Ok, could we all stop being fabulously dumb now? Please? Since the Guardian shock-horror announcement that Shadow Home Secretary Chris Grayling wanted to “ban teh gayz” (or, in fact, allow B&B owners to turn away gay people from their businesses), I’ve seen even more misinformation than usual fly round the internet.
Obviously a lot of lefties have been crowing about the “same old Tories”, as you’d expect, and imagining that this so-called “secret recording” shows up Grayling as an evil homophobe as opposed to a completely clueless twat, which is what he is. In response to the lefty crowing, a lot of Tories and libertarians who really should know their facts better than this have been trying to defend Grayling’s point. Honestly, this lackwit is not worth your time, people!
First, let’s deal with those squawking that B&B owners are running their business on “private property” and that this constitutes some critical difference between a B&B and a hotel. Well, for a start, what in the name of blue buggery do you think a hotel is? “Public” property? Every single hotel in the land is private property. Who did you think owned all the hotels? The King of the Potato People? The Labour Party?
What these squawkers are really getting at is that as well as being a business, a B&B is usually somebody’s home, whereas a hotel is solely a business premises. Iain Dale has knocked that one on the head very nicely – if someone opens the doors of their house to the public as a business (and there is a perfectly well-established “badges of trade” test to determine whether they’re conducting a business or not) then they have already accepted that at least part of it is no longer just a home. If they’re conducting a trade, they’re subject to the same laws as any other trade.
To add weight to Iain’s point, the distinction between business and home in the same property is recognised with great exactness in tax law, where utility bills can be claimed as a business expense provided they are proportioned according to how many rooms of a house are used in the business. Plus, I shouldn’t think there’s a B&B in the land where the owners don’t reserve a portion of the house for their own completely private use, probably behind a lockable door. So they clearly know the difference between the home part and the business part. The distinction is perfectly real in both a legal and a physical sense, so why should it suddenly vanish in the case of anti-discrimination law?
The other point I think the squawkers are confusedly flapping around without actually expressing is the difference between a company and a sole trader. We all instinctively know that a lot of hotels (though not all) will be run as incorporated businesses, and a lot of B&Bs (though not all) will be run as sole trades. I suspect this is contributing to people’s sense that the two cases are somehow fundamentally different. Well, sorry. They’re both providing goods and services. Both are therefore subject to discrimination laws. We don’t let caterers off food hygiene regulations just because they’re practising as sole traders rather than companies.
Third point, some people are suggesting that B&B discrimination against gay people or black people is no different to B&B discrimination against groups, hen/stag parties, or people with dogs. Well, yes it is. Because there’s a law against discrimination against gay people or black people, isn’t there. If you’re arguing with the law’s very existence, that’s a different matter, but as the law stands, these objections are meaningless. Because there are no laws against discrimination against people in groups. That would be a very confusing law. Ok?
Now, there is a perfectly legitimate libertarian argument to be had about whether or not anti-discrimination law should exist at all. In a perfect world, we might say, it wouldn’t need to. Its existence represents a curtailment of some people’s liberty (in this case, Christian B&B owners) to protect the liberty of some other people (in this case, gay people). At the time the law was made, it was obviously felt that the liberty of the former group was being exercised in such a way as to cause considerable harm to the liberty of the latter group – enough harm to legislate. This is the kind of trade-off law makes all the time. We could have a very interesting discussion about whether the background has changed, whether the liberties of the two groups are quite so unevenly matched nowadays – whether, in short, the law itself is really necessary any more. If all anti-discrimination law were removed, would we really see a flood of “Sorry, no blacks or homosexual couples” notices in little window panes in the suburbs of Bournemouth and Blackpool? Enough to constitute a harm worth legislating against? Maybe not.
That is all very well. But what we cannot do is invent some legally and physically nonsensical distinction between B&Bs and hotels in order to bend the rules for a certain group of people. This is the absolute antithesis of good law, and of the principles of liberalism. Either Chris Grayling was effectively calling for a review of the entire purpose of anti-discrimination law, or he is a numpty of zero understanding. There is no middle ground (and the answer, by the way, is (b), because Grayling actually voted in favour of the current position, and there’s just no way a Conservative government is going to try to get elected on a platform of repealing the anti-discrimination laws).
And, for goodness’ sake, we knew these laws existed before, right? Why is everyone reacting as if we’ve just uncovered the most heinous, oppressive instrument of state control yet devised by man? Why all the shrieking about “slavery” and suchlike? I’ll tell you what, I’m all in favour of restoring our civil liberties, and I’m also in favour of easing regulation on small businesses, but my impression is that there are one or two slightly more pertinent places to start those processes? You know, just possibly?
So, what I’m saying is, it would be lovely if we stopped taking our intellectual cues from a man whose thinking on this and many other matters has all the gravityas* and subtlety of a piano on the head, thank you all so very much, and good day to you.
* Gravitas. Obviously a piano on the head has quite a lot of gravity.