Gay and Lesbian Humanist

Summer 1997

Terry Sanderson assesses the outlook for gay law reform in the UK following the election of a Labour Government in May 1997.

Will Labour Deliver?

by Terry Sanderson

Now that the euphoria of election day has dissipated a little, it is time to take a closer look at whether the new government is going to be as accommodating to gay people as it appeared.

The Queen’s Speech, in which the new Government lays out its intentions for the nation’s delectation, contained no reference to equality for lesbians and gays, which was a disappointment to many. But then The Sun reported on 15th May that “Labour’s new gay MPs pledged last night to lower the age of consent for homosexuals to 16. Stephen Twigg and Ben Bradshaw – along with Heritage Secretary Chris Smith – also want to lift the ban on gays in the military. And they will fight to scrap Clause 28.” The paper quoted Mr Twigg (whose famous defeat of Michael Portillo in his Enfield constituency has now passed into legend) as saying: “All MPs have the responsibility to fight discrimination.”

Sure enough, on the 17th of May, The Times carried the headline: “Government to review ban on gays in Armed Forces”. It reported that the Ministry of Defence had been told in a memorandum from the policy unit at Downing Street that the issue has to be addressed. The memorandum said, in part: “The Government will form a view on the weight of evidence, taking into account the UK’s laws, the views of the European Court and the Armed Forces. We will look in detail at the findings of the extensive report into the issue carried out by the MoD.”

This sounds promising on the face of it, but we should not forget that three of the new defence ministers in the present Government voted against lifting the ban when an amendment was proposed to the Armed Forces Bill last year. And wasn’t this MoD report discussed – and largely discredited – at that time? And what if the European Court should find against Rank Outsiders – would that let the Government off the hook?

The new Secretary for Defence, George Robertson, has not made his views known, but when Armed Forces Minister John Reid announced a review of the armed forces at the beginning of June, he stated categorically that it would not include lifting the ban on homosexuals. In an article in The Observer on 1st June, Mr Reid said: “There will be zero tolerance of racism, sexism and bullying within Britain’s armed services” but added that he remained opposed to lifting the ban on gays. He said that there were “special practical problems” in the military. “I do not support any arguments based on prejudice, but the armed forces is a unique lifestyle in which unique rules apply. The disabled legislation does not apply to the armed forces nor does the right to political activity apply. You cannot assume that civilian rights apply.”

So, no joy for gays in the military, and the fight for justice has to continue in the European court. Not quite what we expected from Mr Blair.

The other thing that, on the surface, seems quite worrying is the number of Christians on the Labour benches. No fewer than six cabinet ministers describe themselves as Christian Socialists and there is even a “Christians for Labour” group in operation among the parliamentary Labour party. (Refreshingly, the Health Minister, Frank Dobson, asked “How come there’s no atheists for Labour group?” in the Health Service Journal.) Given the aggression and hostility that emanated from Christians in the Conservative party, need we be worried?

Of course those “traditional” Tory Christians came from the Right of both politics and religion. For them Christianity provided a convenient cloak for their vengeance, spite, cruelty and bigotry. The proponents of Section 28 all declared themselves to be operating from Christian motives, and every Conservative voice raised in parliament over the years in opposition to gay reform has been from a self-confessed practising Christian.

The Christian Socialists, though, seem quite different. They seem to come from the gentle-Jesus-meek-and-mild wing of Christianity – which is surely infinitely preferable.

There is certainly no evidence of personal homophobia in Mr Blair, despite the fact that he is reportedly thinking of converting to his wife’s brand of religion – Catholicism. He has no problems with his gay cabinet colleague, Chris Smith (one of the aforementioned Christian Socialists), nor with his Minister Without Portfolio, Peter Mandelson (who is also gay). And I remember spotting Mr Blair and his wife in the audience at one of Stonewall’s fund-raising Albert Hall spectaculars. He has made plenty of friendly noises towards the gay community, but we are yet to see them made good. (And, as a matter of interest, his wife Cherie Booth is to appear before the European Court of Justice to argue on behalf of Lisa Grant, a lesbian who is complaining of discrimination by her employers, South West Trains. Cherie Booth has taken the case despite warnings from MPs that it might embarrass her husband.)

So although there is no personal animosity from the Blairs for gay people, Mr Blair is a pragmatic politician and he will think carefully before unleashing the hounds of homophobia upon himself and his government. He saw what happened to President Clinton in his first days when he, too, tried to lift the ban on gays in the military. Mr Blair needs also to placate his new friends in the tabloid press. They will naturally oppose any attempts at reform of anti-gay law.

The Government is in a state of hyperactivity at the moment, imposing their ethos on the country through legislative changes. Anything could happen, and so I shouldn’t rush to judgement too quickly. However, at the time of writing there is little sign of movement to make good the promises that were made before the election.

Soon it will be time to put the screws on.

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Created : Sunday, 1998-05-10 / Last updated : Wednesday, 2007-12-12
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