I never thought I would write these words, but Nick Clegg has nothing to apologise for. That is, nothing to apologise about following the revelation that an early draft of one of his speeches referred to opponents of same-sex marriage as “bigots”.
Of course, he has plenty of other things to apologise for: raising tuition fees, promoting “free schools” and “academies”, colluding with the Tories’ vicious cuts agenda that is destroying the livelihoods of millions of people. One of the few issues on which Nick Clegg seems to have kept to his commitments is same-sex marriage. And he does not need to apologise for accurately describing some (but not all) opponents of same-sex marriage as “bigots”.
There has been a ridiculous level of media interest in this story. It made the front page of the Daily Mail and Daily Telegraph this morning. Tory MP Peter Bone has suggested that Clegg should resign. Given the last British political scandal involving the word “bigot”, it’s surely only a matter of time before a journalist rushes round to Gillian Duffy to canvass her views on the issue.
What makes this whole situation more absurd is that Clegg never used the word “bigots”. The word appeared in the text of a speech sent out by Clegg’s press officers to journalists ahead of its delivery. They later sent a different version (with “bigots” changed to “some people”). True, they are guilty of the incompetence of sending out the wrong version of a document (a mistake which many people, myself included, have been known to make). But the word was changed in the final version, suggesting that Clegg thought it inappropriate. He may even have been responsible for changing a word suggested by his advisors and speechwriters.
Had he used the word, it would have been accurate. I am not suggesting that all people who have a moral objection to same-sex marriage are bigots. However, those campaigning against legal recognition of same-sex marriage go further than simply disagreeing with it; they argue that the law should uphold their own view, rather than allowing space for it to be promoted in the context of free expression and democracy. However, I would not use the word “bigots” to describe all these people.
But some opponents of same-sex marriage are bigots. Those of us who campaign for marriage equality know full well the nastiness of some of the emails we receive. I am often accused of not being a ‘real’ Christian. The Keep Marriage Special campaign have said that same-sex marriage will lead to illegal immigration. Christian Voice have linked homosexuality with child abuse. A Liberal Democrat councillor in Scotland has said it could lead to humanity dying out.
It’s worth remembering what Nick Clegg’s early speech draft said:
“Continued trouble in the economy gives the bigots a stick to beat us with, as they demand we ‘postpone’ the equalities agenda in order to deal with ‘the things that people really care about’.”
In the changed version, the phrase “gives the bigots a stick to beat us with, as they demand… ” was changed to “leads some people to demand…”.
This is a far more important point, which those calling for an apology are conveniently overlooking. Opponents of marriage equality are using the economic situation as an excuse to deny civil rights to gay, lesbian, bisexual and trans people. Some on the left have sadly also fallen for this argument, insisting that we should not campaign on marriage equality because we should be fighting the cuts. Instead, I suggest we need to resist all attempts to use the economic situation as an excuse for injustice, whether that be Ian Duncan Smith’s vicious attacks on the poorest people in society or Philip Hammond’s claim that same-sex marriage is not an important issue.
Of course, we should engage in dialogue with people who have problems with same-sex marriage. I often have done, and will continue to do so. But that does not mean that we should allow a few right-wing Tories and homophobic lobby groups to frighten us into not naming bigotry for what it is.