I Don’t Understand David Starkey

Dr. Starkey seems to think that religiously-inspired discrimination is fine. I’m puzzled.

I like Dr. David Starkey. He’s intelligent, he’s funny, and he always speaks his mind, even when his opinions are controversial (and I suspect that sometimes he makes his opinions deliberately controversial, for publicity and theatrical effect, but that’s just part of the old man’s charm). His last appearance on BBC1’s Question Time (Thursday 3 March 2011) has got me scratching my head, though.

I’m heterosexual, but I don’t agree with everything that other heterosexuals think because we’re a diverse bunch of people with all sorts of different opinions about all sorts of different things.

By that same token, Belarusians are also a diverse bunch of people (ok, I admit it, I’ve never met a Belarusian, I’m just assuming this). If there were a controversy concerning potential racial discrimination against Belarusians, it wouldn’t be helpful to assume that all Belarusians would necessarily have the same take on it (and if anything that itself might constitute racism). That’s because we can’t expect all Belarusians to share the same opinion on a given issue – even when that issue is Belarusians.

Similarly, I don’t expect Starkey, as a self-proclaimed homosexual, to automatically come out in support of a court case which, on the face of it, seems to protect homosexual rights.

Starkey is also an honorary associate of the National Secular Society. And whilst the NSS has come out in support of the clear secular approach taken by the High Court in this case, again, I don’t expect all NSS honorary associates to necessarily tow the company line – especially someone like Starkey.

The least I would expect from him, though, is a degree of logic.

There were two strands to his argument, the first of which did not make sense and the second of which I found very surprising, given the NSS hat he wears.

Firstly, Starkey thought the State was crossing the line here and regulating the private thoughts of its citizens. Thought Crime, basically. I disagree. Like Starkey, I am a libertarian who believes, amongst other things, that the State should have no interest in what people think, and I have seen nothing in this case which violates that principle. Owen and Eunice Johns didn’t actually get into trouble for having views that were anti-homosexual: it was simply made clear to them that such views could potentially lead to unfair discrimination in the provision of a public service. Maybe that’s a fine distinction, but it’s a crucial one, and it’s one that a clever chap like Starkey should be able to make.

Secondly, Starkey attached significance to the couple’s religious motivation. In fact, he seemed to believe this religious motivation, of itself, provided the couple with an adequate defence and justification. Referring to a previous case of a Christian couple running a B&B, he seemed to believe it would be acceptable for the owners of such an establishment to place a sign making it clear they were Christians and that homosexuals were not welcome there. I find that astonishing. Would he support Muslim B&B owners putting up a sign saying, “No Infidels”? Would he support a business run by Jews advertising for a job on the condition that only God’s chosen people need apply? Is that the kind of country Starkey wants to call home? Is that even remotely compatible with the overall aims of the National Secular Society?

When a high-profile academic with a reputation for intelligence and wit says something that lacks sense, especially on an issue in which he has a personal interest and on which he seems well qualified to speak, it’s tempting to cut him some slack and re-examine your own conclusions. Well, I’ve re-examined my own conclusions and I still think he’s wrong.

Not that I reckon he’s even remotely bothered, but it will be interesting to see whether he keeps his role as an NSS honorary associate.