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24 January 2000

When liberals must listen

New Statesman Scotland

By Alistair Moffat

The Scottish executive has got itself into an almighty mess over the repeal of Section 28. One of the more capable of Donald Dewar’s ministers, Wendy Alexander, planned to remove this obnoxious piece of Thatcherite legislation which specifically banned the “promotion” of homosexuality in schools. Quite what that meant in practice remains unclear, but the ideological point of this shaft of legislative intolerance was sharp enough. In 1988, the Tory government introduced it as a reaction to graphic gay material that had begun to appear in schools in some of the loonier left-wing London boroughs. In a historical sense, one piece of extremism was met by another and Section 28 was duly plonked on to the statute book.

In an act of what seemed to the cynical like perfect new Labour thinking (right-on sentiments and it doesn’t cost anything – what could be better?), Alexander proposed to repeal this legislation in Scotland – and, gilding the progressive lily, Westminster plans to follow Holyrood’s lead. Properly explained and properly understood, there should have been no real problem with the initiative.

But, like the planned ban on fox-hunting, which has many of the same superficially attractive liberal attributes, this political play never really got past the “it’s jist no’ right” school of philosophy.

All hell has broken loose. The consultation period on Section 28 ended last Friday and it seems that approximately 90 per cent of the respondents were against the repeal. That ought to have set alarm bells ringing. Anything, anything at all, to do with children and sexuality is extremely treacherous territory, no matter how decent the intentions.

Then the lid blew off. Brian Souter, chief executive of Stagecoach and probably Scotland’s richest citizen, promised between £500,000 and £1 million to back a campaign against the repeal of Section 28. His spokesman promised a “fight to the death”. Both tabloid and broadsheet newspapers reacted by trying, very reasonably since it seemed that no one else had, to explain to the public what the repeal might mean in practice. Several lit upon two publicly funded websites that are involved in the “promotion” of homosexuality. “Healthy Gay Scotland” receives an annual grant of £150,000 from no less than the Scottish executive itself and features a glossary of gay practices illustrated by graphic photographs. Apparently, in an effort to offer some sense of what Holyrood might have in mind by removing the ban on the “promotion” of homosexuality, these websites had been shown to Souter. As the father of four children (three of whom are at state schools), he drew his own conclusions and reached for his chequebook. And, over what should have been yet another minor matter, attitudes are being adopted, headlines written and threats exchanged on all sides.

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Now Dewar has stepped into this explosive mess to try to calm it down and to protect Alexander. However, both a sense of perspective and some common sense were lacking at the outset. Because Section 28 was originally introduced as a piece of unpleasant extremism to suppress another piece of unpleasant extremism, did nobody complete the syllogism? If they had, then surely a great deal of effort would have been expended in explaining what was or, more important, was not about to happen. “It’s jist no’ right” won’t do.

More crucial was a comprehensive misunderstanding of the sentiments of parents, such as Souter. Most mothers and fathers do not want their children to be gay. This is not because they find homosexual practices repulsive or gay people unpleasant. It is because they judge that it is a difficult life with the black cloud of HIV hanging over it. Being gay, in their view, can be a risky and possibly fatal lifestyle and no parent wants that for their child. These visceral issues may have no direct or practical connection with Section 28 but they circle around it nonetheless, awaiting an opportunity to surface, and it seems that the Scottish executive took little account of their power.

Brian Souter is obviously wrong, but many parents will have identified with his concerns, and his money can buy a great deal of publicity for them. And Section 28 should be repealed – it is a clear case of intolerance. But before it is, the Holyrood government needs to do a great deal of hard thinking, a hefty amount of very persuasive talking – and some even more attentive listening.

Alistair Moffat