Good for Alan! (and good for the Tories)

Alan Duncan's saying of the moment is: "The glass has been shattered into a thousand pieces; it can't be put back again." He was referring to the glass ceiling that has kept gay Tory MPs from the top jobs.

The Tory front-bench spokesman on foreign affairs, revealing his homosexuality in an interview, ensured himself at least a footnote in history as the Tories' first openly gay MP. His unequivocal declaration of his sexual orientation (already known to colleagues and observers around Westminster) prompted more than 500 e-mails to his office - all but one congratulatory. The exception, which he thinks might be a spoof, suggests that sodomites might roast in hell. He says he has pinned that one on the wall.

Duncan's admission drew an immediate public expression of support from his party's leader; his party chairman, Theresa May, went further, claiming that Duncan had shown that the Tories were now "open, decent and tolerant". The liberal broadsheets were supportive and though the Daily Mail proved hostile - accusing Duncan of courting "the Sex and the City generation" - the Telegraph, despite its ultra-traditionalist views on sex, marriage and family, remained neutral. Neither the Mail nor Telegraph could resist the withering aside that everyone knew already, missing the point by about 180 degrees. Duncan himself has conceded that, yes, insiders knew: the point was to be "honest and upfront".

Duncan sets a precedent that others will dare follow. Thus will end the whisperings in Westminster; the innuendos in media interviews; the social awkwardness with party stalwarts (deemed too delicate or bigoted to deal with the truth) along with the threat of "outing" that gay politicians, like others in the public eye, have had to live with. Sexuality will, we hope, become a matter of personal rather than public interest.

Within his party, Duncan's outing will have greater repercussions. There is a new confidence around the social liberals who inhabit the Conservative Party. They have been trying to push their leaders and the rank and file towards a more tolerant position on "lifestyle" issues such as drugs and homosexuality. They felt they had a chance in the early years of William Hague's tenure, until the former leader was persuaded to return the party to more traditional "hang 'em, flog 'em" territory.

Last year, during the leadership contests, their hopes were firmly vested in Michael Portillo - who admitted to a gay past in an interview. Portillo was the bookies' favourite until he seemed to lose the stomach for the fight. It was said that the hidebound attitudes and the sheer bloody-mindedness of the hierarchy and the local associations got to him.

Iain Duncan Smith's victory gave liberals little cause for optimism. He is an uneasy reformer - it is still piecemeal and superficial - but he has begun a process of sorts, trying to promote his party as a more tolerant, more modern institution. He has welcomed Duncan's candour - now he must capitalise on it. He must reform a party that still cherishes tradition above justice and family values above individual rights. In the shires, the Tory selection process for prospective MPs is changing - but not quickly enough. A male candidate still faces the inevitable "Where is your wife?" and must suffer a raised eyebrow when his Missus cannot be produced.

The Tories do have an opportunity. It has existed since 1997 and, if they play it well, it could reap rewards. The Labour government has not been preachy on sexuality or private lives. But it is portrayed on some issues as nannying and interventionist. Among younger voters, a combination of economic liberalism and social liberalism would prove popular: they no longer want to hear the anti-society rhetoric preached by Thatcher, but would find a society that leaves you alone appealing. Labour would benefit from some genuine opposition.

The Daily Mail is wrong. In welcoming Duncan's brave admission, the Tories are not courting the Sex and the City generation, but acknowledging that sexual preference is not an area in which the state can continue to be judgemental. But Duncan's self-outing also has a significance beyond Westminster. For too long, cynical journalists, interviewers and politicians have nudged and winked with coded signifiers of homosexuality such as "bachelor lifestyle", "flamboyant manners", even, this week, "too well-dressed". A thousand tormented teenagers have suffered as a result, unable to cope with the public's attitude to gay people.

Alan Duncan shows that politicians can make a difference.

The banality of November 17

In the aftermath of the Second World War, Hannah Arendt warned about the banality of evil. Today, Greeks are finding out that evil is not only banal but bumbling, fumbling and frightened of its own shadow. The capture of the November 17 terrorists (see page 20), who for decades had eluded local authorities and American intelligence, has exposed the secret cell as plump, middle-aged men who, when the going got tough, slapped on their disguise - long, luxuriant moustaches - the wrong way around. For years, the media and the public had transformed a handful of electricians and tourist shop operators into bogeymen whose very name sent shivers down the spine of law-abiding citizens. Everyone conspired to create a terrifying, but somehow necessary, presence. Now, as the terrorists reveal their incompetence, the Greeks are forced to deconstruct the monsters of their imagination and see them as they really are: disappointingly dull.

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