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Issue 52, October 2000

Conservatives and Gay rights

AS THE smoke clears from the Conservative Party conference - along with the haze of front bench pot-smoking reminiscences - the Tories' position on gay rights is more confused than ever.

Anti-discrimination issues have become a key weapon in the battle between the party's 'social authoritarian' and 'social liberal' wings. The Guardian commented that Michael Portillo "made an implied admission that many homosexuals had been alienated by the party's hardline stance on gay issues", when he claimed that the Tories "are for people whatever their sexual orientation". (4 October) Shortly after Portillo's speech Anne Widdecombe, from the Tories' 'authoritarian' wing, leaked details of her disastrous 'cannabis fines' speech, to steal a march on Portillo in the morning papers. Meanwhile, Tory defence spokesperson Iain Duncan Smith hinted that a future Conservative government could restore the ban on lesbians and gay men serving in the military.

In his leader's speech William Hague reiterated the party's support for Section 28, Thatcher's anti-gay law of 1988, which is still in place after Tory peers led the opposition in the House of Lords to Labour's compromise repeal proposals. Soon after the conference, however, Hague was trying to square the circle by saying "I see no contradiction... in saying we respect people of different sexual orientation, but we don't want Section 28 repealed". (The Independent 17 October).


Over the last twelve months, the Conservatives' bunker defence of the section has provoked mounting internal problems. The Tories' candidate for London mayor Steve Norris, attracted twice the votes of Labour's hapless Frank Dobson, but achieved this partly by distancing himself from the national party with a gay-friendly profile. A few months earlier the Conservative MP and rising star Shaun Woodward had defected to Labour over the Tories' anti-gay position.

Among those who condemned Woodward then was 'Tory Boy' Ivan Massow, the 32-year-old gay millionaire and Norris adviser. Nine months later, however, after the Lords vote for Section 28, Massow followed Woodward's example, attacking the party leadership's 'nasty' rhetoric.

Massow, who has made a fortune through insurance products targeted at lesbians and gay men, said that "endorsing intolerance on gay issues would not only be hypocritical, but 'occupational suicide'". (QX magazine, 16 August) A letter in The Pink Paper asked, "Are we supposed to feel grateful for Ivan's conversion? All he is protesting is what most gay and lesbian people have felt since Section 28 came into force". (11 August)

Meanwhile, a Guardian leader column counselled Hague: "he could have forged a fiscally conservative, socially inclusive party which would have welcomed a liberal, gay man like Mr Massow... He could have opted for a British version of the 'compassionate conservatism' currently selling itself at the Republican convention in Philadelphia". (3 August)


The day before, however, Guardian columnist Jonathan Freedland had given a more candid view of the Republicans' new clothes. "The strategy is so blatant as to be almost comic. The three co-chairs of the convention just happen to be a black Oklahoman, a Hispanic Texan and a white single mother... One of the few white males to make it had been Congressman Jim Kolbe... But he has an advantage that outweighed his maleness: he's gay".

Freedland continued: "The trouble is that the image and reality don't quite match... You could see that when the Bill Jolly gospel choir was in full flight: what the cameras picked up was an audience full of white folks, clapping out of time. You can see the same problem in the party's programme... it still commits Republicans to a total ban on abortion and to adamant opposition to gay rights" (Guardian, 2 August).

By contrast, Democrat president Bill Clinton has appointed some lesbians and gay men to the administration. However, the ban on gay people serving in the US military remains. In Britain, Massow and Woodward have fled the Tories for a liberal capitalist party, New Labour, which has a gay rights agenda yet has only enacted two gay rights reforms, both in response to European court action. At the same time, its programme echoes that of the Tory authoritarians in emphasising the superiority of the traditional family model.

Ultimately the fault-line on gay rights runs not just through individual capitalist parties but through the system as a whole.


Lionel Wright

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