Shoulder to Shoulder with UKIP and Nigel Farage

Careful which political party you join. UKIP, you lose.

Rotherham Council has forced a foster couple to “hand back” foster children in their care on the grounds that membership of the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) made them racists.

I’m not a UKIP supporter or member (although I do think their leader Nigel Farage is an excellent politician and communicator). However, I share totally Farage’s outrage at this decision.

It’s tempting to draw parallels between this case and that of Owen and Eunice Johns, the Pentecostalist couple denied fostering placements because of their homophobic views. I agreed with that decision and discussed it here. But the two cases are very different.

The UKIP couple (we don’t know their names, to protect the children’s identity) were discriminated against not just because they were apparently racist – and there is no evidence that they actually are racist – but because of their UKIP membership which the council specifically and incorrectly associated with racism. UKIP advocates a reaffirmation of UK sovereignty, withdrawal from the European Union, and stricter controls on immigration. This is not racist.

Owen and Eunice Johns, on the other hand, were not denied placements on the grounds of membership of a certain organisation (such as being Christians; or being Pentecostalists) which was then incorrectly associated with homophobia, but because of the explicitly homophobic views they expressed. To have denied this couple placements on the grounds solely of their being Christians or Pentecostalists would have been unacceptable, because there’s a huge variance of views amongst those who share a religion or even a denomination. For example, some Christians will focus on the uncompromising homophobia in Leviticus but some (deliberately or even unconsciously) will ignore those “challenging” passages, concentrating instead on the rather more palatable “love thy neighbour” material.

Religious ideology and scripture is too malleable, and it is too prone to a “pick and mix” treatment, to be used as a tool to infer a given individual’s beliefs. Some Christians don’t believe in God, some Jews eat bacon on a Saturday, and some Muslims love a glass of Malbec. Saying all adherents of the major religions are homophobic is an unacceptable slur and a generalisation. I’m willing to assume the vast majority probably aren’t.

Had there been evidence that the UKIP couple were in fact racist then their treatment may well have been justified, and that’s the issue I want to explore here. That evidence might have been something they said, or even membership of an organisation with a clear racist agenda, such as the British National Party.

I think it’s easier to infer someone’s views from their membership of a political organisation (especially a small one such as the BNP), or their membership of a “young” religion or sect such as the Church of Scientology, than their membership of a mainstream religion. I acknowledge this isn’t a perfect science and I tried to deal with it here.

Small political organisations and young religions/sects tend to have reasonably “crystallised” ideologies, whereas ideologies of mainstream religions have had time to dissipate in the wind. Of course, some followers of mainstream religions will believe all the nasty stuff in their holy books, but it’s still not possible to infer those views merely on the basis of their being a Christian, a Muslim or a Jew. It’s basically a pointless exercise. And don’t forget that many non-religious people are homophobic. They just have a harder time justifying their prejudices.

The interesting thing here is whether the state itself should have a view on their citizens’ views, and in certain circumstances I do think it might be appropriate. There will probably be scare-mongering that this UKIP case is the first stage of some parental licensing system, but I don’t see that happening.

When someone fosters or adopts children – who are by definition vulnerable – the state has a particularly burdensome duty to entrust those children to sensible, moral individuals. Crucially, the state also has the opportunity to do this in the way it doesn’t when a couple have their own children. The state is literally handing over children to its citizens, and this goes beyond the state’s duty to safeguard the general child population.

What otherwise is the point of having such an onerous process for prospective adopters and fosterers, if not to locate decent guardians? How can the state implement a worthwhile system without establishing the character of the applicants? How can the state ignore key information which applicants might disclose (in fairness to Owen and Eunice Johns, they didn’t hide their homophobic views), or information which the state establishes through legal means? And what other standard can the state apply, in determining whether individuals should be granted the awesome responsibility of adopting or fostering live human beings, than society’s generally accepted moral standards – which in this case are coincidentally enshrined in equalities legislation – that racism and homophobia are bad?

My views are no business of the state’s, and it’s for this reason I answered, “None of your fucking business anyway. Why the fuck is this question relevant even on a voluntary basis?” to the religion question at the last census (in addition to ticking the “No Religion” box). And nor are my views any business of my employer’s, provided those views don’t manifest themselves as actions which then infringe the rights of others (and even then it would be the actions that got me in trouble, rather than the views).

Sometimes, though, it is reasonable for the state to take into account a citizen’s views, and I would argue the adoption/fostering process is one of those occasions. What information the state is entitled to access in order to do that is another thing. The views the state should consider unpleasant is another thing. An individual’s level of honesty during the process is another thing. And the quantum leaps of correlation the state makes between certain organisations and certain views is another thing, as Rotherham Council has demonstrated so pathetically.

But in an ideal world racists and homophobes wouldn’t be given children to adopt or foster – and maybe it’s a legitimate use of state resources and state power to get even just a few more centimetres towards an ideal world, provided the state’s resources and powers are used proportionately and transparently. If we’re not even working towards an ideal world, then what the hell are we working towards?

Discomfort, and an insistence on justification, is always the healthy default position when analysing the power of the state over the individual. For those still struggling with state disapproval of its citizens’ personal views, remember that the state is not criminalising these views. That would be barbaric. The state is saying,

“We will deny you the right to foster or adopt because we are concerned at the well-being of a child we are giving you access to being brought up in an environment where its guardians whom we are selecting on behalf of that child have unpleasant views that go against society’s accepted moral and legal standards. Our overwhelming priority here is the rights of the child and not your rights.”

Racists and homophobes might be otherwise perfectly kind and pleasant people.

But if we can, let’s try and entrust vulnerable children to kind and pleasant people who aren’t racists or homophobes.