As leader of the Liberal Democrats, Nick Clegg is well versed in Britain’s LGBT political agenda.
And, while it’s clear that he hasn’t always found sharing a coalition government with the Conservatives comfortable, Deputy Prime Minister Clegg does seem determined to make the most of his position whenever he can.
Luckily, one priority – and a place where he shares common ground with Prime Minister David Cameron – is on lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender equality.
Sometimes, however, Clegg is prepared to go further than the rest of the government and last week he said he was in favor of giving religious bodies who wish to the right to conduct same-sex marriages.
That’s something that wasn’t included in the public consultation the UK government recently ran on introducing civil marriage equality in England and Wales – although it had been in the Scottish government’s consultation.
I met with Clegg after a breakfast for young people at World Pride in London on Saturday (7 July). It was organized by Stonewall, Britain’s lesbian, gay and bisexual campaign organization which has built a reputation on lobbying successive governments for equality.
I started by asking him if he felt his proposal would go all the way or if adding in his additional idea would make it harder to get same-sex marriage equality through parliament.
‘No I don’t because I think it is based on such a simple, common-sense idea which is that it’s not for the government or the state to tell any church or religious establishment whether they do offer gay marriage or not,’ he told me.
‘And in the same way we are not going to force religious institutions to offer it when they don’t want to, we shouldn’t stop those who do. I mean it would be a very, very odd step for the state to say to the liberal Jewish community, you want to do this but we’re going to stop you. On what possible grounds could you justify that?
‘I think the argument is so clear and consistent and simple that it will win the day. But I have to stress it’s my personal view at the moment, it’s not something we’ve formally agreed across government yet.
‘I certainly will argue for it very forcefully and I think we stand a good chance of winning the argument because it is a very difficult one to argue against.’
The other subject making headlines over the last few weeks has been World Pride. Rumor has it that Downing Street is furious that the event had to be scaled down at the last minute – though if so it’s not clear where they place the blame.
I asked if he was disappointed by London’s apparent inability to run pride as a world class event.
‘I am not going to delve into the reasons why the organization didn’t seem to get off on the best footing,’ he said. ‘My understanding is it is being scaled back in order to ensure safety which is the absolute first priority for the organizers and for the police.
‘Of course I regret it’s not going to be quite as swashbuckling and all-singing, all-dancing as was originally intended but I really hope that, notwithstanding people’s disappointment, it will still be a hugely successful day.’
The brunch was aimed at young people and a report last week from Stonewall confirmed there are still alarming rates of homophobic bullying in Britain’s schools.
So I asked Clegg if government cuts made it harder to deliver improvements around bullying in schools or to make sure young LGBT people have other services, like proper youth provision?
‘It is very tough for local authorities who are facing big savings and big cuts to their budgets,’ he said. ‘Having said that just this week I announced probably the most radical devolution of power, including control over money, to our eight biggest cities outside the south-east that has happened in decades.
‘I visited Leeds and Sheffield, where I am an MP, over the last 48 hours and there is excitement in those two big cities about the new support that people locally think can now be provided to young people.
‘I have to stress this is not specifically tailored for the LGBT community, but actually something all young people care about which is job opportunities, training, apprenticeships.’
Away from home the US State Department has been very active on pushing LGBT global rights recently. It’s an area where the UK government has also been involved. I asked Clegg if there were things he particularly hoped could be done to push this agenda?
‘I think some of the recent resolutions and declarations which have been adopted in the UN are a real breakthrough.
‘I remember some months ago there was a new UN resolution on the dangers of homophobia and prejudice and so on which I think was signed by more UN signatories than ever before which I think is a really good thing.
‘At the same time we also know there are, unfortunately, a number of countries where there has actually been an increase in state-supported and sometimes even legislative moves designed to make life harder for the LGBT community.
‘We have been very outspoken through the Foreign Office in objecting to those moves. Whether it is the work we are doing with the US and others or through the European Union we have been very forthright and forward thinking internationally and at home.
‘And in our asylum policy we have ended the shameful practice where people have been deported when it was obvious they were going to face discrimination and possibly even torture because of their sexuality.’
Lloyds Bank was sponsoring the youth pride brunch, starting an ongoing commitment to support Stonewall’s youth work. So, with the political battle about the future of the banks still raging, I asked if there were ways the government could encourage companies to pursue a more responsible social agenda and do more work like this.
‘I think, painfully and controversially and in fits and starts, that’s what we are moving to now.
‘What happened in 2008 wasn’t just an economic crisis, it was a kind of moral crisis as well. And in a strange kind of way, with the passage of time, it has become more, rather than less, obvious that’s what happened.
‘It wasn’t just some over-leveraged computer programs on a dealer’s computer screen in the City, it was much more profound than that. It was a totally lopsided, short-sighted and almost amoral approach to profit and the wider duties banks have got to society.’
He added that the process of rebuilding the structures and re-setting business practices would ‘go on for years and years and years’ as it is not something that can be done overnight.
‘That’s why, for instance, this week I have been announcing new proposals to boost employee ownership. It’s not a magic wand solution in itself it’s just one particular example.
‘I would like to see employee owned firms which cover about 2% of GDP at the moment because I think one way we can instill greater responsibility in capitalism is by giving all employees a greater say in how things are run.’