The Queen "fights for gay rights" . . . oh really?

Interrogating the Mail on Sunday's tissue-thin front-page story.

Good old The Queen, eh? In between waving and opening garden centres, she's now become a female Peter Tatchell.

At least, that's what today's Mail on Sunday front page story would have you believe with its front page headline: Queen fights for gay rights.

Simon Walters, who was this week named Political Journalist of the Year at the British Press Awards, reports:

The Queen will tomorrow back an historic pledge to promote gay rights and ‘gender equality’ in one of the most controversial acts of her reign. In a live television broadcast, she will sign a new charter designed to stamp out discrimination against homosexual people and promote the ‘empowerment’ of women – a key part of a new drive to boost human rights and living standards across the Commonwealth. 

Leaving aside "an historic" - which makes me wince - what is this controversial pledge? It's the new Commonwealth Charter, which states: "We are implacably opposed to all forms of discrimination, whether rooted in gender, race, colour, creed, political belief or other grounds."

Walters reports:

The ‘other grounds’ is intended to refer to sexuality – but specific reference to ‘gays and lesbians’ was omitted in deference to Commonwealth countries with draconian anti-gay laws.

So, to recap: the Queen is today making a speech about the new Commonwealth Charter, which she did not write, and indeed, she did not have any say in its wording. In the charter, there is a reference to discrimination on "other grounds", which are not made explicit.

Furthermore, as Walters himself acknowledges, several Commonwealth countries have harsh anti-gay laws. In Uganda, for example, homosexuality is already criminal offence: but that was not enough, and in 2009 legislators tried to institute the death penalty as punishment. That "Kill The Gays Bill" is still working its way through parliament. Homosexuality is also illegal in Trinidad and Tobago, Nigeria, Tanzania, Pakistan and others (see a full list of Commonwealth countries here and of anti-gay laws here).

So: the charter says nothing about gay rights, and several Commonwealth countries execute gay people. It would clearly be wonderful if the Queen were fighting for gay rights, but . . . she's really not.

So what's this story all about?

In her speech, the Queen is expected to stress that the rights must ‘include everyone’ - and this is seen as an implicit nod to the agenda of inclusivity, usually championed by the Left.

. . .

Insiders say her backing for full ‘gender equality’ and ‘women’s empowerment’ – using language until recently considered the preserve of Left-wing activists – is equally significant. 

Oh, the Left. I knew they would have something to do with it. To be honest, I think the Queen - the head of state of more than a dozen countries - is fine with "women's empowerment". Who needs to wear a Union Jack dress when your face is on everyone's money?

Disco Queen. Photo: Getty

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

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Cabinet audit: what does the appointment of Andrea Leadsom as Environment Secretary mean for policy?

The political and policy-based implications of the new Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

A little over a week into Andrea Leadsom’s new role as Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), and senior industry figures are already questioning her credentials. A growing list of campaigners have called for her resignation, and even the Cabinet Office implied that her department's responsibilities will be downgraded.

So far, so bad.

The appointment would appear to be something of a consolation prize, coming just days after Leadsom pulled out of the Conservative leadership race and allowed Theresa May to enter No 10 unopposed.

Yet while Leadsom may have been able to twist the truth on her CV in the City, no amount of tampering will improve the agriculture-related side to her record: one barely exists. In fact, recent statements made on the subject have only added to her reputation for vacuous opinion: “It would make so much more sense if those with the big fields do the sheep, and those with the hill farms do the butterflies,” she told an audience assembled for a referendum debate. No matter the livelihoods of thousands of the UK’s hilltop sheep farmers, then? No need for butterflies outside of national parks?

Normally such a lack of experience is unsurprising. The department has gained a reputation as something of a ministerial backwater; a useful place to send problematic colleagues for some sobering time-out.

But these are not normal times.

As Brexit negotiations unfold, Defra will be central to establishing new, domestic policies for UK food and farming; sectors worth around £108bn to the economy and responsible for employing one in eight of the population.

In this context, Leadsom’s appointment seems, at best, a misguided attempt to make the architects of Brexit either live up to their promises or be seen to fail in the attempt.

At worst, May might actually think she is a good fit for the job. Leadsom’s one, water-tight credential – her commitment to opposing restraints on industry – certainly has its upsides for a Prime Minister in need of an alternative to the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP); a policy responsible for around 40 per cent the entire EU budget.

Why not leave such a daunting task in the hands of someone with an instinct for “abolishing” subsidies  thus freeing up money to spend elsewhere?

As with most things to do with the EU, CAP has some major cons and some equally compelling pros. Take the fact that 80 per cent of CAP aid is paid out to the richest 25 per cent of farmers (most of whom are either landed gentry or vast, industrialised, mega-farmers). But then offset this against the provision of vital lifelines for some of the UK’s most conscientious, local and insecure of food producers.

The NFU told the New Statesman that there are many issues in need of urgent attention; from an improved Basic Payment Scheme, to guarantees for agri-environment funding, and a commitment to the 25-year TB eradication strategy. But that they also hope, above all, “that Mrs Leadsom will champion British food and farming. Our industry has a great story to tell”.

The construction of a new domestic agricultural policy is a once-in-a-generation opportunity for Britain to truly decide where its priorities for food and environment lie, as well as to which kind of farmers (as well as which countries) it wants to delegate their delivery.

In the context of so much uncertainty and such great opportunity, Leadsom has a tough job ahead of her. And no amount of “speaking as a mother” will change that.

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.