The distinction between political opinions and philosophical beliefs is far from easy to make. However, in a guideline decision, an Employment Tribunal (ET) has ruled that a commitment to the cause of Scottish independence falls into the latter category and is thus protected by the Equality Act 2010.
The case concerned a former Ministry of Defence (MoD) employee who devoted most of his free time to campaigning for a political party whose principal policy was the pursuit of an independent Scotland. He had risen to senior elected and unelected positions within the party at both national and local level.
He complained to the ET that the MoD had subjected him to direct discrimination due to his philosophical belief that Scotland should stand apart from the United Kingdom. He claimed that less favourable treatment that he had endured included suspension of his security clearance and, ultimately, his unfair dismissal.
Pointing to his affiliation to the party, the MoD argued that his belief in restoration of Scottish national sovereignty was a matter of political opinion and could not qualify as a philosophical belief, within the meaning of Section 10(2) of the Act. That issue was considered by the ET as a preliminary issue.
The ET found that the man’s support and active membership of the party did not of itself amount to a philosophical belief. Such a belief required more than a mere preference for one political party over another. However, ruling in his favour, the ET noted that he had set his belief in Scottish independence above his political affiliations and had built his whole life around his commitment to that cause.
The ET noted that the issue of Scottish independence is concerned with fundamental questions about how people live and are governed north of the border. Sovereignty and the right to self-determination of the Scottish people were at stake. The man’s belief pertained to weighty and substantial aspects of human life and behaviour and was worthy of respect in a democratic society. The ET’s decision opened the way for him to pursue his discrimination claim to a full hearing.