they can kiss goodbye to any self-evident right to continue voicing their own opinions. Sure, while the going is good and cultural orthodoxy is on their side, it may not appear so. But don’t forget that the opposite was true as recently as 30 years ago. Contrary to the belief of some, society isn’t on an ever progressive upward march but rather resembles a wave of ups and downs. The student of history will concur with scripture that ‘there is nothing new under the sun’.

Anybody who knows their history is well aware that, far from being a modern phenomena, the positive affirmation of homosexuality is as old as time. Numerous cultures have endorsed it in the most positive terms. If the only history you are aware of stretches back a few hundred years and centres on England, the current wave of LGBT activism may seem as though it is breaking new ground. Nonetheless, an older and wider study of history will show that it is nothing new.

It also seems worth pointing out that the leveller and digger movements – both major shifts in English culture and politics, bringing many of the rights we all now enjoy – were drawn from the same dissenting tradition that those who assent to cultural orthodoxy now wish to lock out of office. There is a clear irony here. The dissenters – who stood against the Anglican ascendancy that forbid them from public life in their day – won the very freedoms that LGBT activists now try to remove from those who stand in that same dissenting tradition against cultural orthodoxy.

The lesson here is a simple one. History tells us that eventually the tables will turn and cultural orthodoxy will change. Such has it ever been. As such, illiberal progressives may rue the day they failed to defend the rights of dissenting voices because the only guarantee of their own right to say what they think is that they support those same rights for others. Given that they have repeatedly failed in this, the only hope they can have is that the ascendancy of the future turn out to be truly liberal in a way they have not been.