A camp history of Westminster's queer MPs

Michael Bloch's book on homosexuality in the house is fun - but little more than a naughty pleasure.

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Closet Queens: Some 20th-Century British Politicians
Michael Bloch
Little, Brown, 320pp, £25

In Matthew Parris’s foreword to this wry, naughty book he confesses that he finds gossip interesting and declares that it “can be read just for fun”. He is right. There is plenty of fun here, as Michael Bloch writes very entertainingly, and with a sharp sense of humour, about a string of 20th-century politicians who were queer or nearly queer (my term, not his).

That is not to say it’s an unmitigated triumph. Some elements are infuriatingly loopy (not least the title, which seems to tar all homosexuals as camp). Bloch maintains, for instance, that Winston Churchill was intensely narcissistic and exhibitionist, was easily moved to tears, had a passion for silk underwear and felt self-conscious about his short and hairless body, and that these were all “elements in his make-up which might have aroused suspicions of homosexuality”. This is a caricature of homosexuality (and, for that matter, of Winston), not a historical analysis. It is matched later by a similarly cavalier sentence about Paul “Chips” Channon, the married and predominantly gay Tory MP, of whom Bloch declares, “there is something inescapably homosexual about his love of lords, his passion for lavish decor, his fascination with the Nazis, his malicious wit”. Did nobody at Little, Brown think to challenge the idea that a fascination with Nazis was “inescapably homosexual”?

In one of his most bizarre twists of logic, Bloch positively delights in the absence of hard evidence. Thus he haughtily suggests that Lord Kitchener, of whose homosexuality his latest biographer has not been able to find any evidence, “was notorious for his ‘oriental’ secrecy” (nudge, nudge). That several men ensured their papers would be destroyed after their death is posited as a further imputation of having a secret gay life to hide. Thus the absence of evidence is transformed into proof positive.

To be fair, Bloch is right that we should not be naive. For most of the period he writes about homosexuality was illegal – and severely prosecuted. Many were forced to lead deeply unhappy double lives and there is value in trying to draw back the veil on some of the lies that men necessarily told (Bloch expressly and irritatingly omits lesbians from his account), but the danger of posthumous outing is that the historian often seems to be skating on thin ice.

One instance will make the point. Bloch says that Churchill promoted “a great fav­ourite”, the Tory MP for Chelmsford Jack Macnamara, “to important military roles”, the clear insinuation being that it was his homosexuality that recommended him for promotion. Nothing could be further from the truth. Macnamara had entered the army long before the war, served throughout the 1930s in the Territorial Army and was made a colonel of the London Irish Rifles by Neville Chamberlain even though he ardently opposed his policy of appeasement. When war broke out, Macnamara’s regiment was left dawdling on air-raid duties on the south coast and despite his desperate desire to be given a more dangerous command, he was at first put in charge of security for airfields in Northern Ireland. He had to beg Churchill time and again to be given a role in harm’s way. If anything, far from promoting a favourite, Churchill seems to have subscribed to the predominant wartime view that homosexuality was bad for morale.

There are other irritants in the book. The stereotypes of powerful mothers with well-groomed sons feature too prominently. The best evidence for Compton Mackenzie’s homosexuality is that he lived for several years on Capri. In Leslie Hore-Belisha’s case it is that he did not marry until the age of 50.

It is the “Casualties of War” chapter that disappointed me most. Apart from Churchill, many of the leading parliamentary figures in the anti-appeasement movement were either homo- or bisexual, or considered to be so by Chamberlain, who sneeringly called them “the Glamour Boys” – including Anthony Eden, Harold Nicolson, Ronald Cartland, Jack Macnamara, Victor Cazalet, Rob Bernays, Ronnie Tree, Bob Boothby, Brendan Bracken, Paul Latham and Harold Macmillan. There is a fascinating tale to tell here of how the queers defied popular opinion, and of some very special heroism. Cartland was declared unfit for military service, yet insisted on volunteering for the Royal Artillery and lost his life in the calamitous defence of Cassel. While others escaped to Dunkirk, Cazalet was killed returning from inspecting the Polish troops in the Middle East with General Sikorsky. Their friend Macnamara was killed in a mortar attack on the banks of the Senio.

Bloch takes his tale up to the modern day, dealing with Ted Heath, Michael Portillo, Peter Mandelson (whom he calls Polly and Mandy) and the bevy of out gay MPs of the last parliament who have now grown even bigger in number, making Westminster the gayest elected assembly in the world (with Wales far outperforming the rest).

So, yes, this book is fun. Many will find it a naughty pleasure. But I wish there had been tougher analysis of what it did to a man to have to hide his nature. Did it enable him to take more risks as a politician – or fewer? Did it mean that, having already stepped outside the boundaries of convention, these men felt freer to swim against the tide? In one instance at least, this is incontrovertible. Had it not been for the Glamour Boys’ campaign against Chamberlain we would never have fought, let alone won, the Second World War.

Chris Bryant is the MP for Rhondda (Labour)

This article first appeared in the 04 June 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The myths of Magna Carta