The narrative that Britain is somehow exempt from ongoing culture wars is becoming increasingly widespread. Many seem to believe that racial violence, especially in the context of the police, is an American issue. They also argue that Britain is, as a friend put it to me recently, “the best country in the world for LGBT rights”.
The implication here is that we can safely sidestep difficult questions about oppression and institutional barriers in society. But the idea that the UK is a liberal safe haven, a shining beacon that the rest of the world should view with awe, is not backed up in reality.
Britain has made significant steps forward in protecting vulnerable groups in recent decades, but the job is far from done. We cannot ignore, for instance, the hugely disproportionate number of homeless people who are LGBT+ and have suffered untold abuse and rejection.
On a more fundamental level, we cannot ignore the persistent social stigma surrounding LGBT+ identities which means that queer folk feel unable to be open about who they are at work or at home. Even if Britain is “better” than the rest of the world, that’s not enough.
Much of the problem comes down to legal reductionism. Sadly, many seem to be under the misconception that once groups have their rights enshrined in law, their difficulties evaporate. This is simply not the case, and insistently promoting this idea undermines those groups’ efforts to overcome societal obstacles and institutional barriers.
Consider being gay in England in the 1970s. In the previous decade, homophobic laws were repealed, something that didn’t happen in America nationwide until 2003. You might argue, therefore, that 1970s England was a safer place to be gay than the USA at the same time. At first glance, it might seem like they were right.
But these kinds of comparisons are lazy and unconstructive. They ignore the underlying structural homophobia which persisted long after the decriminalisation of homosexuality in England and which continues to this day.
The same can be said about much of the response to recent Black Lives Matter protests. The fact that police brutality occurs less frequently in the UK than in the US has been used by some to dismiss very real grievances surround structural racism in Britain.
Ethnic minorities account for over a quarter of the UK’s prisoners, despite making up just 13 per cent of the population. Issues like these go far beyond crime statistics and the technicalities of sentencing. They are the tip of an iceberg of much wider racial inequality which penetrates every part of society, from education to healthcare.
We must not overlook our own failings on issues of social liberalism. Consider, for instance, this government’s apparent unwillingness to address the issues raised by trans and non-binary people, such as taking the simple step of allowing legal self-identification.
Being better does not mean being good. The fact that the UK seems to be ahead of some countries in some of these areas is not a get-out clause. It is still inescapably true that many people in Britain do not enjoy the social freedoms to which they are entitled.
Racial tensions in Britain might be more muted than those in the US. LGBT+ people in the UK might have more rights than those in Russia. But that does not make it acceptable to downplay the effects those issues have on the lives of millions of Brits daily, let alone to deny their existence.
British liberals must not succumb to whataboutery. The UK should not judge its record on civil liberties by arbitrarily comparing itself to other countries. The fight for freedom, justice and social equalities is an ongoing one.