I owe it all to dear old Wolfy

Lord Wolfenden is an unlikely gay hero, but by beginning the demystification of homosexuality he did

Naturally, I have been asked to contribute to this "gay special" (which isn't, as my friend Hector suggested, "oral sex administered with a mouthful of champagne"). "Why," declared the NS voice on the phone, "to publish such an issue without a contribution from you would be like pasta without Parmesan, roast lamb without mint sauce, Fred West without Rosemary!" In the end I broke down.

Euphemisms, double entendres and what can only be described as symbolism have played a big part in gay history. A signet ring worn on your pinkie used to be a "sign" to other homosexuals that you were partial to meat and two veg. (It probably still is, in the provinces.) A hanky in your right, rear jeans pocket meant that you were active rather than passive (or "Martha" rather than "Arthur", I can't remember which), and nowadays dilated pupils mean you've had a skinful of drugs and will do anything with anyone, as long as they're breathing and wearing trousers.

Evolution is a wonderful thing. I've got the ring, the hanky and the dilated pupils. (Best to cover all bases, I figured.)

When I was at Goldsmiths in the late Seventies, our elderly English lecturer would digress from our seminars about the metaphysical poets to talk nostalgically about his gay life in the Thirties and Forties. It all sounded excitingly furtive: off-duty guardsmen in St James's Park, men in suits tapping their feet meaningfully as they sat opposite you on the Tube. The fact that homosexual acts were illegal wasn't even mentioned. It didn't seem as if anyone was going without just on account of a pompous law, for Dorothy's sake.

So, even though we must all be grateful for such liberation and for the acceptance we have so graciously been granted, I'm being a tad reserved about it. Please don't think we're all gay now just because we've suddenly got the go-ahead. We were at it like rabbits before Wolfenden stated the bleeding obvious about our human rights. Very good of him, I'm sure, but let's not go overboard in our gratitude.

Between 1938 and 1955 there was an 85 per cent increase in homosexual offences. In 1952, for example, there were 670 cases of naughty sodomy, 3,078 cases of glorious indecent assault and 1,686 cases of highly enjoyable gross indecency. And they're only the ones that were so rudely interrupted. Go, girls.

My point is, gays aren't the sort to wait for permission: "Hold it right there, Brett. I'm not sure the local constabulary approve of us doing that with our own bodies in the privacy of our own maisonette. We're both chaps, after all. We'd better tune in to the World Service instead." I don't make light of the suffering of those who were victimised and prosecuted, but I celebrate their brave insistence on doing it anyway. (Some say this is the root of modern gay promiscuity. Sex is worth the pain. But I guess that's another story.)

As you may have gathered, I find it hard to think of John Wolfenden as a gay hero, even if the Pink Paper does (he was in the top 50, I believe). Despite the gay liberation his report initiated, when his own son Jeremy came out he didn't exactly greet him with unreserved fatherly understanding. Wolfenden suggested that they "stay out of each other's way", and that Jeremy "wear rather less make-up". The nerve. Directions to St James's Park and a gift voucher for Clarins might have been more helpful.

What dear Wolfy did do was to begin the process of explaining homosexuality. He sparked off what we might call a heated debate for the general public.

As we know, ignorance turns to fear, and that is always at the root of any common or garden prejudice. (I'm much the same about the Grand Prix, for example. I wouldn't get a headache every time it came on TV if I understood what was going on.)

What has changed as a result of this demystification, and the consequent legislation, is the self-esteem of gay men. We've perked up.

Quentin Crisp wrote, rather sadly, that "life is a dash from cradle to grave across open country under heavy fire". We may still glance over our shoulders these days, but only to wink at someone. The warrior in us may be required less often than in Quen tin's day.

It's wonderful to be able to say my gayness is a source of great happiness to me. Where would I be without it? Out of a job, I guess. Wolfenden has a lot to answer for.

This article first appeared in the 23 July 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Pink Planet

Ralph Steadman for the New Statesman.
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Tim Farron: Theresa May is "the prisoner of the Ukip wing of her party"

The Liberal Democrat leader on his faith, Blairism and his plan to replace Labour as the opposition. 

This is Tim Farron’s seventh general election. His first was in 1992, when his Tory opponent was a 36-year-old called Ther­esa May. He was just 21 and they were both unsuccessful candidates in the Labour fortress of North-West Durham. He recalls talking “to a bunch of ex-miners who weren’t best pleased to see either of us, some kid Liberal and some Tory”. Now he sees his former and current opponent as “the prisoner of the Ukip wing of her party . . . I think it has rendered Ukip almost pointless – she is Ukip now.”

May was elected to parliament in 1997, but it took Farron until 2005 to join her. She leads the dominant Conservatives while he heads a party of only nine Liberal Democrat MPs. Still, their reversal of fortunes gives him hope. “After the 1992 election, every­one said there’s no way for a non-Tory government, and it turned out there was. So let’s not assume it’s a given there’s a Tory government [for ever].”

In April, I accompanied Farron to Manchester Gorton, in the lead-up to a by-election that was cancelled by May’s decision to call a snap election on 8 June. Still, the 46-year-old’s party has been in campaign mode for months; Lib Dems spoke of using last December’s Richmond Park by-election to test their messaging. It clearly had an effect: the incumbent Conservative, Zac Goldsmith, lost to their candidate, Sarah Olney.

Brexit, to which the Liberal Democrats are vehemently opposed, will be a dominant theme of the election. Their party membership has just exceeded 100,000, close to an all-time high, and they have enjoyed much success in council by-elections, with more to come in the local elections of 4 May.

However, any feel-good factor swiftly evaporated when Farron appeared on Channel 4 News on 18 April. He was asked by the co-presenter Cathy Newman whether or not he believes that homosexuality is a sin, a question that he answered obliquely in 2015 by saying that Christianity started with acknowledging that “we’re all sinners”.

This time, he told Newman, he was “not in the position to make theological announcements over the next six weeks . . . as a Liberal, I’m passionate about equality”.

The Channel 4 interview divided opinion. One Liberal politician told me that Farron’s stance was “completely intolerable”. Stephen Pollard, the influential editor of the Jewish Chronicle, described it as
“a very liberal position: he holds certain personal views but does not wish to legislate around them”. Jennie Rigg, the acting chair of LGBT+ Liberal Democrats, said it was “as plain as the nose on my face that Tim Farron is no homophobe”.

Farron declined the chance to clarify his views with us in a follow-up phone call, but told the BBC on 25 April: “I don’t believe that gay sex is a sin,” adding, “On reflection, it makes sense to actually answer this direct question since it’s become an issue.”

For his critics, Farron’s faith and politics are intertwined. He sees it differently, as he told Christian Today in 2015: “. . . the danger is sometimes that as a Christian in politics you think your job is to impose your morality on other people. It absolutely isn’t.”

Tim Farron joined the then Liberal Party at the age of 16 but didn’t become a Christian until he was 18. Between completing his A-levels in Lancashire and going to Newcastle University to read politics, he read the apologetics, a body of Christian writing that provides reasoned arguments for the gospel story. “I came to the conclusion that it was true,” he told me. “It wasn’t just a feel-good story.”

In speeches, Farron now takes on the mannerisms of a preacher, but he had a largely non-religious upbringing in Preston, Lancashire. “I don’t think I’d been to church once other than Christmas or the odd wedding,” he says. “I went once with my dad when I was 11, for all the good that did me.”

When we meet, it is Theresa May’s religion that is in the spotlight. She has condemned the National Trust for scrubbing the word “Easter” from its Easter egg hunt, a row it later emerged had been largely invented by the right-wing press in response to a press release from a religious-themed chocolate company.

“It’s worth observing there’s no mention of chocolate or bunny rabbits in the Bible,” Farron reminds me. “When people get cross about, in inverted commas, ‘us losing our Christian heritage’ they mean things which are safe and comfortable and nostalgic.” He pauses. “But the Christian message at Easter is shocking, actually, and very radical.”

British politics is tolerant of atheists (such as Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg) alongside those who, like David Cameron, are culturally Christian but whose faith is “a bit like the reception for Magic FM in the Chilterns: it sort of comes and goes”. But the reaction to Farron’s equivocation on homosexuality prompted many to wonder if a politician who talks openly about his faith is now seen as alarming. Nebulous wishes of peace and love at Christmas, yes; sincere discussions of the literal truth of the Resurrection? Hmm.

Tim Farron’s beliefs matter because he has a mission: to replace not only Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the opposition but Theresa May in Downing Street. Over lassis at the MyLahore curry house in Manchester, he tells me that Britain is facing two calamities. “One is Brexit, indeed hard Brexit . . . and the other is a Tory government for 25 years. We have to present a genuine, progressive alternative that can not only replace Labour as an opposition, it can replace the Tories as a government.” This is ambitious talk for a party with nine MPs. “I understand the ridicule that will be thrown at me for saying those things: but if you don’t want to run the country, why are you in politics?” He pauses. “That’s a question I would ask most people leading the Labour Party at present.”

What does he think of May, his one-time opponent in North-West Durham? “She strikes me as being very professional, very straightforward, somebody who is very conservative in every sense of the word, in her thought processes, her politics, in her style.” He recalls her 2002 conference speech in which she warned Tory activists: “Our base is too narrow and so, occasionally, are our sympathies. You know what some people call us: the nasty party.”

“In many ways, she was the trailblazer for Cameron in being a softer-focused Tory,” he says. “It now looks like she’s been trapped by the very people she was berating as the nasty party all those years ago. I like to think that isn’t really her. But that means she isn’t really in control of the Conservative Party.”

Voters, however, seem to disagree. In recent polls, support for the Conservatives has hovered between 40 and 50 per cent. Isn’t a progressive alliance the only way to stop her: Labour, the Liberal Democrats, the Greens, the SNP and Plaid Cymru all working together to beat the Tories?

“Let’s be really blunt,” he says. “Had Jeremy Corbyn stood down for us in Richmond Park [where Labour stood Christian Wolmar], we would not have won. I could have written Zac Goldsmith’s leaflets for you: Corbyn-backed Liberal Democrats.

“I’m a pluralist,” he adds. “But any progressive alliance has got to be at least equal to the sum of its parts. At the moment, it would be less than the sum of its parts. The only way the Tories are losing their majority is us gaining seats in Hazel Grove –” he ticks them off with his fingers, “– in Cheadle, in the West Country and west London. There’s no chance of us gaining those seats if we have a kind of arrangement with the current Labour Party in its current form.”

What about the SNP? “Most sensible people would look at that SNP manifesto and agree with 99 per cent of it,” Farron says. “But it’s that one thing: they want to wreck the country! How can you do a deal with people who want to wreck the country?”

There’s no other alternative, he says. Someone needs to step up and offer “something that can appeal to progressive younger voters, pro-Europeans and, you know, moderate-thinking Middle England”. He wants to champion a market economy, strong public services, action on climate change, internationalism and free trade.

That sounds like Blairism. “I’m a liberal, and I don’t think Blair was a liberal,” he replies. “But I admire Blair because he was somebody who was able to win elections . . . Iraq aside, my criticisms of Blair are what he didn’t do, rather than what he did do.”

Turning around the Tory tide – let alone with just nine MPs, and from third place – is one hell of a job. But Farron takes heart from the Liberal Party in Canada, where Justin Trudeau did just that. “I’m not Trudeau,” he concedes, “He was better-looking, and his dad was prime minister.”

There is a reason for his optimism. “I use the analogy of being in a maze,” he says, “You can’t see a way out of it, for a progressive party to form a majority against the Tories. But in every maze, there is a way out. We just haven’t found it yet.” 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

This article first appeared in the 27 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Cool Britannia 20 Years On

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