UKIP's Christian soldiers
UKIP has been smeared left and right (and by Left and Right). But the party's crazy "Christian Manifesto" is a licence to promote real bigotry and to make the lives of gay people truly miserable. What is UKIP playing at?
I fear that just eight days away from the most important General Election of our time, UKIP may have alienated liberal minded swing voters and 98 percent of Britain’s estimated 3.6 million gay population.
The party has certainly angered LBC Drive Time presenter Iain Dale and a startling number of his listeners, one of whom claimed to have just ripped up their postal vote bearing a tick in UKIP’s box.
And how, you might ask? Another race row? Another sex scandal? Did Farage attack another group of terminally ill people, cancer sufferers perhaps? No, the damage stems from the publication of a seemingly innocuous policy note entitled, “UKIP’s Christian Manifesto”.
With a background of lurid fuchsia New Standard hymn books, UKIP’s message to Christian voters is a remarkable document.
Recently uploaded to the election page of Christian Concern, a blog of sorts that claims to “Bring(ing) the good news of Jesus to the election” by opposing abortion and same sex marriage, it offers a statement from Farage that I doubt he would have signed off on were he not nearing the end of a frazzling series of months, if not years.
“Dear Friend” it reads, “I have been saying for a long time that we need a much more muscular defence of our Christian heritage and our Christian Constitution… ours is a fundamentally Christian nation and so we believe Christianity should be recognised by Government at all levels.”
There follows a series of Christian-friendly policies on education, the family, the NHS, welfare, homelessness, church repairs and other areas where UKIP policy can be tweaked to appeal to that group of church goers who feel left behind by social liberalism.
Among pledges to protect freedom of worship, a ban on sex education at primary level and a commitment to faith schools is a small paragraph titled “Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act 2013”.
Many will remember that UKIP vehemently opposed the change in law; while the party’s 2015 manifesto appeared to accept the change, offering welcome evidence of just how UKIP has grown and evolved over the past two years. Until now.
The document states that although UKIP would not repeal the legislation, which would be “unfair” and “unethical”, it would enforce the rights of churches to refuse to marry same-sex couples; so far, so in accordance with every mainstream political party on the mainland.
But it also promises to “extend the legal concept of ‘reasonable accommodation’ to give protection in law to those expressing a religious conscience in the workplace”; in essence, it would allow those purporting to be Christians to discriminate against anyone whose sexuality offends their “religious conscience”.
I am loath to oppose any policy that would reduce the risk of prosecution of citizens for their thoughts, opinions or beliefs. In fact, not long ago I was defending Farage on the BBC when the media woefully misrepresented his comments to Trevor Phillips on the subject of liberalising obsolete racial discrimination laws.
But whereas then Farage was arguing a principle that both the Conservatives and Labour have supported -- that it should be legal for employers to take on a British citizen over a migrant to tackle shocking levels of UK youth unemployment -- here UKIP is pandering to an insidious element within religion that could lead to outright discrimination towards homosexual men and women going about their day-to-day life.
If this were to come into law it would be largely unworkable. It would be nigh on impossible to determine whether a person held genuine ‘religious conscience’ or just niggling homophobia. Would it only be Christians who would be allowed to discriminate according to their beliefs or would it apply to followers of other religions too? Not only is this awful policy but, more importantly so close to an election, it is terrible politics.
UKIP’s Deputy Chairman and former policy chief, Suzanne Evans, was quick to point out amid uproar on LBC that Same Sex Marriage has never appeared in any political party’s manifesto. She gave the example of a registrar forced against his or her beliefs to marry a same sex couple to illustrate how illiberal current legislation can be.
Her point is not unreasonable but her example fails to reflect the reality that modern day wedding parties are consumers; couples shop around for a priest or registrar that reflects their own wishes, and marriage of same sex couples is already outlawed throughout the Church of England with exemptions from law afforded to all opposing religions.
A more realistic consequence would be that Evangelical bakery owners across the UK could legally refuse to bake effigies of politicised Ernie and Berts ‘til their hearts are content, or a same sex couple could be refused condoms, clothes for their child or the development of their wedding album by a “Christian” shop assistant.
Nobody wants to see religious institutions forced to go against their beliefs but churches are already protected by law. This is not about freedom of religion or conscience; it is about allowing businesses to discriminate against individuals based on their sexual preferences. It is nasty, destructive politics that appeals to a certain angry element of society.
Britain is still, in essence, a Christian country; we have an established church, a head of state that is also the defender of the faith and 59 percent of us define ourselves as ‘Christian’.
But this also means that 41 percent of Brits are not Christians, and that proportion is growing. Church attendance has fallen through to the crypt and culturally Britain is increasingly secular and its population wonderfully, laudably tolerant.
This idea should be shot down not because the heartfelt beliefs of a section of society should be ignored in the name of political correctness but because it has the potential to cause misery, humiliation and ignominy to another section of society.
It would be open to great abuses by outright bigots in the guise of “religious conscience” and it also lurches UKIP back by years in the mind of many when they need every wavering voter they can get.
Like many UKIP policies this one is likely to have been proposed in good spirit but is open to great manipulation. My problem with it is not so much what it proposes but what it represents. This close to an election, what matters is perception, not chasing a handful of evangelists on a moral point.
The UK has moved forward. UKIP had moved forward. The party can be -- and must be -- so much better.
Alexandra is a liberal right commentator and columnist. She tweets @alexandralswann
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