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Thatcher’s Britain: The Tories vs. The Gays

Lest we forget, today is the 50th anniversary of The Sexual Offences 1967, which saw the partial decriminalisation of homosexual acts between men in Britain. It was still illegal for two men to get jiggy with Mr Biggy anywhere other than a private home where no one could watch or join in until the Blair government’s sweeping social reforms of the late 1990s and early 2000s.

Even so, Margaret Thatcher played a small but significant – and perhaps surprising role – in bringing about these changes. This is an article I wrote about that very thing for GuySpy in 2013.

You’re welcome.

It’s amazing what rumour, myth and counter-rumour can achieve. Back in February, as MPs debated their legislation to offer equal marriage to all, I quipped (some would say in rather questionable taste) to a friend that Margaret Thatcher must be turning in her grave that gays were being allowed such a thing, and by a Conservative government to boot. “She’s still alive,” came my pal’s reply, slightly missing the joke,” both of us completely in the dark that the discordant diva had only a few weeks left to live. Hindsight’s a wonderful thing.

But as I touched on in my recent assessment of the Thatcher years, the contentious empress was a more complex figure than many would have you believe, as has been the Tories’ views on us generally. Could the love-me-or-hate-me woman (Marmite Thatcher, my dad called her) that ruled the party with an iron rod for 15 years really be the ‘homophobic bitch’ that many gayers have been told to believe is the case?

Well, as with so many aspects of her paradoxical personality, the truth is a rather more complicated kettle of cod. For instance, it’s not widely known that in Thatcher’s first statement on her position on social issues was, in the epochal parliamentary debate of 1967, she was only one of a tiny number of Tories to vote in favour of decriminalising gay sex. This was at a time when the charming Earl of Dudley’s contribution summed up the general level of argument from the Conservative establishment: “I cannot stand homosexuals. They are the most disgusting people in the world. I loathe them. Prison is much too good a place for them.”

Maggie’s rationale was very simple, as her biographer Charles Moore confirms: ‘”Her backing of the liberalisation of the laws against homosexual acts derived from her observation in cases which she had seen as a barrister, which she had considered a humiliating intrusion into privacy and a waste of court time.” And there is every reason to think that the lady was sincere in her beliefs. Michael McManus, the unfortunately named author of recent book “Tory Pride And Prejudice,” reckons that “when Thatcher was a backbencher voting with her conscience and didn’t have elections to win, she was very libertarian.”

However, even after being gay was legalised, it was still considered a source of shame, and Thatcher wasn’t above drawing attention to the much whispered rumour that Edward Heath, British Prime Minister of the early 1970s and the man who’d only recently brought her into government, was an uphill gardener. Indeed, WF Deedes noted in his diaries that during a private conversation with Mrs T at the time: “M seems convinced TH is a homosexual.” And in a Sunday Express interview she phrased her sympathy for the political difficulties Heath, a confirmed bachelor til the day he died, was experiencing in a way that contrasted him unfavourably with herself: “All this is so wretched for him . . . And unlike me, he hasn’t a family around him from whom to draw strength.”

This being politics, naturally ambition played its part as well, and in 1975, after Heath failed to agree a coalition with his Liberal counterpart Jeremy Thorpe, himself later outed as a homosexualist in a sensational attempted murder trial, Thatcher challenged the old sailor for leadership and won. McManus acknowledges that her social attitudes changed once she became PM herself in 1979. As he puts it, “In the 80s everyone just went a little mad.” Indeed, the period from Margaret Thatcher’s election as prime minister in 1979 to her ejection by her own party in 1990 was one of the most divisive in British political history. However, before Mad Cow Disease gripped the country, there’s another little known factoid you may be surprised to learn.

What was one of the first social reforms of the first Thatcher administration? Only to do what the Labour Party had refused to do in their eight years in power: her government handbagged Scotland into decriminalising the act of being gay a decade and a half after England & Wales had led the way. Northern Ireland duly followed soon after.

But in the same way The Iron Lady didn’t make an issue of her gender, she didn’t exactly champion ’causes’ like gay lib either. Mrs T believed it was what you achieved that mattered, not what you were, though she was certainly partial to individual examples of our breed. Indeed, she depended heavily on a coterie of queens during her time in No.10, from advisers (Matthew Parris (above) and Michael Portillo), speechwriters (Ronnie Millar) and most notably, her image consultant, Gordon Reece. Only a gay man could have come up with that bouffant hairdo, pussy bows and the calculated lowering of her voice that made Sylvester Stallone sound like a pansy…

Damien Barr, author of Maggie And Me, reckons ”A lot of people say she’s a gay icon. She was also very camp, you know, the pussybows, the big hair and the big shoulder pads, she was sort of like Dynasty politics for us in the UK.” A bastion of propriety herself, the warrior queen was tolerant of others’ lapses, if a little naive. Once, at a meeting, Norman St John-Stevas rose, and apologised for leaving early. “But Norman, I’m also going to the Academy dinner. And I’ve got two meetings after this.” “Ah, yes, Margaret; it takes me longer to change than it does you.” She was astonished to be told that she must have been the last person in Britain to notice Stevas was ‘one of them.’

Thatch still made him a minister once she assumed power, alongside Nicholas Eden, an openly gay old Etonian earl who also became the first member of her goverment to die of AIDS in 1985. In 2013 his homophobic cousin, Lord Eden of Winton, complained in Parliament recently that David Cameron’s gay equality bill will alter the “deep and profound meaning” of marriage. He obviously has a special attachment to marriage, having been given the right to have two of them already.

Thatcher was returned as PM on a further two occasions, pandering ever more to the right-wing Conservative core in order to maintain power. Amid rising hysteria over AIDS, Section 28, designed to prevent the ‘promotion’ of homosexuality, was introduced in May 1988. It would prove to be one of the most disastrous, counterproductive policies ever introduced by a British governing party, not least because it finally forced the likes of this author out of the closet for good. Clause 28 symbolised the nasty, ugly mood in the air.

The leader of the Tory group on South Staffordshire District Council called for 90% of gay men to be sent to the gas chamber to check the epidemic. Another chilling example occurred the previous year, Capital Gay magazine’s offices were firebombed. When the incident was mentioned in the Commons by openly gay Labour MP Chris Smith, the Tory backbencher Elaine Kellett-Bowman shouted out, “Quite right, too!” She later defended her words, declaring that “it is quite right that there should be an intolerance of evil.” A fortnight later she received a damehood in the New Year’s honours list, a list recommended by the prime minister.

Thatch with Bernard Ingham and/or a potato

Thatcher didn’t endorse the worst of these excesses though. Bernard Ingham, the Downing Street press secretary (above), said she found the remarks by the councillor ‘totally repugnant.’ Nevertheless, in 1989, during the Conservative campaign for “family values”, more than 2,000 men were prosecuted for gross indecency, as many as during the 1950s and nearly three times the numbers in the mid 1960s.

Thankfully, with gay marriages set to take place from next year, we’ve come a long way since the 80s, and David Cameron should be feted for the steps he’s taken to build on Tony Blair‘s sweeping social reforms of the last 15 years.

Steve Pafford

First published: GuySpy, June 2013


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