Duncan slams Lib Dems in gay rights row

Alan Duncan says the Lib Dems should "eat their words" after criticising the Tories' voting record o

Alan Duncan, the first openly gay Conservative MP, has branded the Liberal Democrats "shits" after the party launched an attack on the Conservatives' failure to support gay rights.

Lib Dems equality spokesperson Jo Swinson last week released a compilation of members of the shadow Cabinet's voting history since 1998.

The figures, disputed by the Tories, suggest that 80 percent of the 25-member team has voted against major items of gay rights legislation in that period. Ninety percent of those eligible voted against the equalisation of the age of consent and 85 percent voted against the repeal of Section 28.

Among Tory MPs, 85 percent failed to vote for regulations passed this year outlawing the denial of goods and services based on sexuality and 54 percent polled this year opposed equal rights for homosexual couples.

"Despite David Cameron's façade of "liberal" conservatism, his voting record, the voting record of the Shadow Cabinet that he appointed, and the views held amongst his party paint a very different picture," it says.

But Duncan, shadow secretary for business, enterprise and regulatory reform, told newstatesman.com that the Liberal Democrats’ criticism was out-dated and claimed the Tories were in step with a wider consensus on gay rights issues.

He also said it was unwise for the Lib Dems, whose president, Simon Hughes, ran successfully for parliament in the 1983 Bermondsey by-election against Peter Tatchell as "the straight choice", to criticise the Tories over gay rights.

"There was never such a disgusting and contemptible election campaign as that waged by Simon Hughes against Peter Tatchell, so it's very unwise for the Lib Dems to rake this sort of thing up. They were the last party in Parliament to have an openly gay member within their ranks. They should scurry away and eat their words.

"As Matthew Parris argues, at last, the agenda is largely complete. Homosexuality should be out of politics and just included in daily life. If they want to re-politicise a settled consensus, I have complete contempt for them."

"Historically, the Conservatives have been behind the curve, whilst Tony Blair was very good on the equality agenda. But a piece of research like this isn't constructive. It just makes the Liberal Democrats look like shits. You can quote me on that."

Despite his recent support for the Sexual Orientation Discrimination legislation and civil partnerships, Tory leader Cameron has a chequered record on gay rights, having voted against gay adoption under a three-line whip.

But a Tory spokesman said Cameron had abstained from a whipped vote under former leader Iain Duncan Smith on the repeal of Section 28 and supported gay adoption. In fact, Cameron voted against the repeal of Section 28 passing to a second reading before abstaining on the second reading.

In 2000 as candidate for Witney he told a local paper that the Blair government “continues to be obsessed with their 'fringe' agenda, including deeply unpopular moves like repealing Section 28 and allowing the promotion of homosexuality in schools,” and that “Blair has moved heaven and earth to allow the promotion of homosexuality in schools”.

But a spokesman tried to brush off the comments. "It was only as a candidate. If you know how politics works you'll see why being a candidate is different to being an MP," he said.

“The Conservative Party has campaigned for equal treatment for the gay community and on the 40th anniversary of the decriminalisation of homosexuality we should be celebrating what has been achieved since, not playing petty politics with this issue.”

But Swinson claimed the appointment of shadow cabinet members such as Eric Pickles, the new shadow secretary of state for communities and local government who had previously failed to back a single piece of gay rights legislation, called Cameron’s judgment into question.

"Pickle's appointment is deeply concerning,” said Swinson. “It's a question of looking at voting records. We have had a lot rhetoric about change. I think it's important at this stage to look at their extremely poor record."

Hazel Blears, Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, said the Conservative Party was “riddled with old ideas”: “In 18 years in office the Conservatives did next to nothing to advance the cause of gay rights in Britain."

Veteran gay rights campaigner Peter Tatchell said: "It's good that David Cameron in recent years has had a Damascene conversion to gay equality. I hope he's sincere.

“But quite clearly most members of his shadow cabinet and most backbench MPs continue to support anti-gay discrimination. The lesbian and gay community would have good reason to fear the return to power of a Conservative government. Most of their MPs want to keep lesbians and gays as second class citizens."

Tatchell also criticised last month's Tory appointment of 'modernising' Muslim lawyer Sayeeda Warsi to the position of Shadow Minister for Community Cohesion.

In literature distributed during her 2005 council election campaign she accused Labour of “allowing school children to be propositioned for homosexual relationships”, and denounced the “promotion of homosexuality that undermines family life”.

Tatchell said Warsi was unfit to serve in the shadow cabinet: “She fought an immensely homophobic campaign in the last general election in which she made false claims about government gay rights policy. It beggars belief that David Cameron has appointed such a bigoted woman. Her views on gay rights echo the homophobia of Nick Griffin of the BNP."

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The age of loneliness

Profound changes in technology, work and community are transforming our ultrasocial species into a population of loners.

Our dominant ideology is based on a lie. A series of lies, in fact, but I’ll focus on just one. This is the claim that we are, above all else, self-interested – that we seek to enhance our own wealth and power with little regard for the impact on others.

Some economists use a term to describe this presumed state of being – Homo economicus, or self-maximising man. The concept was formulated, by J S Mill and others, as a thought experiment. Soon it became a modelling tool. Then it became an ideal. Then it evolved into a description of who we really are.

It could not be further from the truth. To study human behaviour is to become aware of how weird we are. Many species will go to great lengths to help and protect their close kin. One or two will show occasional altruism towards unrelated members of their kind. But no species possesses a capacity for general altruism that is anywhere close to our own.

With the possible exception of naked mole-rats, we have the most social minds of all mammals. These minds evolved as an essential means of survival. Slow, weak, armed with rounded teeth and flimsy nails in a world of fangs and claws and horns and tusks, we survived through co-operation, reciprocity and mutual defence, all of which developed to a remarkable degree.

A review paper in the journal Frontiers in Psychology observes that Homo economicus  might be a reasonable description of chimpanzees. “Outsiders . . . would not expect to receive offers of food or solicitude; rather, they would be fiercely attacked . . . food is shared only under harassment; even mothers will not voluntarily offer novel foods to their own infants unless the infants beg for them.” But it is an unreasonable description of human beings.

How many of your friends, colleagues and neighbours behave like chimpanzees? A few, perhaps. If so, are they respected or reviled? Some people do appear to act as if they have no interests but their own – Philip Green and Mike Ashley strike me as possible examples – but their behaviour ­attracts general revulsion. The news is filled with spectacular instances of human viciousness: although psychopaths are rare, their deeds fill the papers. Daily acts of kindness are seldom reported, because they are everywhere.

Every day, I see people helping others with luggage, offering to cede their place in a queue, giving money to the homeless, setting aside time for others, volunteering for causes that offer no material reward. Alongside these quotidian instances are extreme and stunning cases. I think of my Dutch mother-in-law, whose family took in a six-year-old Jewish boy – a stranger – and hid him in their house for two years during the German occupation of the Netherlands. Had he been discovered, they would all have been sent to a concentration camp.

Studies suggest that altruistic tendencies are innate: from the age of 14 months, children try to help each other, attempting to hand over objects another child can’t reach. At the age of two, they start to share valued possessions. By the time they are three, they begin to protest against other people’s violation of moral norms.

Perhaps because we are told by the media, think tanks and politicians that competition and self-interest are the defining norms of human life, we disastrously mischaracterise the way in which other people behave. A survey commissioned by the Common Cause Foundation reported that 78 per cent of respondents believe others to be more selfish than they really are.

I do not wish to suggest that this mythology of selfishness is the sole or even principal cause of the epidemic of loneliness now sweeping the world. But it is likely to contribute to the plague by breeding suspicion and a sense of threat. It also appears to provide a doctrine of justification for those afflicted by isolation, a doctrine that sees individualism as a higher state of existence than community. Perhaps it is hardly surprising that Britain, the European nation in which neoliberalism is most advanced, is, according to government figures, the loneliness capital of Europe.

There are several possible reasons for the atomisation now suffered by the supremely social mammal. Work, which used to bring us together, now disperses us: many people have neither fixed workplaces nor regular colleagues and regular hours. Our leisure time has undergone a similar transformation: cinema replaced by television, sport by computer games, time with friends by time on Facebook.

Social media seems to cut both ways: it brings us together and sets us apart. It helps us to stay in touch, but also cultivates a tendency that surely enhances other people’s sense of isolation: a determination to persuade your followers that you’re having a great time. FOMO – fear of missing out – seems, at least in my mind, to be closely ­associated with loneliness.

Children’s lives in particular have been transformed: since the 1970s, their unaccompanied home range (in other words, the area they roam without adult supervision) has declined in Britain by almost 90 per cent. Not only does this remove them from contact with the natural world, but it limits their contact with other children. When kids played out on the street or in the woods, they quickly formed their own tribes, learning the social skills that would see them through life.

An ageing population, family and community breakdown, the decline of institutions such as churches and trade unions, the switch from public transport to private, inequality, an alienating ethic of consumerism, the loss of common purpose: all these are likely to contribute to one of the most dangerous epidemics of our time.

Yes, I do mean dangerous. The stress response triggered by loneliness raises blood pressure and impairs the immune system. Loneliness enhances the risk of depression, paranoia, addiction, cognitive decline, dem­entia, heart disease, stroke, viral infection, accidents and suicide. It is as potent a cause of early death as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, and can be twice as deadly as obesity.

Perhaps because we are in thrall to the ideology that helps to cause the problem, we turn to the market to try to solve it. Over the past few weeks, the discovery of a new American profession, the people-walker (taking human beings for walks), has caused a small sensation in the media. In Japan there is a fully fledged market for friendship: you can hire friends by the hour with whom to chat and eat and watch TV; or, more disturbingly, to pose for pictures that you can post on social media. They are rented as mourners at funerals and guests at weddings. A recent article describes how a fake friend was used to replace a sister with whom the bride had fallen out. What would the bride’s mother make of it? No problem: she had been rented, too. In September we learned that similar customs have been followed in Britain for some time: an early foray into business for the Home Secretary, Amber Rudd, involved offering to lease her posh friends to underpopulated weddings.



My own experience fits the current pattern: the high incidence of loneliness suffered by people between the ages of 18 and 34. I have sometimes been lonely before and after that period, but it was during those years that I was most afflicted. The worst episode struck when I returned to Britain after six years working in West Papua, Brazil and East Africa. In those parts I sometimes felt like a ghost, drifting through societies to which I did not belong. I was often socially isolated, but I seldom felt lonely, perhaps because the issues I was investigating were so absorbing and the work so frightening that I was swept along by adrenalin and a sense of purpose.

When I came home, however, I fell into a mineshaft. My university friends, with their proper jobs, expensive mortgages and settled, prematurely aged lives, had become incomprehensible to me, and the life I had been leading seemed incomprehensible to everyone. Though feeling like a ghost abroad was in some ways liberating – a psychic decluttering that permitted an intense process of discovery – feeling like a ghost at home was terrifying. I existed, people acknowledged me, greeted me cordially, but I just could not connect. Wherever I went, I heard my own voice bouncing back at me.

Eventually I made new friends. But I still feel scarred by that time, and fearful that such desolation may recur, particularly in old age. These days, my loneliest moments come immediately after I’ve given a talk, when I’m surrounded by people congratulating me or asking questions. I often experience a falling sensation: their voices seem to recede above my head. I think it arises from the nature of the contact: because I can’t speak to anyone for more than a few seconds, it feels like social media brought to life.

The word “sullen” evolved from the Old French solain, which means “lonely”. Loneliness is associated with an enhanced perception of social threat, so one of its paradoxical consequences is a tendency to shut yourself off from strangers. When I was lonely, I felt like lashing out at the society from which I perceived myself excluded, as if the problem lay with other people. To read any comment thread is, I feel, to witness this tendency: you find people who are plainly making efforts to connect, but who do so by insulting and abusing, alienating the rest of the thread with their evident misanthropy. Perhaps some people really are rugged individualists. But others – especially online – appear to use that persona as a rationale for involuntary isolation.

Whatever the reasons might be, it is as if a spell had been cast on us, transforming this ultrasocial species into a population of loners. Like a parasite enhancing the conditions for its own survival, loneliness impedes its own cure by breeding shame and shyness. The work of groups such as Age UK, Mind, Positive Ageing and the Campaign to End Loneliness is life-saving.

When I first wrote about this subject, and the article went viral, several publishers urged me to write a book on the theme. Three years sitting at my desk, studying isolation: what’s the second prize? But I found another way of working on the issue, a way that engages me with others, rather than removing me. With the brilliant musician Ewan McLennan, I have written a concept album (I wrote the first draft of the lyrics; he refined them and wrote the music). Our aim is to use it to help break the spell, with performances of both music and the spoken word designed to bring people together –which, we hope, will end with a party at the nearest pub.

By itself, our work can make only a tiny contribution to addressing the epidemic. But I hope that, both by helping people to acknowledge it and by using the power of music to create common sentiment, we can at least begin to identify the barriers that separate us from others, and to remember that we are not the selfish, ruthless beings we are told we are.

“Breaking the Spell of Loneliness” by Ewan McLennan and George Monbiot is out now. For a full list of forthcoming gigs visit: monbiot.com/music/

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood