Thatcher is the key to the Leveson inquiry

The Leveson inquiry marks the end of an era that began with Thatcher – the figure at the eye of a storm that has been 30 years in the making.

Margaret Thatcher was not the first to leverage the political power of the tabloid press, but – as with many things – she did it bigger and she did it best. In 1979, the year she came to power, the Observer described the Sun as "Mrs Thatcher’s missionary outpost to the working-class voter." By the time she left office a decade later, the Sunday Telegraph was willing to accept that, "the support of The Sun can make or break the fortunes of the Tory Party."

Every subsequent Prime Minister has had to come to terms with this doubled-edged aspect of Thatcher’s legacy. The closeness Thatcher cultivated with the tabloid press was a powerful weapon for any successor to inherit – but it came with a dangerous degree of vulnerability to an ever-mightier media empire. In this respect, the Leveson inquiry may prove to be the final reckoning in a saga that has been running for over 30 years.   

The relationship between Thatcher and the tabloid press was authentic in a way that none of her successors – not even Blair – were ever able to emulate. Their natural affinity grew out of a shared and unabashed populism that flourished in a decade set up to reward populism like no other. Britain in the 1980s was a society ill at ease with itself. Despite the much-heralded "revolution" in social attitudes brought on by the sixties, the vast majority of the British public regarded the sexual liberation movements and "permissive" reforms of previous decades as the work of a remote political and intellectual elite. As the Sun proclaimed as late as 1994, "It doesn’t bother MPs that a consistent 75% of the British people want vicious killers to be hanged. It doesn’t impress them that most of us feel deeply uneasy with condoning acts of teenage homosexuality. Parliamentarians prefer to rely on their own consciences."

Like the reassuring rhetoric of the tabloid press, Thatcherite policy deftly channelled popular suspicion of these elites and the permissive values they condoned. Section 28 famously banned the ‘promotion’ of homosexuality in schools as a "pretended family relationship", in stark contrast to the sexual normalcy and nuclear family structures that would restore the nation to moral health. It managed to present homosexuality as a kind of Politically Transmitted Disease carried by the ‘loony left’, and by so doing, imbued the moral backlash against the gay rights movement with a sense of national urgency.

Perhaps the most ingenious of all Tory constructs, the "loony left" furnished the tabloids with a rich and never-ending seam of entertaining stories:  in the mid-1980s it was reported that Labour-controlled local authorities had banned the nursery rhyme "Baa baa black sheep" and black dustbin liners as racist. Moreover, in its repetitive and unrelenting association of the left with unpopular permissive causes, this tabloid trope carried the Conservative message beyond the traditional Tory heartlands, and into the new, remoter electoral provinces of the Murdoch empire.

Later Tory leaders have all played to these resonances in one way or another. Particularly when there is political capital to be gained from a wider sense of social anxiety, Conservative politicians have a habit of lapsing into moral hyperbole. Just as Thatcher responded to popular anxiety about permissive reform, David Cameron (with the help of the Sun) built his 2010 election campaign around the motif of "Broken Britain", and John Major produced his ill-fated "Back to Basics" campaign in the wake of Black Wednesday and the murder of Jamie Bulger. Upbraiding a "broken" society and urging national regeneration through stronger family life has proven to be an effective – and cheap – way to reap mass support at times of social unease or moral panic.

Thatcher created a political culture in which the personal was political and the political was personal. This was not, however, something that Major was readily inclined to recognise – particularly in the midst of the notorious string of sexual and financial scandals that plagued nearly a dozen Conservative ministers and MPs during the 1990s. By trying to claim that the personal lives of erring ministers like David Mellor and Tim Yeo were "purely private matters", Major refused to acknowledge the extent to which years of stories by these very tabloids on ‘private matters’ like sexual morality had served to bolster his party’s standing with the electorate. To Major, "Back to Basics" may well have been a cynical communications exercise – yet for the press, it was deeply intertwined with one of the defining news agendas of the era.

As is well known, the disintegration of the Conservative-Murdoch alliance under Major was swift and brutal. The devastating effectiveness with which the tabloid press dismantled Major’s hopes of re-election in 1997 revealed the unassailable position of strength to which it had ascended during the Thatcher years. Though sleaze was not the only issue at stake in Major’s twilight hours, it was the means by which the tabloids were able to control the news agenda and drown out any attempt by the government to regain the political initiative. The Sun’s headline on Black Wednesday, "Now we’ve ALL been screwed by the Cabinet", is a brilliant example of the way in which it kept sleaze at the forefront of political consciousness.

Major’s landslide defeat in 1997 was a cautionary tale for future leaders on the perils of estranging the Murdoch empire. As the efforts of Blair, Brown and Cameron to curry favour with News International have shown, Major was the last Prime Minister to fail to appreciate the power of Murdoch and the tabloid press. After his example, no leader would make that mistake again.

Margaret Thatcher visits David Cameron at 10 Downing Street in 2010. Photograph: Getty Images.

Helena See is a researcher for the parliamentary think tank Policy Connect.

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"We repealed, then forgot": the long shadow of Section 28 homophobia

Why are deeply conservative views about the "promotion" of homosexuality still being reiterated to Scottish school pupils? 

Grim stories of LGBTI children being bullied in school are all too common. But one which emerged over the weekend garnered particular attention - because of the echoes of the infamous Section 28, nearly two decades after it was scrapped.

A 16-year-old pupil of a West Lothian school, who does not wish to be named, told Pink News that staff asked him to remove his small rainbow pride badge because, though they had "no problem" with his sexuality, it was not appropriate to "promote it" in school. It's a blast from the past - the rules against "promoting" homosexuality were repealed in 2000 in Scotland, but the long legacy of Section 28 seems hard to shake off. 

The local authority responsible said in a statement that non-school related badges are not permitted on uniforms, and says it is "committed to equal rights for LGBT people". 

The small badge depicted a rainbow-striped heart, which the pupil said he had brought back from the Edinburgh Pride march the previous weekend. He reportedly "no longer feels comfortable going to school", and said homophobia from staff members felt "much more scar[y] than when I encountered the same from other pupils". 

At a time when four Scottish party leaders are gay, and the new Westminster parliament included a record number of LGBTQ MPs, the political world is making progress in promoting equality. But education, it seems, has not kept up. According to research from LGBT rights campaigners Stonewall, 40 per cent of LGBT pupils across the UK reported being taught nothing about LGBT issues at school. Among trans students, 44 per cent said school staff didn’t know what "trans" even means.

The need for teacher training and curriculum reform is at the top of campaigners' agendas. "We're disappointed but not surprised by this example," says Jordan Daly, the co-founder of Time for Inclusive Education [TIE]. His grassroots campaign focuses on making politicians and wider society aware of the reality LGBTI school students in Scotland face. "We're in schools on a monthly basis, so we know this is by no means an isolated incident." 

Studies have repeatedly shown a startling level of self-harm and mental illness reported by LGBTI school students. Trans students are particularly at risk. In 2015, Daly and colleagues began a tour of schools. Shocking stories included one in which a teacher singled out a trans pupils for ridicule in front of the class. More commonly, though, staff told them the same story: we just don't know what we're allowed to say about gay relationships. 

This is the point, according to Daly - retraining, or rather the lack of it. For some of those teachers trained during the 1980s and 1990s, when Section 28 prevented local authorities from "promoting homosexuality", confusion still reigns about what they can and cannot teach - or even mention in front of their pupils. 

The infamous clause was specific in its homophobia: the "acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship" could not be mentioned in schools. But it's been 17 years since the clause was repealed in Scotland - indeed, it was one of the very first acts of the new Scottish Parliament (the rest of the UK followed suit three years later). Why are we still hearing this archaic language? 

"We repealed, we clapped and cheered, and then we just forgot," Daly says. After the bitter campaign in Scotland, in which an alliance of churches led by millionaire businessman Brian Souter poured money into "Keeping the Clause", the government was pleased with its victory, which seemed to establish Holyrood as a progressive political space early on in the life of the parliament. But without updating the curriculum or retraining teaching staff, Daly argues, it left a "massive vacuum" of uncertainty. 

The Stonewall research suggests a similar confusion is likely across the UK. Daly doesn't believe the situation in Scotland is notably worse than in England, and disputes the oft-cited allegation that the issue is somehow worse in Scotland's denominational schools. Homophobia may be "wrapped up in the language of religious belief" in certain schools, he says, but it's "just as much of a problem elsewhere. The TIE campaign doesn't have different strategies for different schools." 

After initial disappointments - their thousands-strong petition to change the curriculum was thrown out by parliament in 2016 - the campaign has won the support of leaders such as Nicola Sturgeon and Kezia Dugdale, and recently, the backing of a majority of MSPs. The Scottish government has set up a working group, and promised a national strategy. 

But for Daly, who himself struggled at a young age with his sexuality and society's failure to accept it, the matter remains an urgent one.  At just 21, he can reel off countless painful stories of young LGBTI students - some of which end in tragedy. One of the saddest elements of the story from St Kentigern's is that the pupil claimed his school was the safest place he had to express his identity, because he was not out at home. Perhaps for a gay pupil in ten years time, that will be a guarantee. 

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