A lot has been written, and said, in recent weeks about LGBT rights. Three issues in particular spring to mind: the legal ruling over Ashers bakery, the Irish 'Yes' to gay marriage, and a petition to prevent Ukip's LGBT wing from taking part in the London Gay Pride parade.
So for this article, I'm really spoilt for choice for material. The bizarre petition against Ukip's LGBT wing, claiming that the Party is somehow homophobic, falls down on one very simple point. Ukip has a blueprint for what we'd like to do in the UK. It's called a Manifesto, and it's available for anyone to read or download here. I defy anyone to find anything homophobic (or racist for that matter) in it.
So, in order to justify the rather bigoted view that 'if you're Ukip, you can't support gay rights' they cast the net wider. An ex-Ukip member, David Silvester, once said that he believed that flooding was caused by gay marriage. A nonsense in my view, and in the view of pretty much everyone I've ever spoken to in Ukip and outside. His views were associated with Ukip, and therefore he was expelled from the Party. How should right-minded people react to that? Should they say "Ukip kicked out the person who said it - well done!", or should they try to imply that everyone else in UKIP shares those somewhat warped views? In practice, our opponents will always do the latter, flying in the face of common sense. You see, we believe that as an individual David Silvester is entitled to whatever personal views he wishes to hold - however abhorrent - but he's not entitled (intentionally or otherwise) to associate them with Ukip. I may, Voltaire-like, defend his right as an individual to say those words but that doesn't mean I'd want him to be the face of the political party I belong to!
It's certainly true that Ukip didn't want to introduce gay marriage without a referendum, and for various very sound reasons. Firstly, it's a change which is pretty much irreversible. If you make that change, you're making it for a century or more. It's not something to be done on a whim or to be taken lightly. And therefore, it requires the appropriate democratic consent for a fundamental change in the meaning of the word 'marriage'. Secondly, David Cameron introduced it without a Manifesto commitment, so there was no democratic consent even in the sense that it would have been part of a raft of policies voted on at a General Election. And thirdly, Ireland. Ireland's introduction of gay marriage, with the backing of the people in a referendum, signalled that there was a clear and genuine public desire for that change to be made. It wasn't made by one man in David Cameron, or by a few MPs voting in Parliament, but it was made by the Irish people. A decision arrived at by referendum is much more powerful than one arrived at without public involvement.
The intolerance towards Ukip's LGBT wing is saddening but also counterproductive; if anyone believes that Ukip's policies are wrong then they should support the pressure applied by Ukip's LGBT wing rather than alienating.
Then there is the troubling case of Ashers bakery in Northern Ireland, which refused to bake a 'support gay marriage' cake. Let's consider some possible scenarios:
a) A gay couple come into a bakery and order a cake. They are refused because 'we don't serve gays in here'. That was clearly illegal already, before the Ashers case. The Ashers did not do that.
b) A gay couple come into a bakery and order a cake for their civil partnership (gay marriage not being in existence in Northern Ireland). They are refused. That was clearly illegal already, before the Ashers case. The Ashers did not do that either.
The Ashers case concerned the baking of a cake with the words 'Support gay marriage'. I expect that the vast majority of people who are reading these words do indeed support gay marriage. If someone disagrees with you on that, you may well wish argue with them and I believe that would be your right to do so. But now, they've gone beyond ordering a cake. They've ordered a cake and asked Ashers to use their skills to promote a particular political message.
Should the law require them to do so? Let's consider a number of equivalent scenarios:
1. Suppose a bakery were asked to bake a cake saying 'Oppose gay marriage'. The bakers are gay, and refuse to do so.
2. Suppose a bakery were asked to bake a cake saying 'Bring back fox hunting'. The bakers are ardent animal rights activists, and refuse to do so.
3. Suppose a bakery were asked to bake a cake saying 'Vote BNP'. The bakers are opposed to racism, and refuse to do so.
4. Suppose a bakery were asked to bake a cake with an anti-abortion message, or a pro-abortion message.
In my view, the law should not interfere with people's right to hold their own political beliefs. Therefore the Ashers should not have been taken to court for their refusal. And the above refusals, for exactly the same reason, should also be permissible in law. Now, that view is often misrepresented - any suggestion that the legal pendulum has swung too far is immediately treated to the full force of the 'reductio ad absurdum' fallacy. Suggest a tiny change in the law to allow all people to live and let live, and you'll be accused of wanting to go back to the 1970s and the appalling "No blacks, no Irish, no gays" signs. That's sadly the nature of modern political debate: it's sadly easier to smear an opponent than it is to discuss an issue. I try not to do that in politics; I hope that I always succeed.
Interestingly, Patrick Stewart - the well-known human rights campaigner, actor and captain of the USS Enterprise, spoke out on the same subject. He said: "It was not because it was a gay couple that they objected, it was not because they were celebrating some sort of marriage or an agreement between them. It was the actual words on the cake they objected to. Because they found the words offensive. I would support their rights to say no, this is personally offensive to my beliefs, I will not do it."
Patrick Stewart does a great job of deftly walking the tightrope on this issue. All those negotiations with the Klingons and Romulans have clearly come in handy. Meanwhile, the Ashers case is expected to go to appeal. It's an important test in law: can we learn to live together in harmony, respecting each others' rights and beliefs, to find a way that people of whatever background can live together as one? Can we find a legal definition that protects the rights of all?