The confusion over whether the government is or isn’t going to support moves to scrap the blasphemy libel laws has reminded me of the ongoing debate over the government’s plans to make it illegal to incite hatred on the grounds of sexual orientation.
In a bad case of wanting to have it both ways, Peter Horrocks of the Evangelical Alliance told the Today programme this morning said that while he accepted that “everybody knows it’s not really going to be used again,” he was concerned that scrapping the law would “send out a signal.”
Much of the debate over the proposed law against inciting hatred of gay hatred has been characterised in similar terms, and of course we had people arguing against scrapping Section 28 in the recent past on the grounds of symbolism. Gordon Brown is a big fan of symbolism. His plan to re-reclassify cannabis has nothing to do with changing a failed policy (it’s arguably been successful, which is why he may have to overrule his own advisory body in order to do it) and everything to do with sending signals. Brown could save himself all this parliamentary time simply by installing two large neon signs outside Number 10 – a thumbs up and a thumbs down – and light up each one at various times depending on the issue of the day.
The symbolism issue is key when it comes to the gay hatred law. I accept David Heath’s argument that the law isn’t fundamentally illiberal; I’m more sceptical about his insistence that it isn’t symbolic. As Gavin Whenman points out, we already have legislation against incitement; what is so peculiar about gay hate that requires specific legislation? I’m prepared to be convinced here, but my sense is that at the heart of the Lib Dem’s reluctance to oppose this law is a fear that Labour will simply throw it in our faces in the puerile manner that they regularly do over our limited opposition to their (failed and again largely symbolic) anti-social behaviour legislation.
The sad fact is, such symbolism works. It gives the media something they can communicate easily; it makes it look as if the government are keeping themselves busy. But just as Labour’s gimmickry about crime hasn’t actually made anyone feel safer, exploiting prejudices through symbolism ultimately just makes people feel more and more divorced from the political process.