Note to the image: Simon Hughes
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Twenty years ago, a homophobic campaign won Simon Hughes a seat as an MP. Yesterday, despite denying it last week, he admitted he'd had relationships with men. Is this what the Lib Dems really want in a leader, asks Philip Hensher
Friday January 27, 2006
To Westminster insiders, or to anyone prepared to take an interest in who may or who may not be gay, Simon Hughes's acknowledgement yesterday that he has had homosexual relationships might be one of the least surprising "revelations" of recent years. Twenty years ago, Hughes won an exceptionally bitter by-election in Bermondsey against the Labour candidate Peter Tatchell, who has since gone on to a career as a gay activist. The election was characterised by some truly poisonously snide briefing against Tatchell on the grounds of his sexuality, from both Tatchell's own party and, especially, from SDP party workers. Hughes has recently apologised for the way that by-election was conducted, but what has followed him around ever since is the routine assumption that Hughes, too, was gay. Any gay dinner party which drifts on to the favourite game of listing gay MPs doesn't get far before someone says "Simon Hughes", followed by a mass rolling of the eyes.
So, not a surprising revelation, nor, given the way Hughes has chosen to talk about these matters, is it likely to be welcomed very enthusiastically by gay people themselves. Asked directly only last week if he was homosexual, he said, "No." It seems unlikely that Hughes would have chosen this moment to come out, and one could guess that the Sun, which broke the story, showed him some incontrovertible evidence and invited him to comment. His description of his way of life does not seem, in any way, a confident or positive one - "Nobody has a perfect life ... People make mistakes and have to go public sometimes on things they may have wished to keep private.
"It would be very sad," Hughes continued, "if people who have always been single or who are homosexual felt that their sexuality prevented them from holding high office." That is certainly true. But what about people who have always lied about being homosexual? In the current climate, shouldn't an electorate be entitled to hold doubts about people who, by strenuously maintaining secrecy and making an issue out of their conspicuous shame, make themselves a clear target for blackmail?
The "outing" against their will of two candidates for the leadership of the Liberal Democrats now has a distinctly old-fashioned flavour. Mark Oaten's "affair" with a male prostitute, revealed last week, or Hughes's "chatline" misdemeanours; they just should not happen any more. Twenty or 30 years ago, homosexual MPs were more or less obliged to lead the life of Oaten or Hughes; on the one hand marrying some concupiscent or tragically ignorant woman or, on the other, maintaining perfectly seriously to the constituency that they just had not found the right girl.
In those circumstances, gay politicians managed as best they could. Some, like Tom Driberg, lived lives of extraordinary boldness - Driberg is reputed, walking over Hungerford foot bridge in a dense London fog, to have dropped to his knees before a surprised but ultimately rather grateful policeman. Others, such as Margaret Thatcher's PPS, Peter Morrison, were quietly desperate, largely derided in crude terms; it was of him that Jeremy Hanley remarked that at last Margaret had got herself an aide who knew how to carry a handbag.
There were always rather more of them than the public could have guessed. Matthew Parris this week said, "There were plenty of homosexual MPs when I was in the house ... In the days when, as an MP, I used to cruise on Clapham Common, I bumped into at least one colleague." Parris presents it as all rather jolly in its lecherously clandestine way, but that kind of life in practice offered only anonymous support - the idea of two gay MPs having an affair with each other is, somehow, immediately implausible. Many such figures were horribly bullied by their colleagues. The Scottish Labour MP Gordon McMaster, who committed suicide in 1997, he accused fellow Scottish MPs in his suicide note of ostracising and ridiculing him. I remember seeing the poor man in London gay clubs, a lonely, embarrassed and obviously shame-ridden figure, his eyes flickering round as if he were about to be exposed at any moment.
This kind of secret existence was probably inevitable until recent years. One could not expect that legislators would be quick to make a positive feature, when appealing to the electorate, of a way of life that was illegal until 1967. It might be argued that, until recent years, an able candidate would find his or her electoral message being lost in a welter of idle speculation about his private life and so could be justified in the suppression of the truth, or even a suggestion of the false.
That can hardly be justified any longer. The first gay MP to discuss his sexuality in public, Chris Smith, did so over 20 years ago. Since then, quite a few have come out once in parliament, and, increasingly, have stood for parliament as gay men or women, without ever having disguised or lied about their sexuality in their private lives. Now, they exist on all sides of the political spectrum. Nick Herbert, the gay Tory MP for Arundel & South Downs, won a seat at the last election with almost no fuss. In the current issue of Gay Times, four MPs are cheerfully photographed in shirtsleeves on the dancefloor; there is no air of shame, or even what there would have been five years ago - bravery. And there are plenty of others the magazine could have chosen to feature.
There is no doubt that life as a gay MP is now perfectly possible, whatever party you represent or whatever views you hold. Of course, there is ridicule and prejudice to face - the House of Commons is a very robust arena, and parts of it are quite frank about expressing their views on gay people, racial minorities or women.
But we are fast approaching the point where the electorate and a politician's colleagues are entitled to ask what justifies a politician leading an effectively clandestine life. Any reasonable person will turn away from Oaten's behaviour with some distaste; making a parade of his family for political gain and behaving in a way that is calculated to involve a wife and two small children in a very public humiliation, is simply inexcusable behaviour.
And perhaps the Lib Dems should be asking themselves whether they should really be thinking of electing a man as leader who would clearly prefer still to be keeping these apparently shameful secrets, who gives the impression of regarding his affairs with men as "mistakes", who, until last week, was lying in response to a perfectly reasonable question on the subject and who compares his sexuality to "an albatross round [his] neck". Whatever dubious psychological state of mind these peculiar comments reveal, the suspicion cannot be avoided that here is someone who might have been vulnerable to pressure from some very unsavoury quarters. Is someone who has chosen to live most of a life in shame and shrilly defended "privacy" really a safe person to put in charge of a political party?
Hughes is right: the fact of someone being homosexual should not debar them from holding high political office. But it ought to be someone who regards their homosexuality just as a heterosexual regards their sexuality: unremarkable, uninteresting to strangers, not worth talking about and, for many reasons, not worth thinking about concealing or lying about.
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