The current government in Britain has announced that it wants to bring in gay civil marriage. It has faced criticism from some of its supporters for doing so, as well as from certain religious groups. It is possible that this criticism has made the government rethink its initial enthusiasm for the reform. Some gay rights activists now accuse it of slowing down its plans and even preparing to ditch them altogether.
While David Cameron denies that this is the case, the history of the battle for gay rights in Britain has been typified by similar compromise and delay. The many years that it took Tony Blair to remove Section 28 from the statute book are still fresh in the memories of gay campaigners, but these were only the latest in a long line of stutters and hesitations.
Gay people in England and Wales have been able to have sex with each other legally since 1967, thanks to Leo Abse’s private members’ bill. But in Scotland they were still committing an offence if they did so until 1980 and in Northern Ireland until 1982, when the European Court of Human Rights finally intervened to force change. Even after that watershed, gay 17-year-olds could only sleep with each other legally in England and Wales: the ages of consent in Northern Ireland and Scotland being 18 and 21 respectively right up to the end of the millenium.
What is sometimes forgotten now, and what is therefore the focus of this post, is that the 1967 Act itself was a long time in the making, with successive governments dragging their feet over the reform. The Wolfenden Committee had recommended in 1957 that sexual offences between consenting adults, of whatever sex, be decriminalised. ‘It is not, in our view, the function of the law to intervene in the private life of citizens,’ it had said, ‘or to seek to enforce any particular pattern of behaviour.’ But the Tory government of the day had not had the stomach for reform, and indeed, in many cases, had not morally agreed with it.
When Harold Wilson became Prime Minister in 1964 some homosexual rights activists hoped for swift action, but again they were initially disappointed. The government made clear that on this, as on other difficult moral issues, it would not take a lead. Rather it preferred to allow individual parliamentarians, like Abse, to do the running.
Gradually – but only gradually – it emerged that the government’s passivity was actually of quite a benign sort. In particular, the Cabinet was willing to ensure that private members’ bills on sensitive topics such as homosexuality and abortion would have enough time to make it into law. And yet, even then, the first such bill to stand a serious chance, brought by Humphry Berkeley MP, failed precisely because of Harold Wilson’s decision to call a snap election in March 1966.
Berkeley lost his Lancaster seat at that election (he always said because of the unpopularity of his pro-homosexual stance) and it fell to Abse (MP for Pontypool) to take the measure forward. This time, the Cabinet’s tacit support was more fulsome. In October 1966, Roy Jenkins, the Home Secretary, circulated a memorandum (cited in full below) which advocated making time for any new decriminalisation bill. In May 1967, when the shape of Abse’s bill became clear, the issue was again discussed by ministers and they decided that every effort should be made to see the measure onto the statute book before recess. As Jenkins observed, ‘We shall be under considerable criticism, mainly from our own supporters, if we fail to provide a little time for Mr Abse’s Bill to make progress.’
And this time was to be the successful one. Abse’s Bill passed in the House of Commons by a substantial majority, though many MPs did not vote. Jenkins himself spoke in support of it during the debate, his words now, however, appearing very dated: ‘It would be a mistake to think… that by what we are doing tonight we are giving a vote of confidence or congratulation to homosexuality,’ he said. ‘Those who suffer from this disability carry a great weight of loneliness, guilt and shame. The crucial question, which we are nearly at the end of answering decisively, is, should we add to those disadvantages the full rigour of the criminal law? By its overwhelming decisions, the House has given a fairly clear answer, and I hope that the Bill will now make rapid progress towards the Statute Book. It will be an important and civilising Measure.’
The Coalition government of Britain in 2012 has put itself in a position to support another important and civilising measure. Unlike the Labour government in 1967, it has said that it is prepared to lead the change and not just to go along with it; truly we have come a long way in 45 years. But having pinned its (rainbow) colours to the mast, the Cabinet now should not back down or yield to the temptation to delay. Instead it should remember that an inequality, once identified and admitted to, will remain an inequality right up until the moment it is removed.
24 October 1966
HOMOSEXUAL LAW REFORM
Memorandum by the Secretary of State for the Home Department
The Wolfenden Committee recommended that homosexual acts in private between consenting adults should cease to be unlawful. Lord Arran’s Sexual Offences Bill to amend the law of England and Wales in accordance with this recommendation has twice been through all its stages in the House of Lords. It was passed on 28th October, 1965, by 96 votes to 31 and on 16th June, by 78 votes to 60. A similar Bill introduced by Mr. Humphry Berkeley last Session was given a Second Reading in the House of Commons on 11th February, 1966, by 164 votes to 107. The Bill was well placed to make further progress, but became a casualty of the General Election.
No member successful in the ballot for Private Members’ Bills this Session wished to introduce a Bill on this subject. But on 5th July, 1966, Mr. Abse was given leave under the ’10-minute rule’ to introduce such a Bill by 244 votes to 100. The Bill has not yet been published, but will probably be identical with Lord Arran’s Bill.
The recent votes show that a majority in both Houses (and particularly now in the House of Commons) favours implementation of the Wolfenden Committee’s recommendation. I do not suggest that the Government should depart from its earlier decision to adopt a neutral attitude on the principles involved… but we shall be under considerable criticism, mainly from our own supporters, if we fail to provide a little time for Mr. Abse’s Bill to make progress. There is also the point that, if we leave the matter in abeyance, there is difficulty in administering a part of the Criminal Law against which both Houses have twice pronounced.
I ask my colleagues to agree that half a day of Government time should be made available for a Second Reading debate on Mr Abse’s Bill. This proposal has the support of the Lord President and the Chief Whip.
R[oy]. H[arris]. J[enkins].