Why gays become politicians

Pitt the Younger, Tom Driberg, possibly even Disraeli: Simon Heffer explains why homosexuality and a

Before modernisation caught up with the Palace of Westminster there were some old-fashioned shower cubicles near the barber's shop in the House of Commons. In the early 1980s a Tory minister was abluting in one cubicle, and a very old Labour Welsh mining MP was in the next. The minister dropped the soap. "I'd pick it up for you, boy," the Labour man shouted, "only I never bend down in these showers when there's a public schoolboy in them."

The ex-public schoolboys no longer have a monopoly on homosexuality in politics. Indeed, in the present government it is the public school types who seem most competently to be flying the flag for heterosexuality. What the current rash of "outed" MPs does prove, however, is that there is nothing new under the sun. Homosexuality and a political career have long been the most natural of bedfellows: all that has changed is that it is now suddenly fashionable to draw attention to the fact and to elucidate it. A generation after the legalisation of homosexuality, men who would once have felt that participation in public life presented too much of a risk for them now see no reason not to follow their vocation.

Those who know about this sort of thing have offered various explanations. Most obviously, there is the almost feminine love of intrigue that politics can satisfy. In the 1970s and 1980s Conservative Central Office was absolutely teeming with homosexuals, all backbiting merrily against each other, all plotting their respective inexorable rises. (Where, you might ask, are they now?) That was a mafia that would put to shame anything the modern Labour Party can come up with.

Others talk of the great compassion homosexuals feel as a result of their supposedly more sensitive nature (something the rest of us may find hard to reconcile with what we hear of the brutally carnal Russian roulette nature of Clapham Common). This, apparently, causes them to wish to serve others and create a better world (a motivation of which there is little evidence among the majority of heterosexual MPs). To revert to baser stereotypes, politics is, well, rather camp. It is not just the availability of opportunities for intrigue. The House of Commons has lots of ritual, a bit of dressing up (though the Lords wins hands down on both those fronts), and buckets of theatricality. It is still male dominated, which could be rather attractive to those who enjoy the opportunities that might be provided by spending much time in the company of men.

Politics is also famously all-consuming, an attraction to sad bastards of any sexual orientation who are looking for something to absorb them in the absence of what may pass for a normal family life. The political party provides an alternative family. In the Conservative Party that family, at constituency level, comprises mainly late-middle-aged ladies whose society many homosexuals find deeply rewarding. Anyone who has studied the world of student politics, similarly, will have noted that many of those who develop most precociously in politics are the most retarded sexually and emotionally. Perhaps this is why so many rumours abounded about William Hague before his marriage; in fact, he limits his male-on-male activities to a spot of wrestling with Sebastian Coe, and seems oblivious to the strident homosexuals who form part of his close circle of supporters. Becoming active in politics as a way of life can often be a means of not having to grow up. No wonder such a life can, at times, have an odd effect on the expression of sexuality by both repressed heterosexuals and repressed homosexuals. We have seen too often how marriages go to pot under the strain of political life. There is an obvious benefit here of politics as a career for homosexuals.

Above all, being a politician is a terrific way of grabbing attention; and one has come to the conclusion that since the "outing" of MPs is so often done by other homosexuals, grabbing attention is something these boys positively relish. The horror that has been expressed about the intrusion into the private lives of ministers recently has mainly been voiced by the victims themselves, and by their tolerant, broad-minded heterosexual supporters. One senses that militant elements in the homosexual fraternity are actually rather pleased, which is why some of its members have played such an active part in these and other "outings". It is not just a question of the more the merrier.

It is clear that certain homosexuals believe that the prejudice and oppression they feel they suffer can be best countered by proving that there are far more of them around than the oppressors think. By outing politicians, they can ensure publicity; it makes a change from outing yet another actor, pop star or celebrity hairdresser. This is because the public, often hypocritically, still find it hard to accept that those who govern them ought to be anything other than red-blooded heteros.

Yet homosexuality in political life goes back a long way. In the age before democracy, the homosexual favourite was a fixture at court. Our queens have not always been female, as Edward II or James I would tell you. It became traditional to secure favour and advancement by getting the monarch to develop more than an intellectual interest in you. The sad by-product of such an approach was, though, that you could all too easily end up on the scaffold once your novelty wore off, and the king moved on to another pretty boy. Others, though, thrived on it - Francis Bacon, one of the greatest of Lord Chancellors, was a promiscuous homosexual for years in the late 16th and early 17th centuries.

Once the Hanoverians took over, and politicians succeeded courtiers as the movers and shakers in the realm, the tradition of homosexuality continued. Pitt the Younger seems almost certainly to have been homosexual, with Canning possibly as his boyfriend. Lord Holland commented in the 1830s that "Pitt used to go into brothels but was never known to have touched a woman"; no wonder we never had Pitt the Even Younger. Pitt's excursions into strumpetry look from this distance like an early bit of spin-doctoring, the activity encouraged and details of it broadcast in much the same way as politicians (especially Tory ones) of doubtful sexuality are urged these days to forestall intrusive questions about their private lives by acquiring wives and children.

Later in the 19th century there was the interesting question of Disraeli. He wrote intensely feminine novels. He had what are caricatured as the great female traits when they are present in men - coquetishness, a love of social mountaineering, bitchiness, disloyalty, excessive flattery, dandyism and snobbery. There is evidence of heterosexual activity, though he appears to have been a virgin until the age of 26 when he caught the clap from an exotic tart in the Near East. He had several mistresses, usually older than him, who could do things for him with their wealth and position. He married an older woman for the same reasons. Yet towards the end of his life he formed a devoted attachment to Monty Corry, his trusty secretary, taking a prurient interest in Corry's own (heterosexual) love life. Above all, it is hard to imagine any remotely normal man having the sort of relationship with Queen Victoria that Disraeli did.

A little later Lord Rosebery, when foreign secretary, was rumoured to be enamoured of his young aide Lord Drumlanrig; an unfortunate business since Drumlanrig was the elder brother of Lord Alfred Douglas and son of the somewhat uncompromising anti-sodomite Marquess of Queensberry. From then until the second half of our own century, homosexuality seems to have died down as a political vice or at least to confine itself to the back benches. There was the odd aberration - Lord Esher, more a courtier than a politician but a man who was offered cabinet office by both Tory and Liberal prime ministers, spent much of his life having tea with boys randomly selected from Eton College and ended up being madly in love with his own son. We cannot be sure about Esher's friend A J Balfour, who had passionate friendships with women but never married, and who comes over in his private correspondence as hermaphroditic, verging on the queeny.

Between the wars there were the high-class bisexual queers such as Chips Channon and Harold Nicolson, which reflected the broadening of the base of the Commons to include flashy Americans and aesthetes. Slightly lower down the scale was the sexually adventurous Bob Boothby, who shared his favours between Lady Dorothy Macmillan and Ronnie Kray, and the unsurpassable Tom Driberg. The front bench did not get back into the act until 1958, when the Foreign Office minister Ian Harvey was discovered with a 19-year-old guardsman in a public lavatory in Hyde Park. Harvey resigned both from the government and parliament, and turned (as we must suppose is inevitable in such circumstances) to drink and Catholicism.

With the legalisation of homosexual activity between consenting adults the fear of blackmail, while not ended, has greatly receded. The case of Jeremy Thorpe in 1979 came about because of allegations of attempted murder, not because Thorpe had homosexual tendencies.

Margaret Thatcher had one notorious homosexual in her first administration; later in her government was a man who, the press were repeatedly informed, was often to be found of an evening kerb-crawling round Sussex Gardens in search of some rough trade. Now prime ministers can and do put homosexuals in their cabinets without fear of scandal, provided straightforward homosexuality is where their interesting lifestyle stops.

Tony Blair's live-and-let-live attitude is in keeping with the best traditions of our liberal society. He can say, with justification, that Ron Davies had to go because he had behaved in a way demeaning to the office of a cabinet minister - not by (allegedly) being homosexual, but by going about it in such an irresponsible way for a man in his position. Had he been robbed while pursuing female prostitutes in King's Cross, his fate would have been the same.

Neither Peter Mandelson nor Nick Brown has (so far as we know) behaved with anything other than propriety and discretion, which is why there should be no question of their resigning; though it would be wise for all homosexual politicians to follow the sensible rule for heterosexual ones, and think carefully about whom they are getting into bed with.

A minister whose boyfriend is so dodgy that he rushes off to flog his story to the News of the World is, frankly, the author of his own misfortune.

Labour's only possible problem is that such a rush of liberal thinking might be too much for the implicitly conserva-tive British. Progressives might like to think otherwise, but most people's daily lives are not filled with encounters with conspicuous homosexuals, and they are still uncomfortable about such things. That may well be narrow-minded of them; but such a thought would be of small consolation after an election defeat.

The writer is a "Daily Mail" columnist

Simon Heffer is a journalist, author and political commentator, who has worked for long stretches at the Daily Telegraph and the Daily Mail. He has written biographies of Thomas Carlyle, Ralph Vaughan Williams and Enoch Powell, and reviews and writes on politics for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 13 November 1998 issue of the New Statesman, Why gays become politicians