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You can’t always get what you want

05 May 2011

We should be circumspect about our behaviour in public, says Trevor Barnes.

THE first and last time I went on a demonstration was as a university student. Protesting against the then Secretary of State for Education’s proposal to cut free school milk to chil­dren aged between seven and 11, I took to the streets, shout­ing: “Maggie Thatcher [for it was she], milk snatcher!”

But no sooner had I voiced the mantra half a dozen times or so than I had the uncomfortable feeling of being involved in a lark broadly tan­gen­tial to political protest. It seemed clear to me that, for a large swath of the people on the streets of Oxford that afternoon, this demo constituted no more than a bit of fun — a grand day out.

The memory of the carnival atmosphere all those years ago (and with it the valiant part I had played in the destabilisation of the Heath govern­ment circa 1970) returned last week while watch­ing coverage of the “kiss-in” organised by gay-rights activists outside the John Snow pub in Soho.

It followed, you may remember, the ejection of two gay men, James Bull and Jonathan Williams, from the pub’s premises after the landlady had complained that their kissing in the public bar was offensive.

Whether the kiss in question was fleeting or prolonged is not entirely clear. What is clear is that the landlady (who was within her rights to eject the amorous pair, provided she would have done the same to a heterosexual couple similarly engaged) claimed to have found the display of affection “obscene”.

The ensuing debate, revolving around the primacy of conflicting rights, hung on whether we can do as we please in public places, and whether offended parties may legitimately expect their sensibilities (however unfashionable) to be respected.

It is unlikely that the police, whose time Mr Bull felt impelled to take up as soon as he arrived home, will be qualified to settle the matter to everyone’s satisfaction. Mr Bull’s conviction that “It’s just so wrong” is, after all, likely to be shared by the landlady, too.

It is not the law that needs to be invoked at moments like this, but more imprecise words such as “common sense”, “give and take”, “pro­por­tion”, and, more importantly, the principle that true freedom involves tolerating, within reason, things of which we may personally dis­approve — in this case, public snogging — and, equally, offence taken by the very same.

By coincidence, a similar altercation took place a few days later in another pub in the capital, prompting the threat of another mass demo a few weeks hence. It involved a mother, Lauren Beaman, who was asked by the landlady to leave after she breastfed her seven-month-old baby in a bar that was crowded with “guys coming in to watch the FA Cup semi-final”.

This time, the police were not called in, but a mass “feed-in” has been organised outside the King William IV in Hampstead in the not-too-distant future. The good-natured crowd that will inevitably assemble will doubtless display the same high spirits as the equally good-natured gay kissers.

They will harbour the same sense of self-righteousness, and, with their bonny babies in tow, will win the PR battle hands down, leaving whichever hapless spokesperson is put up by the pub to be cast inescapably as the villain of the piece.

But, as superficially benign as it will seem, it will also arguably be a very modern and metropolitan twist on the old adage that “might is right”. Unfashionable rights are rights, after all — even if the people who feel offended will never seem quite so persuasive as those who are having all the fun.

Trevor Barnes reports for the Sunday programme and other BBC Religion and Ethics broadcasts.

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