Opinion: How liberal are liberals obliged to be?

The Archbishop of Canterbury’s suggestion last week that the state should give some kind of recognition to sharia law raised important questions for liberals.

We tend to believe that what the great philosopher of liberty John Stuart Mill called “experiments in living” should be permitted, as long as they do not harm others. And, surely, the independent conciliation and adjudication agencies (that the Archbishop appears to have meant) and free expressions of faith and diverse family arrangements are “experiments in living” – to be tolerated, even welcomed, as harmless gestures of respect to minority communities in our plural society?

But real difficulties arise for liberals when priority is given to group “experiments in living” at the expense of individual ones – and Muslim civil courts would definitely favour group rights over those of individuals, particularly those of individual women. The harm done by Muslim and other religious adjudications will not be to the rest of us, who can ignore their pronouncements, but mainly to women and children within those religious groups, who may not know (and probably won’t be told) that they have recourse to secular civil law, and so will find themselves disadvantaged. Women may be coerced into and by these courts; they may be divorced unilaterally and deprived of their children; they will rarely be allowed to initiate divorce themselves; and their testimonies will always be outweighed by those of men. The standards of fairness, justice and equality before the law that the rest of us take (almost) for granted will not apply to them.

The Archbishop’s unwise and muddled statement raises many other questions about contemporary religious freedoms and privileges that should concern liberals. Faith schools, for example, have managed to claim various exemptions from the Human Rights Act and a raft of anti-discrimination and education legislation, so that they can discriminate in their admissions and employment policies, and can teach their own narrow variants on Religious Education and sex and relationships education. The prejudices of religious leaders (prejudices rarely reflected in their followers) have prevented the introduction of compassionate and liberal laws that would allow doctors to assist the terminally ill and suffering to die.

Freedom of expression is under threat from, on the one hand, religious groups poised to take offence at any criticism, and on the other, from a Government keen to create speech-crimes such as “incitement to hatred” and “glorifying terrorism”. And an interminable debate about crucifixes, headscarves and other displays of religious commitment rumbles across Europe from Turkey via France to the UK.

How liberals do liberals have to be about all this? Do we have to tolerate the illiberal?

Liberals who value freedom don’t have easy answers to these questions, or one answer that fits all situations, but Mill’s “harm principle” can help us to steer a way through. Schools and other publicly-funded institutions shouldn’t be allowed to discriminate, surely, as there is clearly harm done to individuals by such discrimination (which we have agreed to outlaw elsewhere).

Liberals would surely allow medical professionals some freedom of conscience on matters such as assisted dying and abortion, and let those who want painfully long-drawn-out deaths or disabled babies to have them, but would also legislate to allow patients to find the assistance they need elsewhere.

I believe that though everyday politeness and consideration might prevent us from saying unpleasant or insulting things, this is not a matter for the law and liberals should always defend free speech. Liberals, even the most assertively secularist ones, shouldn’t seek to interfere in matters of dress which may irritate or offend but aren’t actually harming them; if the women who shroud themselves completely under clothing rule themselves out of many professions, they disadvantage only themselves, just as someone who is tattooed or pierced from head to foot might. Of course, we should take into account the degree of coercion involved in the way women dress – perhaps they are being harmed and unduly restricted by their patriarchal communities or families.

Maybe the Archbishop was trying to be liberal in seeking to increase the freedoms of a minority group, but you don’t have to be particularly cynical to think that he has a vested interest in promoting special treatment and exemptions for the religious, and that one way of propping up his declining and disintegrating Church with its anachronistic privileges is to claim special treatment for all religious groups. Does this kind of favouritism harm individuals within those groups and the rest of us? I believe that it does, and that liberals are under no obligation to tolerate or accommodate religious beliefs and practices that are illiberal or harmful or that have negative effects on those of us who do not share them.

* Marilyn Mason is a Liberal Democrat member, and a committee member of the Humanist and Secularist Liberal Democrats. She is also the former education officer of the British Humanist Association.

Read more by .
This entry was posted in Op-eds.


  • Well… *should* we let people have disabled babies if they want them? One assumes that there is a tipping point where the burden is too great to ignore.

  • There is a question here over the differences between opt-ins and out-outs, which the ABC raised in sparking this debate, though I’m not sure I agree with his answers.

    There is no option over whether everyone should be equal under the law, nor over each of our accountability before it, so subborning any individual rights on our universal level of common inclusivity to any religious community automatically challenges our integrity and social harmony. The real question is what those laws are to be and what our inalienable rights include.

    On dress codes, I feel it is unfair to expect to allow facial coverings (note: not head coverings) while ignoring the difficulties this poses for the free flow of communication in creating conversation – motorcycle helmets aren’t tolerated to be worn in banks, for example, so it can’t be expected that exemptions could be given on religious grounds for biometric facial recognition etc, as if anybody (ABC included) laboured under the illusion that people with religious convictions don’t commit crimes. Then again, maybe they do.

  • I find the claim that parents who send their kids to church schools (or, heaven forbid, take them to church on a Sunday!) are “trumping the rights of the individual”. Martin Gill says that “the child is “guided” towards a specific belief and not allowed to make up their own mind.” Rubbish! If this were true every child who has had a church school education would be a Christian, which they manifestly are not. QED.

    All of these children have the right to choose for themselves. The same is true for those taken to church and Sunday School, although clearly they have greater experience of a Christian Community (for better or for worse) than other kids.

    I know two people whose fathers are ordained ministers and have no faith: so much for lack of choice.

    Parents have the right to bring up kids as they see fit. Equally, it is right that the state should ban parents from abusing children, but frankly we need to trust parents to make the decision as to what sort of school they should go to, whether they should accompany their parents to church (mosque, etc), and equally, for atheist parents to have the right not to send their kids to church (mosque, etc).

    Disclaimer: I am a regular worshipper in my local CofE church, my daughter attends the primary school associated with it.

  • Angus J Huck 17th Feb '08 - 7:53pm

    Marilyn Mason wrote (inter alia): “Muslim civil courts would definitely favour group rights over those of individuals,”

    English law does not recognise “group” rights. Unless the “group” in question is a body corporate.

    I think most liberals (with a small L) will agree that we should maintain a single body of law that applies to everyone (including the Queen), with exceptions for members of the Armed Forces, who are subject to a special jurisdiction, and public bodies which are susceptible to judicial review.

    And I think a smaller class of liberals (but hopefully not that much smaller) will agree that people who practice religion should not be allowed to do things that non-believers cannot do. That would include genital mutilation and unnecessarily cruel methods of killing animals.

    On the issue of dress codes, where these exist and are objectively justifiable, I consider that no-one should be accorded concessions on account of religious belief. So Moslem policewomen should not be allowed to go out on patrol wearing masks.

    School uniform is an affront to human dignity, and no-one should submit to wearing it. So I cannot object to Moslems wearing the veil to school, as much as I regret that anyone would wish to do so.

  • Martin S Gill wrote: “On school uniforms the big issue I have is that the lack of school uniforms tends to induce fashion wars and generates tension between the well off and the poor because of the clothes they wear. This tends to manifest in bullying. I found it interesting that a school where the pupils were asked to be involved in revitalising and improving the school raised one of the main issues as improving their uniform and ensuring pupils wore it neatly and proudly (sorry, can’t find the link atm, it’s somewhere on the BBC news website). School uniform provides a sense of discipline and community and prepares kids for later life when they will invariably be required to wear a uniform, either an actual corporate one or a de facto one (i.e. suit and tie).”

    Presumably, by the same token, you approve of Chairman Mao forcing the Chinese to wear boiler-suits?

    Clearly, you believe in coercive social engineering. As a liberal and a libertarian, I reject such evils.

    As a matter of fact, absence of school uniform does not create fashion wars and does not cause bullying (as we see in those countries that don’t have it). But even if it did, I would still oppose it.

    There are no benefits to slavery – at least not for the slaves.

  • “Hardly an appropriate comparison.”

    An absolutely appropriate comparison. The motive for imposing the rule is the same, the effect on the individual is the the same.

    “What your are saying is that despite the children wanting a school uniform you’d deny them that”

    If they want one (something I very much doubt), then they can wear one voluntarily. To make it compulsory implies that some at least don’t want it. You are saying the rights of the minority should not be respected? Should minorities always be forced to adopt the same choices as majorities, whatever those choices might be? Should children be forced to listen to pop music, simply because that is the choice of the majority? Should blacks be forced to become white? Should gays be forced to become straight? That sounds like the kind of argument one expects to hear from Roger Scruton or Adrian Rogers, or from a Sunday school teacher, certainly not a Liberal. I would always deny the right of the majority to impose some personal choice or cultural practice on a minority.

    “How about a really liberal solution. Let the kids decide.”

    Absolutely. Let each INDIVIDUAL kid decide – and choose for him/herself.

  • I don’t think the subject of school uniforms is about trying to enforce conformity, rather it is about learning to understand difference, the whats and whyfores, and the how to deal with it – it is schooling we are talking about after all.

    What should be a more interesting direction for the discussion is the appropriate ways (forums and channels) in which each individual is confronted with the irresolvable dillemmas and unreconcilable differences of life in order that they learn force isn’t ever an answer – if that isn’t a liberal answer and school isn’t the place for such lessons then is it any wonder the wider adult world is faced with the more dangerous, socially divisive prospect of the stupidity that flows from the mouths of illiberal politicians and their dichotomous proposals who grew up in the face of such polarised and polarising viewpoints?

  • Previous contributors have lost sight of the overriding issue here, which is INDIVIDUAL FREEDOM. The right to wear the clothing of one’s choice within reason.

    Of course there are many people who actually want to be slaves. There will be kids who want to wear uniform, just as there are Islamic women who want to wear the veil. But don’t force those who choose freedom down that road.

    In the United States, oppressive practices such as school uniforms and curfews are deployed disproportionately against working class kids, especially those from unpopular ethnic minorities. It’s about imposing “order” upon “lawless” people, something not considered necessary for the middle-class.

    How many advocates of forcing kids into uniform want to impose it on teachers? They’d have a fight with the teaching unions, I think. There was a proposal some years ago to force Job Centre staff into uniform. Quite rightly, the trade unions wouldn’t have it.

    My secondary school did not have a uniform. No-one wore expensive clothes (almost everybody was scruffy), and there was hardly any bullying. Some time after I left, the school introduced a “no punk” policy, and I don’t have much quarrel with that.

  • To claim, as you do, Mr Gill, that the freedom to wear clothing of one’s choice (within reason) can be harmful shows that you are living in fantasy land, like Mr Mohammad Al-Fayed. It is really impossible to argue against something so wildly preposterous.

    It did no harm to me, nor to any of my colleagues at the school I attended that had no uniform. Rather, we all felt liberated and uplifted to be able to wear our own clothes and be treated as members of the human race rather than inferior scum. The school had hardly any bullying. Though neighbouring schools with uniforms had plenty. Indeed, bullying is encouraged for the same reason that uniform is imposed – as an instrument of social control (and degradation).

    I am in favour of lowering the age at which educational conscription ends. I am also in favour of lowering the age at which alcohol can be purchased. The former would have the practical benefit of eliminating classroom disruption. The latter might actually remove some of the mystique about alcohol and increase respect for the law.

  • You have failed to adduce a scintilla of factual evidence that freedom to wear clothing of one’s choice is harmful. And you can’t and won’t, because you know perfectly well it isn’t true. It is, in fact, feeble casuistic drivel and an insult to the intelligence. The real reason for school uniform is to single out and humiliate an unpopular minority (now increasingly demonised by government and media), much as Jews were forced to wear yellow stars in the Third Reich. You know that, so why not be honest enough to acknowledge it?

  • You miss my point, Mr Boyce. Or perhaps you don’t, but pretend to. Human rights may be violated to varying degrees, but the motive for doing so may still be the same or similar. So my comparison stands. But then you say you are not a libertarian, so I don’t suppose you care too much about human rights, as long as they are not your human rights. If someone threatened to cut off your supply of alcohol, then I’m sure you’d be complaining.

  • My feeling is that success in preventing bullying at any school with a uniform policy will depend largely upon the people who enforce said policy.

  • Sorry, was refering back to whether clothing affected behaviour, though I stand by the point that any enforcement strategy must fit with the overall ethos of the institution.

  • If you place two corporals in each class, both armed with baseball bats, you will improve classroom discipline.

    It is certainly possible for the state to change peoples’ behaviour, but the methods have to be very, very draconian for there to be a noticeable effect.

    School uniforms are one of a package of draconian measures which taken together will improve beaviour if enforced with sufficient rigour.

    But is it justifiable for the state to do this?

    Also, there is a taxonomic distinction between teaching and running a jail. Teachers should be doing to former, the Prison Service the latter. Those young people who don’t want to learn should be given the alternative of working in MacDonalds, or picking strawberries. Dumping them in the classroom is the wrong solution.

  • Laurence Boyce wrote: “So only libertarians care about human rights.”

    Oh, so authoritarians care about human rights too? Which authoritarians are you thinking of?

    Martin S Gill wrote: “School uniforms are one of the least invasive and least draconian measures to improve the environment for the majority of the children at a school. What right does the government have to deny that improvement to the kids?”

    School uniforms are invasive, coercive and deeply degrading. They are imposed out of spite and to make life for the kids as miserable as possible. What right does the state have to do this?

  • Martin S Gill: “If we let those kids leave school early how will you prevent them just claiming benefits, they can’t be bothered with education so why should they be bothered with working? Maybe you’d use your two corporals with the bats to compel them to work, or maybe you’d just let them starve?”

    No, we use a thing called the market place. No need for compulsion.

    I think you will find that many young people forced to remain at school would much prefer to be working. Unless you know better, of course.

    Auhoritarians and paternalists like yourself have a tendency to assume that ordinary people are all stupid and need the elite to tell them what to do and think.

  • “But then you say you are not a libertarian, so I don’t suppose you care too much about human rights, as long as they are not your human.”

    Probably the most absurd statement i’ve seen on this site – since when did wearing a school uniform constitute an infringement of human rights except under the most literalist interpretation of the human rights act. Also since when did libertarians have the monopoly on believing in human rights!

    If your libertarian rationale is based on individual rational choice – do you have any information as to when school children can make an informed rational choice on what psychological and sociological affects wearing a uniform or not will have?

    A lot of sixth forms scrap the uniform policy. Phasing out uniforms at later teenage years seems like a sensible point to me although you could argue that a choice based policy could come in earlier. However from earlier statements, it seems to me Sensenco that you are just applying libertarian principles to this issue to prove your own idealogical purity rather than any sensible cost-benefit analysis or study of at what point children can make a rational choice.

  • Andy May said: “since when did wearing a school uniform constitute an infringement of human rights except under the most literalist interpretation of the human rights act.”

    Today, tomorrow, yesterday.

    Presumably, Adolf Eichmann applied a sensible, cost-benefit analysis when he decided upon hydrocyanic gas as the best means of killing people his government didn’t like.

    Clearly, Mr May, you are not familiar with the doctrine of proportionality.

    Do school uniforms achieve a legitimate objective? And are they the least draconian means of achieving it?

    Consult the jurisprudence of the ECHR and you will see what I am talking about.

  • Laurence Boyce wrote: “I’m a liberal!”

    A very elastic term, “liberal”.

  • Perennially Bored 19th Feb '08 - 4:57pm

    Given that uniforms only work when everyone wears it, therefore having choice within a school is impractical, surely the most Liberal approach is to have some schools with uniforms and some without, so that children (or their parents when children are very young) can decide which they want?

    As an aside, I went to a school with no uniform and was bullied badly, partly because of my clothes (I had lived overseas so had a different fashion sense when I arrived), and found deciding what to wear every morning an absolute nightmare at a time when I was naturally concerned with my body and basically wanted to stand out as little as possible. A uniform would have been a blessing – it would have taken away the most obvious thing that set me aside in the first place, and would have removed one of the pressures from my day.

    Also, when you have a uniform you need fewer clothes, as you only need one to wash and one to wear, whereas without one you’re under pressure to look different. This costs a lot more money, which again propagates division in the playground. I realise this is true of Chinese boiler suits as well, but I also think there’s a difference between a uniform worn only at school or work, and one imposed in spare time as well.

  • Marilyn Mason 20th Feb '08 - 7:52am

    So what do you think of headscarfs? Are they a uniform (they certainly seem to be a fashion trend given that almost no Muslim women wore them a decade or two ago)? Should we tolerate them as harmless but ban the full face veil for security and communication reasons?
    Are any of these modes of dress really required for religious reasons? Do they demean or protect women? Aren’t they sending out very strange signals about men?

  • Perennially Bored wrote:

    “A uniform would have been a blessing – it would have taken away the most obvious thing that set me aside in the first place, and would have removed one of the pressures from my day.”

    Would it also be a “blessing” for black children to have their faces painted white, so they don’t stand out and get bullied?

    Your sentiment is one that would unite Adolf Hitler (a great fan of uniforms), Chairman Mao, Mrs Mary Whitehouse and Comrade Enver Hoxha. No mean achievement.

  • Marilyn Mason asks about Moslem women and the veil.

    Well, this is quite a tricky one.

    From my own perspective, I feel nothing but contempt for Moslem women who do cover their heads. At least, for those who do so voluntarily. They are flaunting their inferiority (giving a terrible message to Moslem women who want freedom), and expressing their hated for those women who actually do have freedom and whom Moslems regard as whores.

    No, I would not be in favour of banning it, since I consider that those who actually want to be slaves should be granted their wish.

    But two caveats.

    Firstly, Moslems should not be allowed to do things that infidels cannot do. So workplaces which allow female Moslem staff to wear the veil should not object to infidel female staff wearing non-religious headgear.

    Secondly, children are more likely to be forced by their families to wear the veil than adults. So I would not be too unhappy if schools banned it, at least for younger children (as they do in France).

  • Hywel Morgan 21st Feb '08 - 1:01am

    “Andy May said: “since when did wearing a school uniform constitute an infringement of human rights except under the most literalist interpretation of the human rights act.”

    Presumably, Adolf Eichmann applied a sensible, cost-benefit analysis when he decided upon hydrocyanic gas as the best means of killing people his government didn’t like.

    Clearly, Mr May, you are not familiar with the doctrine of proportionality.”

    Clearly irony is not dead around here …. 🙂

Post a Comment

Lib Dem Voice welcomes comments from everyone but we ask you to be polite, to be on topic and to be who you say you are. You can read our comments policy in full here. Please respect it and all readers of the site.

If you are a member of the party, you can have the Lib Dem Logo appear next to your comments to show this. You must be registered for our forum and can then login on this public site with the same username and password.

To have your photo next to your comment please signup your email address with Gravatar.

Your email is never published. Required fields are marked *

Please complete the name of this site, Liberal Democrat ...?


Recent Comments

    No recent comment found.