Liberal-minded people carry around as many presumptions as anyone. But among the most striking is the idea that history goes in one direction; that tomorrow is likely to be better than today; that history is a linear path upwards; and that politics is largely a matter of accruing more and more human rights until such a time as everyone is happy.
The critique of this position is easy to make. It is true that in the period since the 19th century, Western societies in particular have seen a steady increase in standards of living and an increase in the accumulation of personal freedoms. Of course there were at least two very serious interregnums in that steady march – namely World Wars One and Two. And in many non-Western societies (not least central and Eastern Europe during the twentieth century), the idea that history moves in one direction might look especially fanciful.
Still, a version of the progressive fallacy seems almost embedded in the modern Western mind. For such people when a piece of territory is conquered and occupied by liberal attitudes it is then held for all time. It is not hard to see the idea’s attraction. What is hard to see is why it is so little refuted. Or rather, why when evidence emerges for its possible refutation, it is reacted to as though it is no evidence at all.
Our illiberal empire of rights
Take the example of gay rights. In the last half a century the situation for gay people in western democracies improved immeasurably. From relations between people of the same sex being illegal in countries such as Britain, we have arrived at a position where gay people are able to marry, where the visibility of gay people in public life has never been greater and where corporations and arms of government positively fall over themselves to demonstrate their commitment to gay rights.
This last element – a positive bragging about a commitment to gay rights (sometimes described as ‘woke capitalism’) – is one that disturbs some of us who do not share the presumptions of inevitable progress. As Pride day has moved into Pride week and now Pride month there has (in the UK at least) emerged a sense of over-reach. This is a personal feeling, obviously, and not one that everybody will share. But I might as well express how it prickles in me.
I was not delighted a couple of years ago when Barclays Bank decided to advertise its commitment to Pride by decking its branches in rainbow colours and adopting the slogan ‘Love happens here’. I don’t especially want ‘Love’ to happen at my bank. I just want them to make it easier to speak to a real person on their phone-lines and employ more people behind the tills in their branches.
Likewise, when stopping at a motorway service station for a sandwich during Pride Month I did not feel my mood massively elevated by seeing that (courtesy of Marks and Spencer) one of the options was an ‘LGBT Sandwich’ (consisting of lettuce, guacamole, bacon and tomato). I got that instinct that I know a number of other gay people feel: something like ‘enough already.’ I don’t need my love life to invade other peoples’ sandwich selection. And I don’t see any remaining homophobes among the heterosexual population being won over by a sandwich whose recipe is concocted by acronym.
The sense of slight over-reach, or over-protesting, in part comes from the sense that some bigger picture may be being missed. And sure enough this year’s newly-released British Social Attitudes Survey gives a good jolt to this instinct.
The dangers of post-truth journalism
For the new BSA report includes an interesting statistic. Over the last 30 years there has been a steady change in attitudes towards gay sex among the majority of the population. In 1987, (when the AIDS crisis was at its height) nine out of 10 people thought that there was something wrong with sexual activity between adults of the same sex. Each year since then the figures have shown an increasing tolerance of same-sex relations.
Until now. At the end of this 30 year movement in one direction, there has been a change. The data suggests acceptance of same-sex relationships has stalled: there has been no significant increase since 2016. The findings this week actually recorded a drop in acceptance levels. While this is within the margin of error, the BSA data does show that the liberalisation of attitudes has, at the very least, decelerated, leaving around a third of the population in some way opposed to gay relationships.
There might be many reasons for this shift. Not all will be caused by an objection to the M+S sandwich counter. But it is striking that in what coverage there has been of this statistic there has been so little desire to go under the stats and look at potential causes.
For instance, in its report, The Guardian decided to cite Ann Widdecombe’s recent comments on science and homosexuality as one potential factor. Which both overstates the likely influence enjoyed by the Brexit Party MEP and ignores the fact that Widdecombe is not some newbie on the British scene.
In the same vein, The Guardian cites Jacob Rees-Mogg of the ERG who has in the past said that he could not support gay marriage for religious reasons (Rees-Mogg is a Catholic).
Of course, it is possible that when Rees-Mogg and Widdecombe make exceedingly infrequent and somewhat reluctant interventions on this subject that they sway a significant and new segment of the British public. But I would think that this overstates things. And in any case, they made these particularly comments after the BSA survey was published. So it’s much more likely is that bigger forces are at play. But what are they?
Bigotry dressed as victimhood
Again the press coverage is of little help. But there’s one reason that does spring to mind, which is that the Muslim population of the UK doubled in the last decade and has been expected to double during this one.
Lest this be thought to be the observation of some terrible hater, it is worth mentioning the facts. A poll carried out in the UK 10 years ago found that exactly 0% of British Muslims had ‘tolerance’ for homosexuality. Some research shows that this figure may be shifting. But a survey carried out three years ago for Channel 4 found that a majority of British Muslims wanted being gay to be made illegal in Britain now.
Fully 52% of UK Muslims thought there should be a punishment for homosexuality. Compared with only 5% of the wider population. If one community is growing in size, and that community has 10 times the negative attitudes of the wider community, then it would ordinarily be thought inevitable that there will be some impact on the wider society’s attitudes towards the matter. Either because they influence the views of wider society or because as their proportion among the population increases so the representation of their views increases.
But here we return to that liberal presumption about ground occupied being ground held. Amid the Pride Month celebrations and the woke capitalism and much more, I see no special reason to regard the accumulation of further rights by gay people or any other group in society as being inevitable, even where it is desirable.
Indeed, I can see plenty of reasons to reflect that in the lifetimes of many of us now living, we could see a significant deterioration in public (and eventually political) support for the rights in question. But over the years, I have always been struck by how unnecessarily hard and painful it has been to make this point.