Now that the Tory party is about to embark on an unedifying internal spat over gay marriage, I would commend students of political history to read Michael McManus’s beautifully written and
well-researched book Tory Pride and Prejudice: the
Conservative Party and Homosexual Reform.
Readers may be surprised to learn that supporters of the decriminalisation of homosexual acts in private included Enoch Powell, Margaret Thatcher, Patrick Jenkin and Ian Mcleod. They were lonely
figures in those early days.
The paradox that the Conservative party faced is best summed up by Guy (now Lord) Black: ‘It was one of those phenomena that, when the Conservative party appeared nationally to be at its most
homophobic, at the very heart of the organisation were all these influential gay men. Although everybody knew what was going on, nobody made it very obvious.’
The case that captured the imagination of the 1950s was the imprisonment, for incitement, of Peter Wildeblood, the diplomatic correspondent of the Daily Mail, Michael Pitt Rivers and Lord Montagu.
To the surprise of the authorities and the defendants, the crowds cheered them on their way to prison.
Public opinion was on the turn, and David Maxwell Fife, not the most liberal of home secretaries, appointed an obscure academic, Lord Wolfenden, to investigate. The Home Secretary did not
appreciate that Wolfenden’s son, Jeremy, was actively gay.
Not surprisingly, most politicians were out of step with the public mood for reform. Lord Winterton introduced a debate on homosexual crime, ‘… This nauseating subject …
fornication and adultery are evils … [nothing does] more evil nor do[es] more harm than the filthy, disgusting, unnatural vice of homosexuality.’ Immediately beforehand, peers had
passed the Wankie Colliery Bill.
In the Commons, William Shepherd MP had this to say: ‘Incest is a much more natural act than homosexuality.’ This was followed by James Dance’s classic, ‘… It was the
condoning of this sort of offence which led to the downfall of the Roman Empire. I feel that it was the condoning of these offences which led to the fall of Nazi Germany [laughter].’
Sir Cyril Osborne added a degree of academic rigour to the debate: ‘The sponsors of this bill [claim] that there are about one million “homos” in this country … I do not
believe that our country is as rotten as that. It is an awful slur on the good name of the country.’ And then, to much laughter, he said this: ‘I have never come across a
“homo” in this House.’
Eventually, after a protracted and often bitter struggle, the law allowing decriminalisation was passed.
The next row was in the 1970s, when the unusual alliance of Malcolm Rifkind and Robin Cook campaigned to bring Scottish law into line with English. They were defeated. The law didn’t change
until the next Labour government.
In 1980, MPs tried again to move the law a little beyond Wolfenden. Many Tories were horrified. John MacKay MP said, ‘I want my children to watch television and to go down Victoria Street on
a Saturday afternoon without having such matters thrust down their throats.’ Reform was defeated, but with Ken Clarke, Nigel Lawson and John Major voting in favour.
Michael McManus skilfully leads us through the horrors of the 1980s, when homosexuality had just become a stick to beat the loony left on spending. Clause 28 became a focal point of division,
insult and misery. In 1985, a speaker at conference was cheered when he crowed, ‘If you want a queer for your neighbour, vote Labour!’
On the floor of the house, Tony Banks asked employment minister Alan Clarke what work was being done to combat discrimination against lesbians and gays in employment. The answer was,
‘None.’ Those were shameful days for the Conservative Party.
This book is a testament to thorough research and good writing. McManus deftly chronicles the long road from hostility, to prejudice, to tolerance and now equality. He shows how imposing a
three-line whip on matters of conscience can destroy a leader, as it did Iain Duncan Smith over gay adoptions.
It is cheering to think that we have come such a long way from 1985, with Cameron being cheered at conference for saying what the vast majority of the public instinctively feel:
‘There’s something special about marriage. It’s not about religion. It’s not about morality. It’s about commitment. When you stand up there, in front of your friends
and family, in front of the world, what you’re doing really means something brave and important. You are publicly saying: it’s not about “me, me, me, me” anymore. It’s
about “we”: together, the two of us, through thick and thin. That really matters. And, by the way, it means something whether you’re a man and a woman, a woman and a woman or a
man and another man. That’s why we were right to support civil partnerships, and I’m proud of that.’
But, rather than end on that spirit of hope and optimism, McManus sounds a note of warning. He quotes Tory MEP Roger Helmer: ‘Homophobia is merely a propaganda device designed to denigrate
and stigmatise those holding conventional opinions, which have been held by most people through most of recorded history.’
Eighteen months later, Helmer tweeted, ‘Why is it ok for a surgeon to perform sex change operation but not OK for a psychiatrist to try to ‘turn’ a consenting homosexual?’
Sadly, Helmer isn’t alone. Before the 2010 election, 32 new MPs signed and 38 were judged supportive of the Westminster Declaration, which defines marriage as:
‘The lifelong covental union of one man and one woman as husband and wife … divinely ordained and the only context for sexual intercourse.’ It refuses to, ‘submit to any
edict forcing us to equate any other form of sexual partnership with marriage.’
It appears that intolerance is still alive and well among some backbenchers.
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