Monday, 11 February 2013

Gay Marriage: the European Connection

I really like Christopher Booker's column in the Sunday Telegraph. I'm always impressed by his ability to see pretty much everything that's wrong with the world as being a manifestation of one of his long-ridden hobby-horses.

So it was something of a disappointment to find this week that not even he had managed to link gay marriage with wind farms. Some comfort could be found, however, by discovering that instead it's all about Europe, as explained in Gay Marriage: the French Connection. The reason the government is so concerned to introduce this legislation, according to Booker, is that if it hadn't done so voluntarily, it would soon be forced into the measure by the European Court of Human Rights.

I'm not so sure. It seems to me that the main reason why David Cameron, George Osborne, Boris Johnson and the rest of the modernising wing of the Conservative Party are so keen to bring in a pro-homosexual piece of legislation has more to do with the fact that it was their party that made gay rights such an issue quarter of a century ago.

Back then, there were plenty of Tories who loathed the liberalism associated with the 1960s, the chain of changes that had been made in the first government of Harold Wilson, including the legalisation of abortion and male homosexuality, the ending of capital punishment and censorship of the stage, the restraint of racism, and the relaxation of the divorce procedure. In that chain, homosexuality seemed to be the weak link. And why? Because of the hysteria over AIDS, which many on the right saw as a heaven-sent opportunity to mount an assault on the legacy of the '60s.

And so a concerted campaign was launched that had at its centre the passing of Section 28 of the Local Government Act in 1988. The intention was to make homosexuality unacceptable. 'I think Clause 28 will help outlaw it and the rest will be done by AIDS, with a substantial number of homosexuals dying of AIDS,' said the Leicester MP Peter Bruinvels. 'I think that’s the best way.'

This wasn't simply a political operation, but one in which the police joined with great enthusiasm. 1988 also saw a greater number of convictions and cautions for indecency and soliciting by gay men than there had been since the mid-1950s, when male homosexuality was illegal. (This was at the time when James Anderton, the chief constable of Greater Manchester, was talking about gay men 'swirling around in a human cesspit of their own making'.)

There were plenty in the press keen to lend their voices too: 'active homosexuals are potential murderers,' according to George Gale in the Daily Express; 'the act of buggery kills.' And then there was the usual chorus of religious leaders, including the prime minister's favourite, the Chief Rabbi Immanuel Jakobovits: 'AIDS is the consequence of marital infidelity, premarital adventures, sexual deviation and social irresponsibility – putting pleasure before duty and discipline.'

The public response suggested that this was a campaign that might be successful. In the last years of the 1980s, the British Social Attitudes survey showed an increase in the proportion of the population who believed homosexual relationships to be always or mostly wrong, rising from 62 per cent to 74 per cent in the space of five years. It did, for a short while, seem possible that the liberalising trend evident for two decades could be reversed. In one of her last speeches as prime minister, Margaret Thatcher talked about 'the waning fashions of the permissive 1960s'.

She spoke too soon. A fightback, defending social liberalism and seeking to advance it still further, was mounted, primarily on a cultural front, as discussed in my essay Things Can Only Get Bitter (and as explored in considerably greater depth in my forthcoming book, A Classless Society). The result was to leave the Tories looking like the 'nasty party'.

For the current Conservative leadership, this is the legacy they've been left with. It's pointless for those on the right of the party to insist that this isn't an important enough issue when the country's facing years of economic stagnation. It was they, and their predecessors, who made it an issue, not Cameron. He's simply trying to discard the hand he was dealt.

But there is one area where I think Booker gets it right. Because there is a connection with Europe. Just not neccesarily the one he identifies.

In 1994 an amendment to the Criminal Justice Bill was proposed by Conservative MP Edwina Currie that would see the homosexual age of consent reduced from twenty-one (as it then was) to sixteen, the same as that for heterosexuals. Her initiative outraged many in her party. 'What Mrs Currie is seeking to do is to get this House to vote to legalise the buggery of adolescent men,' thundered the Northampton MP Tony Marlow.

Currie's proposal was rejected by the Commons, and a compromise was passed instead that reduced the age to eighteen. Even that was too far for some, and a number of Tory MPs voted against any change in the law at all. What was intriguing was the correlation between voting on this issue and the tendency towards Euroscepticism.

The big question of the time had been the ratification of the Maastricht Treaty, introduced by John Major, but opposed by many of his backbenchers, who staged a series of rebellions in Commons votes. When it came to the question of reducing the age of homosexual consent to eighteen, a majority of Conservative MPs supported the measure: 169 voted for, 134 against. But of the 45 MPs who had rebelled against Maastricht, an overwhelming majority (32 of the 45) voted against any reduction at all. The same phenomenon could be observed in the press, where it was writers on the most Eurosceptic papers who argued against changing the law.

Quite why there should be such a strong overlap between Euroscepticism and opponents of gay rights is surely a question that Christopher Booker could profitably explore.

Thursday, 7 February 2013

What we missed in 1992

I've enthused on here before both about Bryan Gould and about the Inane Ramblings of a History Graduate blog. I'm very happy, therefore, to see the two come together in a counterfactual account of what Britain might have been like had the Labour Party made the right decision in 1992 and chosen Gould as leader, rather than John Smith.

It's great stuff, and I don't think I disagree with any of the conclusions. In particular, I can't argue with the idea that a Gould-led Labour government from 1997 would have been so much more progressive than how things actually turned out. And I particularly like the idea that the Millennium Dome project would have been cancelled in favour of a decent fireworks display. That would have been sufficient.

Tuesday, 5 February 2013

Please don't call me Reg (it's not my name)

I still find it a little disconcerting when Radio 4 news programmes pretend to be interested in popular music. But there they were again today, passing on the fact that Reg Presley of the Troggs has died.

Presley was one of the very best rock stars we ever had. And the Troggs were the subject of the first piece of rock history I ever had published in a book - I wrote the entry for the Rough Guide to Rock, back in the 1990s. That was three decades on from their chart career, but they were a band that made more sense as time went on.

Primitive even by the standards of 1960s garage rock, they really came into their own when the Ramones turned up, doing much the same thing: stripping pop music down to its essential components and forging new songs from the same basic three chords. Which is why their Live at Max's Kansas City album, recorded in the late 1970s, is one of the really great live albums. Not quite at the same level as Jerry Lee Lewis Live at the Star Club, Hamburg, of course, but then nothing is. Maybe somewhere around the Modern Lovers Live.

And they were, at that stage, still capable of coming up with new classics, even if the public weren't paying much attention. The 1973 single Strange Movies, about porn films, is one of their finest records. It's trumped only by the magnificent Night of the Long Grass, from 1967, when it was assumed to have drug connotations. It didn't, of course. 'None of us were drug-mad,' observed guitarist Chris Britton. 'We had enough trouble with beer and scotch.' Instead, Night of the Long Grass was a buccolic dream about sex, just as most of Reg's songs were.

Similarly, I always thought that Love Is All Around wasn't an anthem about hippy dippy love, but rather Reg trying to get off with a woman by pleading that free love was the norm these days: 'If you really love me, come on and let it show.'

In fact, he only really had the one subject, did Reg. And on stage he was a wonderfully lascivious figure, while the Troggs were a joyously liberating force of nature.

This photograph was taken by Harry Goodwin and comes from My Generation: The Glory Years of British Rock.