This row harks back to the poisonous days of Section 28. Photo: Sarah Rice/Getty
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On gay rights, the Conservatives are still, unsurprisingly, conservative

A much-clarified tweet from the Department for Education serves to remind us that despite the introduction of same-sex marriage, the Conservative Party has yet to catch up on some issues.

Being straightforward about your position on gay rights is quite easy. Here’s how:

“I’m for them.”

Or, if you happen to be a shitty person:

“I’m against them.”

Or, if you happen to be part of the Department for Education, something along the lines of:

I’m for them. They should be taught in schools. It’s nonsense that they should be taught in schools. No, it’s nonsense that schools should be forced to teach them. Schools aren’t allowed to be homophobic. Black is white. Curtains are centipedes. La plume de ma tante.”

The DfE had many heads a-scratching on Sunday with the following tweet (now deleted):

This came shortly after Education Secretary, Nicky Morgan (Gove Version 2.0), told the Sunday Times that faith schools “must teach gay rights”. This was confusing enough, as Morgan had only recently converted to Not Being a Homophobe. The minister, who voted against equal marriage, announced on BBC Radio 4 last week that she’s changed her mind about it (for which she has all my support, as I can only imagine how hard it is to come out, on national radio, as someone who doesn’t mind gays).

Later, they issued the following series of clarifications:

The DfE’s original tweet seemed to contradict what Morgan had said, and appropriate internet outrage proceeded. Today, the DfE further “clarified” their stance. Apparently, what they meant was that the teaching of gay rights in schools shouldn’t be compulsory. Those damn semantics, eh Nicky? But, what should be compulsory is the teaching of something called “British Values”.

Politicians are hardly new to muddying up perfectly nice water, but the DfE have taken obfuscation to a whole new, slightly surreal, level. In the least direct way possible, gay rights have been declared “not a British Value”. And yet, they’ve said this: “Ofsted are rightly ensuring that schools do not indoctrinate pupils about gay people – or any other people – being inferior.” So, while gay rights have no place on the national curriculum, according to the Tories, neither does homophobia.

What we seem to be left with is a scholastic version of America’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” rule on homosexuality, which existed in the military until it was repealed in 2011 for being fucking gross. When Nicky Morgan took over as Education Secretary earlier this year, I remember joking that she was probably going to bring back the Thatcher Government’s Section 28. This, for those lucky enough not to remember it, was a noisome little piece of legislation that banned the “promotion” (mentioning) of homosexuality in schools.

But if gay rights aren’t enshrined in British Values (whatever the hell they are), then a much fuzzier, but just as damaging, version of Section 28 is still in effect.

When LGBT people are still discriminated against on a regular basis, not actively teaching that they’re equal is inherently homophobic. What the DoE wants is silence. When David Cameron brought in same-sex marriage last year, he tried to invent a gay-friendly Tory for the BuzzFeed generation. “Nonsense”-gate serves as a reminder that, when it comes to LGBT issues, the Conservatives are still, unsurprisingly, conservative.

Eleanor Margolis is a freelance journalist, whose "Lez Miserable" column appears weekly on the New Statesman website.

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What I learnt when my wife and I went to Brexit: the Musical

This week in the media, from laughing as the world order crumbles to what Tristram Hunt got wrong – and Leicester’s big fall.

As my wife and I watched Brexit: the Musical, performed in a tiny theatre above a pub in London’s Little Venice, I thought of the American novelist Lionel Shriver’s comment on Donald Trump’s inauguration: “A sense of humour is going to get us through better than indignation.” It is an entertaining, engaging and amusing show, which makes the point that none of the main actors in the Brexit drama – whether supporters of Leave or Remain – achieved quite what they had intended. The biggest laugh went to the actor playing Boris Johnson (James Sanderson), the wannabe Tory leader who blew his chance. The mere appearance of an overweight man of dishevelled appearance with a mop of blond hair is enough to have the audience rolling in the aisles.

The lesson we should take from Brexit and from Trump’s election is that politicians of all shades, including those who claim to be non-political insurgents, have zero control of events, whether we are talking about immigration, economic growth or the Middle East. We need to tweak Yeats’s lines: the best may lack all conviction but the worst are full not so much of passionate intensity – who knows what Trump or Johnson really believe? – as bumbling incompetence. The sun will still rise in the morning (as
Barack Obama observed when Trump’s win became evident), and multi­national capital will still rule the world. Meanwhile, we may as well enjoy the show.

 

Danger of Donald

Nevertheless, we shouldn’t deny the risks of having incompetents in charge. The biggest concerns Trump’s geopolitical strategy, or rather his lack of one. Great power relations since 1945 have been based on mutual understanding of what each country wants to achieve, of its red lines and national ambitions. The scariest moments come when one leader miscalculates how another will react. Of all figures in recent history, the Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, with his flamboyant manner and erratic temperament, was probably the most similar to Trump. In 1962, he thought President Kennedy, inexperienced and idealistic, would tolerate Soviet missiles in Cuba. He was wrong and the world only narrowly avoided nuclear war.

How would Trump respond to a Russian invasion of the Baltic states? Will he recognise Taiwan as an independent country? Will he scrap Obama’s deal with Iran and support a pre-emptive strike against its nuclear ambitions? Nobody knows, probably not even Trump. He seems to think that keeping your options open and your adversaries guessing leads to “great deals”. That may work in business, in which the worst that can happen is that one of your companies goes bankrupt – an outcome of which Americans take a relaxed view. In international relations, the stakes are higher.

 

Right job, wrong time

I rather like Tristram Hunt, who started contributing to the New Statesman during my editorship. He may be the son of a life peer and a protégé of Peter Mandelson, but he is an all-too-rare example of a politician with a hinterland, having written a biography of Engels and a study of the English Civil War and presented successful TV documentaries. In a parallel universe, he could have made an inspirational Labour leader,
a more thoughtful and trustworthy version of Tony Blair.

No doubt, having resigned his Stoke-on-Trent Central seat, he will make a success of his new job as director of the Victoria and Albert Museum. If nothing else, he will learn a little about the arts of management and leadership. But isn’t this the wrong way round? Wouldn’t it be better if people first ran museums or other cultural and public institutions and then carried such experience into parliament and government?

 

Pointless palace

When the Palace of Westminster was largely destroyed by fire in 1834, thousands gathered to enjoy the spectacle. Thomas Carlyle noted that the crowd “whew’d and whistled when the breeze came as if to encourage it” and that “a man sorry I did not anywhere see”.

Now, with MPs reportedly refusing to move out to allow vital renovation work from 2023, we can expect a repeat performance. Given the unpopularity of politicians, public enthusiasm may be even greater than it was two centuries ago. Yet what is going through MPs’ minds is anyone’s guess. Since Theresa May refuses them a vote on Brexit, prefers the Foreign Office’s Lancaster House as the location to deliver her most important speech to date and intends to amend or replace Brussels-originated laws with ministerial orders under “Henry VIII powers”, perhaps they have concluded that there’s no longer much point to the place.

 

As good as it gets

What a difference a year makes. In January 2016, supporters of Leicester City, my home-town team, were beginning to contemplate the unthinkable: that they could win football’s Premier League. Now, five places off the bottom, they contemplate the equally unthinkable idea of relegation.

With the exception of one player, N’Golo Kanté (now at Chelsea), the team is identical to last season’s. So how can this be? The sophisticated, mathematical answer is “regression to the mean”. In a league where money, wages and performance are usually linked rigidly, a team that does much better than you’d predict one season is likely to do much worse the next. I’d suggest something else, though. For those who won last season’s title against such overwhelming odds, life can never be as good again. Anything short of winning the Champions League (in which Leicester have so far flourished) would seem an anti­climax. In the same way, the England cricket team that won the Ashes in 2005 – after the Australians had dominated for 16 years – fell apart almost as soon as its Trafalgar Square parade was over. Beating other international teams wouldn’t have delivered the same adrenalin surge.

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era