In successive areas of public policy – “reform” of criminal justice and legal aid, the health service, climate change, employment law, social security – the debate is similarly defined wholly in terms of the need to assert individual rights and choice, to minimise social and public responsibilities and, above all, to roll back taxes. If the facts or scientific evidence do not support this drive, then the facts are changed or the science ignored.
The most breathtaking example is climate change. What fires the sceptics’ passionate opposition is that preventing global warming will become the rationale for an extension of public initiative and government action, which by definition must be bad. Therefore, the science must be wrong. It is the wholesale inversion of a liberal society. The importance of limiting the state, reducing the scope of law and maximising individual choice with no compensating responsibilities defines how science should become interpreted and understood, even if it indubitably proves that global weather patterns are changing.
Even gay marriage and the quest to end tax avoidance are part of this wider trend. Gay marriage is a crucial and socially legitimate enlargement of gay people’s ambitions to live with dignity. Yet the case is rarely made in those positive liberal terms: rather, gay marriage is portrayed as a harmless extension of an unobjectionable entitlement. Faith communities feel that in those terms the proposition is frivolous: their sensibilities are not respected. They feel harmed – and outraged. The row became much more intense than it should.