Last edited: March 05, 2005

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 Manners

The Guardian, March 5, 2005

Makers and Manners: Politics and Morality in Postwar Britain
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 kindliness.

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 to legislate.

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 bench.

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.

  • Gerald Kaufman MP is the author of How to Be a Minister (Sidgwick & Jackson).

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