The period from Margaret Thatcher’s election as prime minister in 1979 to her ejection by her own party in 1990 was one of the most divisive in British political history. However, before Mad Cow Disease gripped the country, there’s another little known factoid to add to those I detailed in the first part of this series. What was one of the first social reforms of the first Thatcher administration? Only to do what the Labour Party had refused to do in their eight years in power: her government handbagged Scotland into decriminalising the act of being gay a decade and a half after England & Wales had led the way. Northern Ireland duly followed soon after.
But in the same way The Iron Lady didn’t make an issue of her gender, she didn’t exactly champion ’causes’ like gay lib either. Mrs T believed it was what you achieved that mattered, not what you were, though she was certainly partial to individual examples of our breed. Indeed, she depended heavily on a coterie of queens during her time in No.10, from advisers (Matthew Parris, Michael Portillo), speechwriters (Ronnie Millar) and most notably, her image consultant, Gordon Reece. Only a gay man could have come up with that bouffant hairdo, pussy bows and the calculated lowering of her voice that made Sly Stallone sound like a pansy…
If you’re unable to view the video above, here’s the link: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=28_0gXLKLbk
Damien Barr, author of Maggie And Me, reckons “A lot of people say she’s a gay icon. She was also very camp, you know, the pussybows, the big hair and the big shoulder pads, she was sort of like Dynasty politics for us in the UK.” A bastion of propriety herself, the warrior queen was tolerant of others’ lapses, if a little naive. Once, at a meeting, Norman St John-Stevas rose, and apologised for leaving early. “But Norman, I’m also going to the Academy dinner. And I’ve got two meetings after this.” “Ah, yes, Margaret; it takes me longer to change than it does you.” She was astonished to be told that she must have been the last person in Britain to notice Stevas was ‘one of them.’ She still made him a minister once she assumed power, alongside Nicholas Eden, an openly gay old Etonian earl who also became the first member of her goverment to die of AIDS in 1985. In 2013 his homophobic cousin, Lord Eden of Winton, complained in Parliament recently that David Cameron’s gay equality bill will alter the “deep and profound meaning” of marriage. He obviously has a special attachment to marriage, having been given the right to have two of them already.
Thatcher was returned as PM on a further two occasions, pandering ever more to the right-wing Conservative core in order to maintain power. Amid rising hysteria over AIDS, Section 28, designed to prevent the ‘promotion’ of homosexuality, was introduced in May 1988. It would prove to be one of the most disastrous, counterproductive policies ever introduced by a British governing party, not least because it finally forced the likes of this author out of the closet for good. Clause 28 symbolised the nasty, ugly mood in the air. The leader of the Tory group on South Staffordshire District Council called for 90% of gay men to be sent to the gas chamber to check the epidemic. Another chilling example occurred the previous year, Capital Gay magazine’s offices were firebombed. When the incident was mentioned in the Commons by openly gay Labour MP Chris Smith, the Tory backbencher Elaine Kellett-Bowman shouted out, “Quite right, too!” She later defended her words, declaring that “it is quite right that there should be an intolerance of evil.” A fortnight later she received a damehood in the New Year’s honours list, a list recommended by the prime minister.
Thatcher didn’t endorse the worst of these excesses though. Bernard Ingham, the Downing Street press secretary (above), said she found the remarks by the councillor ‘totally repugnant.’ Nevertheless, in 1989, during the Conservative campaign for family values, more than 2,000 men were prosecuted for gross indecency, as many as during the 1950s and nearly three times the numbers in the mid 1960s.
Thankfully, with gay marriages set to take place from next year, we’ve come a long way since the 80s, as we’ll explore in part three next week…