Thatcher the gay icon

'There are many gay Tory men who would like to sleep with David Cameron but it is Lady Thatcher whose portrait hangs over their bed!'

Central London was awash with celebration the other Sunday afternoon. On Horse Guards Parade Falklands veterans marked the Silver Jubilee of Mrs Thatcher's glorious victory and in the Ritz Hotel the Conservative Leader of Westminster City Council sealed his civil partnership with his fellow Councillor and Chief Whip.

In a vision in fuchsia pink Mrs Thatcher was the only dignitary to receive an ovation as she arrived on the reviewing dais and as she left the Victoria Memorial later in the afternoon (on the arm of Tony Blair) she was mobbed by ex-soldiers and the crowd in a slightly sedater version of Tom Cruise working a Leicester Square Premier.

At the Ritz over the jam and scones, Tory Grandees, ex-lord mayors, young, thrusting Westminster City Councillors and the odd Rabbi joined Sir Simon Milton and his partner Councillor Robert Davis' family and friends to wish them well and to prove how the Conservative Party has embraced the Gay equality agenda. In Sir Simon's speech he revealed that they had been a couple for 19 years having met at the height of the Thatcher Government.

In my experience many of the gay Politicians in the Tory party (a not inconsiderable number) joined the Conservative party and became active during the Thatcher years. Whilst her government acquired an unfortunate reputation for not being gay friendly, the notorious and unnecessary Section 28 (under which no one was ever prosecuted) did serious damage to the equality agenda.

However, whilst the underlying ethos of Thatcherism (based on individual liberty) might well be pro-gay it was Mrs T's personality which attracted so many homosexual men to the party. In a profession dominated by men with dandruff and hair coming out of their noses or women who appear to have been dragged through a hedge backwards (a la Shirley Williams), the pure elegance, feminine perfection, perfect dress sense, and sheer determination to change society drew many gay men to the Iron Lady.

Whilst her government might have had an anti-gay aura there was simply nothing in her personal attitude to demonstrate any prejudice, she appointed gay ministers including the tragic Earl of Avon (son of ex-Prime Minister Anthony Eden) who was one of the earliest victims of Aids.

On the subject of Aids it was her government with Norman Fowler as Health Secretary which faced the issue head on and refused to take a "moral" tone on public information and prevention work.

Since Lady Thatcher was stabbed in the back by a cabal of straight men in 1990 she has gone through her "Norma Desmond" phase ("it was Politics that got small" and has emerged as a worthy successor to the late Queen Mother as the Nation's favourite relic of a bygone era. In that pantheon of gay icons, abused by straight men, that includes Marilyn Monroe and Judy Garland, Margaret Thatcher has it all, beauty and brains.

There are many gay Tory men who would like to sleep with David Cameron but it is Lady Thatcher whose portrait hangs over their bed!

Brian Coleman was first elected to the London Assembly in June 2000. Widely outspoken he is best known for his groundbreaking policy of removing traffic calming measures
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The Prevent strategy needs a rethink, not a rebrand

A bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy.

Yesterday the Home Affairs Select Committee published its report on radicalization in the UK. While the focus of the coverage has been on its claim that social media companies like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are “consciously failing” to combat the promotion of terrorism and extremism, it also reported on Prevent. The report rightly engages with criticism of Prevent, acknowledging how it has affected the Muslim community and calling for it to become more transparent:

“The concerns about Prevent amongst the communities most affected by it must be addressed. Otherwise it will continue to be viewed with suspicion by many, and by some as “toxic”… The government must be more transparent about what it is doing on the Prevent strategy, including by publicising its engagement activities, and providing updates on outcomes, through an easily accessible online portal.”

While this acknowledgement is good news, it is hard to see how real change will occur. As I have written previously, as Prevent has become more entrenched in British society, it has also become more secretive. For example, in August 2013, I lodged FOI requests to designated Prevent priority areas, asking for the most up-to-date Prevent funding information, including what projects received funding and details of any project engaging specifically with far-right extremism. I lodged almost identical requests between 2008 and 2009, all of which were successful. All but one of the 2013 requests were denied.

This denial is significant. Before the 2011 review, the Prevent strategy distributed money to help local authorities fight violent extremism and in doing so identified priority areas based solely on demographics. Any local authority with a Muslim population of at least five per cent was automatically given Prevent funding. The 2011 review pledged to end this. It further promised to expand Prevent to include far-right extremism and stop its use in community cohesion projects. Through these FOI requests I was trying to find out whether or not the 2011 pledges had been met. But with the blanket denial of information, I was left in the dark.

It is telling that the report’s concerns with Prevent are not new and have in fact been highlighted in several reports by the same Home Affairs Select Committee, as well as numerous reports by NGOs. But nothing has changed. In fact, the only change proposed by the report is to give Prevent a new name: Engage. But the problem was never the name. Prevent relies on the premise that terrorism and extremism are inherently connected with Islam, and until this is changed, it will continue to be at best counter-productive, and at worst, deeply discriminatory.

In his evidence to the committee, David Anderson, the independent ombudsman of terrorism legislation, has called for an independent review of the Prevent strategy. This would be a start. However, more is required. What is needed is a radical new approach to counter-terrorism and counter-extremism, one that targets all forms of extremism and that does not stigmatise or stereotype those affected.

Such an approach has been pioneered in the Danish town of Aarhus. Faced with increased numbers of youngsters leaving Aarhus for Syria, police officers made it clear that those who had travelled to Syria were welcome to come home, where they would receive help with going back to school, finding a place to live and whatever else was necessary for them to find their way back to Danish society.  Known as the ‘Aarhus model’, this approach focuses on inclusion, mentorship and non-criminalisation. It is the opposite of Prevent, which has from its very start framed British Muslims as a particularly deviant suspect community.

We need to change the narrative of counter-terrorism in the UK, but a narrative is not changed by a new title. Just as a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, a bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy. While the Home Affairs Select Committee concern about Prevent is welcomed, real action is needed. This will involve actually engaging with the Muslim community, listening to their concerns and not dismissing them as misunderstandings. It will require serious investigation of the damages caused by new Prevent statutory duty, something which the report does acknowledge as a concern.  Finally, real action on Prevent in particular, but extremism in general, will require developing a wide-ranging counter-extremism strategy that directly engages with far-right extremism. This has been notably absent from today’s report, even though far-right extremism is on the rise. After all, far-right extremists make up half of all counter-radicalization referrals in Yorkshire, and 30 per cent of the caseload in the east Midlands.

It will also require changing the way we think about those who are radicalized. The Aarhus model proves that such a change is possible. Radicalization is indeed a real problem, one imagines it will be even more so considering the country’s flagship counter-radicalization strategy remains problematic and ineffective. In the end, Prevent may be renamed a thousand times, but unless real effort is put in actually changing the strategy, it will remain toxic. 

Dr Maria Norris works at London School of Economics and Political Science. She tweets as @MariaWNorris.