It’s a Scandal ...
When parliament decides to legislate on moral grounds, it
can take a very long time.
Gerald Kaufman debates Andrew Holden’s Makers and
Guardian, March 5, 2005
Makers and Manners: Politics and Morality in Postwar
By Andrew Holden
434pp, Politico’s, Ł25
Macaulay said in 1830: “We know no spectacle so ridiculous as the British
public in one of its periodical fits of morality.” Wrong. An even more
ridiculous spectacle is the United Kingdom parliament dealing with, failing to
deal with, or refusing to discuss rationally issues of public morality.
British MPs—and, even, heaven help us, peers—seem to
imagine that there is something especially enlightened about their debates and
decisions on moral issues (no doubt bearing in mind, even if perennially
misquoting, John Bright’s boast in 1865 that “England is the mother of
parliaments”). In this diligently researched book Andrew Holden bears out,
with facts, figures and extracts from debates, my own experience over 35 years
as an MP that the UK parliament is slow to recognise a moral issue, even
slower to remedy injustices connected to that issue, and prone to talk almost
interminable and often unpleasant nonsense before, belatedly and, sometimes in
a botched manner, at last succumbing to the case for justice, decency and
Holden confines himself to issues relating solely to
human beings, such as divorce, abortion, homosexual law reform, capital
punishment and Sunday observance. Maybe, in a successor volume, he will cover
attempts to reform laws relating to cruelty to animals, in which case he will
be able to compare the recent debates on hunting with dogs to the strikingly
similar debates, nearly two centuries ago, about a legal ban on bull-baiting,
which took 35 years of Commons consideration before MPs could bring themselves
Nor, as Holden demonstrates, is it the opponents of
reform who win all the gold medals for talking rubbish, some of it pernicious.
True, he unearths a priceless quote from the former lord chancellor, Lord
Kilmuir, who “warned darkly about known ‘sodomitic societies’ and
‘buggery clubs’”: “Are your Lordships going to pass a bill that will
make it lawful for two senior officers of police to go to bed together?”
Holden refrains from quoting a seriously nasty speech by the late Labour MP
for Ipswich, Jamie Cann, describing with revulsion one particular practice
which he believed unique to gay men, failing to understand that, to a
prejudiced commentator, any carnal act between two adult human beings of
whatever sex could be made to sound disgusting.
However, even courageous advocates of reform could get it
wrong. The Earl of Arran, who pioneered homosexual law reform, proclaimed:
“Homosexuals must continue to remember that while there may be nothing bad
in being a homosexual, there is certainly nothing good ... no amount of
legislation will prevent homosexuals from being the subject of dislike and
derision, or at best of pity.” The fact is that on matters of sexual
morality public opinion has always been way ahead of pompous parliamentarians.
The recent New Year’s honours list recognised the brave
and tenacious contribution of a constituent of mine, Christine Burns MBE, to
removing legislative injustices against transsexuals—reform which has only
just taken place. More than 20 years ago another of my constituents asked for
my help relating to a situation he thus described: “I am a bisexual and my
wife is a transsexual.” His whole inner-city neighbourhood knew the facts
about this household and, far from shunning these partners, welcomed them as
local community leaders.
Holden is up to date enough to discuss the Blunkett
“scandal” (though, sadly, not up to date enough to have corrected his
optimistic assumption that this would not end in Blunkett’s “downfall”).
He cites other MPs, Tory and Labour, who were in the past driven from
political office because of publicised sexual aspects of their private lives,
and implies that, today, they would survive. They would, certainly, if public
opinion had any say.
In the past year or so two Labour MPs’ activities as
gay men have been tabloid material, and both have continued in the Commons
with scarcely a blip. Tim Yeo, once driven from the Tory front bench for
irregular household arrangements, now sits without a qualm on that same front
Yet, while ordinary folk accept that their MP is entitled
to a private life, provided that the law is not broken, politicians remain
ultra-sensitive. Politics, not his constituents, punished Blunkett for the
recent revelations. Michael Howard used, as a pretext for sacking Boris
Johnson from the Tory front bench, not Johnson’s sex life but the fact that
he had lied about it. What else did he expect any man, public or private, to
do other than lie when faced with personal revelations he would rather his
family and neighbours not know about?
Holden quotes the Liberal Democrat MP Paul Tyler as
saying: “Parliament has a bad reputation for legislating in haste and
repenting at leisure.” Tyler could not be more mistaken. On matters of
personal morality or injustice, where much human misery is at stake,
parliament has, rightly, acquired a bad reputation for legislating slowly,
reluctantly, grudgingly, and too often with half measures (as the painfully
slow process of abolishing capital punishment demonstrated).
While Enoch Powell was appallingly wrong about race, his
understanding of parliament was spot on. Holden quotes Powell as saying, of
politicians: “I do not like politicians preaching. We have a very slight
effect on the progress of public morals.” On practically every issue of
public morals, MPs have taken generations to get it right; and when ultimately
they have come round to doing so, they have not been challenging their
constituents’ views but belatedly catching up with them.