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Friday, February 09, 2018

Boris abandons commitment to LGBT rights

That the UK effectively maintains authority over Overseas Territories such as Bermuda, the Falklands, Saint Helena, the Virgin Islands and Turks and Caicos is an anachronistic leftover from the days of empire. But whilst the situation exists, and laws passed by those territories need approval by the respective Governors, one would expect that the UK Government should apply basic human rights principles to decisions that they are required to authorise.

That is why it was such a surprise that the current Conservative government has sanctioned the removal of equal marriage in Bermuda. It is the world’s first repeal of same-sex marriage rights and its passing discredits the human rights credentials of Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson, who instructed the Governor to sign off on the law.

As Jonathan Cooper writes in the Guardian, one of the brightest legacies of the coalition government (because we should not ignore the contribution of Liberal Democrat Ministers in this) was that LGBT issues became non-party. They ceased to be political, and LGBT equality was recognised as the fundamental human rights issue it is. However, with a single stroke of the pen, Boris Johnson has undermined all that good work:

Theresa May has proudly asserted that all UK citizens should have the right to marry. You could almost feel her pain that she had no jurisdiction over those in Northern Ireland who still can’t marry the loves of their lives if they are gay or lesbian. But the UK does have authority over Bermuda, as with all the other OTs, from the Falklands to Saint Helena, the Virgin Islands to Turks and Caicos. It was the UK, for instance, that demanded they decriminalise homosexuality. It was the UK that took away the death penalty. Both acts were vociferously resisted by the local communities. Of course, Boris Johnson is not homophobic, even if he still thinks the occasional “ribbing” is OK. Neither is Sir Alan Duncan, the minister of state for Europe and the Americas, but in this instance, they have both put the politics of Bermuda above principle.

No one said that LGBT equality would be easy. Politicians all over Bermuda are demanding an end to equal marriage. They even held a non-binding referendum that rejected same-sex marriage. That is why leaders such as Cameron and Osborne stand out. They risked popularity for principle. They provided leadership. Would Cameron’s government, with William Hague as his foreign secretary, have reached the same conclusion as May and Johnson? Unlikely. And there is a genuine concern that equality is to be sacrificed at the altar of referendums. If that is the case, the consequences for the future are daunting.

Perhaps, therefore, something more is revealed by this nasty incident. Not only will it leave the Bermudian LGBT community devastated, it also exposes something about Conservatism in the run-up to Brexit where equality becomes just one of many considerations to be taken into account, and sod the human consequences. Where does this leave the consensus at Westminster in relation to LGBT rights? Perhaps there is less belief in the universality of LGBT equality than we had hoped.

The decision by Boris Johnson to allow this unprecedented reversal of people's rights says a great deal about the priorities of the modern day Conservative Party. Instead of standing up for principle he capitulated to prejudice and political opportunism. It is becoming a familiar story for this government.
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