This censored isle

Our very British attitude to porn.

There's a reason that the story of King Canute is so familiar.  The image of a monarch vainly trying to hold back the inflowing sea resonates strongly because that is the way in which authorities in this country have always behaved.  Nowhere is this clearer than in the history of official attempts to to stem the tide of (usually foreign) erotic literature and film. 

In the legend, Canute was trying to make the point that, king though he was, he remained a mortal.  He was demonstrating the folly of his courtiers' flattery.  His successors, though, have rarely demonstrated such wisdom.  No doubt because Great Britain is an island, the authorities -- politicians, police, customs officials, film censors -- have tended to behave as though it is possible to preseve the country inviolate: a censored isle set in a sinful sea.  They may only have been delaying the inevitable, but it was at times a very long delay.

In the repressive 1950s, works by such authors as Henry Miller had to be printed abroad and smuggled into Brtain, where they were liable to be seized by the police.  Copies of Madame Bovary and even Moll Flanders were burned on the orders of overzealous local magistrates, along with more than 30,000 "saucy" seaside postcards in 1953 alone.  A new Obscene Publications Act in 1959 introduced a defence of artistic merit, famously tested the following year with the prosecution of Lady Chatterley's Lover, DH Lawrence's novel first published (in Italy) in 1928.  That case is remembered as a great watershed in the history of British censorship, the moment when a new age of permissiveness dawned, or else when the floodgates opened to an unstoppable tide of pornography and moral degeneration.  But it can equally be seen as one stage in a much longer struggle for control over what people in the UK were allowed to read, see and even think.

Looking back, the forces of liberalisation might seem to have prevailed.  One wonders what Mervyn Griffith-Jones QC, who asked the Lady Chatterley jury whether they would want their wives or servants to read the book, would have made of Fifty Shades of Grey, to say nothing of the hardcore material that can be accessed in almost every modern home with a couple of clicks of a mouse.  But the censors did not simply give up in 1960.  They merely turned their attention to other things. 

Offical censorship was always imposed in the name of public standards of decency, yet the British public has often been more liberal than their rulers.  One of the striking features of prosecutions under the Obscene Publications Act, which are now extremely rare, has been a repeated reluctance by juries to convict.  The Lady Chatterley case was thrown out.  So, at the start of this year, was the attempt to convict Michael Peacock for distributing videos featuring anal fisting.  It was because it became almost impossible to secure convictions, rather than any official permissiveness, that OPA prosecutions of the written word died out. (One problem, according to the late John Mortimer, who acted as defence barrister in OPA cases, is that it was difficult to find anyone who would admit to having been "depraved and corrupted" by reading a book.)  As for the moving image, the British Board of Film Classification conducts regular surveys to check that its guidelines bear at least an approximate relationship to popular taste, and usually discovers that adults are less horrified by depictions of sex and nudity than they expected.

The BBFC held the line against explicit sexual imagery until the late 1990s.  Thirty years after hardcore pornography became widely available in Europe it was still officially banned in Britain, even from sale in sex shops.  An experiment in liberalisation was eventually given the green light by Michael Howard as Home Secretary.  The theory, as the former BBFC director James Ferman told a 1998 edition of Panorama, was to "draw the line between sexual portrayals which are simply within the range of normal sexual practice and sexual portrayals which are degrading particularly bestiality or lavatorial practices or force, or violence or restraint".  But, in a foretaste of the moralism that was to come, the incoming Labour Home Secretary Jack Straw called a halt, describing Ferman's attempt to distinguish standard porn fare from the extreme variety as "circular and risible".

Ironically, that is precisely what his government went on to do in its 2008 legislation against "extreme pornography", defined as anything involving animals, dead bodies or threat of "serious injury to a person's anus, breasts or genitals".  The BBFC, for its part, now allows sex to be shown in "sex works" (and arthouse movies, preferably in French, intended for viewing by an elite audience of middle class film buffs) but continues to cut scenes of sexual violence and other material that it considers obscene, including fisting and urination. (In one typical case, a distributor was offered a choice between keeping the sex and removing the urination, and keeping the urination but removing the sex.  They couldn't have both.)

That the forces of official censorship have moved from banning works of literature featuring rude words (or even seaside postcards) to cutting out scenes of erotic strangulation from porn videos may suggest that there has been a headlong retreat from the overt moralism of the 1950s.  Now censors and proponents of censorship cite potential harm to viewers, rather than public morality, as justification for banning things.  Harm, though, remains ill-defined, and British censorship remains by modern Western standards fairly strict.  Last year it banned outright a US horror film The Bunny Game, citing its "strict policy on sexual violence and rape".  The DVD is now on sale in the USA and in continental Europe, with "Banned in Britain" featuring strongly in the publicity material.  Are British people uniquely vulnerable to such harm?

It seems that someone thinks so.  The view from the Daily Mail has always been of a conspiracy by liberal elites to unleash a tide of depravity on an innocent and unwilling British populace -- with only themselves, or eccentric campaigners such as the late Mary Whitehouse, standing between ordinary people and the deluge of filth.  Yet official censoriousness and desire for control has been remarkably consistent.  Regulated sectors such as broadcasting and adversing still enforce standards of "decency" that are, by international standards, remarkably strict.  The interent might, as yet, be beyond the censors' control.  That's what makes it so frightening, and so tempting for lawmakers.  But the Canutes haven't given up just yet.

Photograph: Getty Images
Belief, disbelief and beyond belief
David Young
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The Tories are the zombie party: with an ageing, falling membership, still they stagger on to victory

One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.”

All football clubs have “ultras” – and, increasingly, political parties do, too: although, in the case of political parties, their loudest and angriest supporters are mostly found on the internet. The SNP got there first: in the early days of email, journalists at the Scotsman used to receive bilious missives complaining about its coverage – or, on occasion, lack of coverage – of what the Scottish National Party was up to. The rest soon followed, with Ukip, the Labour Party and even the crushed Liberal Democrats now boasting a furious electronic horde.

The exception is the Conservative Party. Britain’s table-topping team might have its first majority in 18 years and is widely expected in Westminster to remain in power for another decade. But it doesn’t have any fans. The party’s conference in Manchester, like Labour’s in Brighton, will be full to bursting. But where the Labour shindig is chock-full of members, trade unionists and hangers-on from the charitable sector, the Conservative gathering is a more corporate affair: at the fringes I attended last year, lobbyists outnumbered members by four to one. At one, the journalist Peter Oborne demanded to know how many people in the room were party members. It was standing room only – but just four people put their hands up.

During Grant Shapps’s stint at Conservative headquarters, serious attempts were made to revive membership. Shapps, a figure who is underrated because of his online blunders, and his co-chair Andrew Feldman were able to reverse some of the decline, but they were running just to stand still. Some of the biggest increases in membership came in urban centres where the Tories are not in contention to win a seat.

All this made the 2015 election win the triumph of a husk. A party with a membership in long-term and perhaps irreversible decline, which in many seats had no activists at all, delivered crushing defeats to its opponents across England and Wales.

Like José Mourinho’s sides, which, he once boasted, won “without the ball”, the Conservatives won without members. In Cumbria the party had no ground campaign and two paper candidates. But letters written by the Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, were posted to every household where someone was employed making Trident submarines, warning that their jobs would be under threat under a Labour government. This helped the Tories come close to taking out both Labour MPs, John Woodcock in Barrow and Furness and Jamie Reed in Copeland. It was no small feat: Labour has held Barrow since 1992 and has won Copeland at every election it has fought.

The Tories have become the zombies of British politics: still moving though dead from the neck down. And not only moving, but thriving. One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.” His Conservative counterparts also believe that their rivals are out of power for at least a decade.

Yet there are more threats to the zombie Tories than commonly believed. The European referendum will cause endless trouble for their whips over the coming years. And for all there’s a spring in the Conservative step at the moment, the party has a majority of only 12 in the Commons. Parliamentary defeats could easily become commonplace. But now that Labour has elected Jeremy Corbyn – either a more consensual or a more chaotic leader than his predecessors, depending on your perspective – division within parties will become a feature, rather than a quirk, at Westminster. There will be “splits” aplenty on both sides of the House.

The bigger threat to Tory hegemony is the spending cuts to come, and the still vulnerable state of the British economy. In the last parliament, George Osborne’s cuts fell predominantly on the poorest and those working in the public sector. They were accompanied by an extravagant outlay to affluent retirees. As my colleague Helen Lewis wrote last week, over the next five years, cuts will fall on the sharp-elbowed middle classes, not just the vulnerable. Reductions in tax credits, so popular among voters in the abstract, may prove just as toxic as the poll tax and the abolition of the 10p bottom income-tax rate – both of which were popular until they were actually implemented.

Added to that, the British economy has what the economist Stephen King calls “the Titanic problem”: a surplus of icebergs, a deficit of lifeboats. Many of the levers used by Gordon Brown and Mervyn King in the last recession are not available to David Cameron and the chief of the Bank of England, Mark Carney: debt-funded fiscal stimulus is off the table because the public finances are already in the red. Interest rates are already at rock bottom.

Yet against that grim backdrop, the Conservatives retain the two trump cards that allowed them to win in May: questions about Labour’s economic competence, and the personal allure of David Cameron. The public is still convinced that the cuts are the result of “the mess” left by Labour, however unfair that charge may be. If a second crisis strikes, it could still be the Tories who feel the benefit, if they can convince voters that the poor state of the finances is still the result of New Labour excess rather than Cameroon failure.

As for Cameron, in 2015 it was his lead over Ed Miliband as Britons’ preferred prime minister that helped the Conservatives over the line. This time, it is his withdrawal from politics which could hand the Tories a victory even if the economy tanks or cuts become widely unpopular. He could absorb the hatred for the failures and the U-turns, and then hand over to a fresher face. Nicky Morgan or a Sajid Javid, say, could yet repeat John Major’s trick in 1992, breathing life into a seemingly doomed Conservative project. For Labour, the Tory zombie remains frustratingly lively. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide