It’s amazing what rumour, myth and counter-rumour can achieve. Back in February, as MPs debated their legislation to offer equal marriage to all, I quipped (some would say in rather questionable taste) to a friend that Margaret Thatcher must be turning in her grave that gays were being allowed such a thing, and by a Conservative government to boot. “She’s still alive,” came my pal’s reply, slightly missing the joke,” both of us completely in the dark that the discordant diva had only a few weeks left to live. Hindsight’s a wonderful thing.
But as I touched on in my recent assessment of the Thatcher years, the contentious empress was a more complex figure than many would have you believe, as has been the Tories’ views on us generally. Could the love-me-or-hate-me woman (Marmite Thatcher, my dad called her) that ruled the party with an iron rod for 15 years really be the ‘homophobic bitch’ that many gayers have been told to believe is the case? Well, as with so many aspects of her paradoxical personality, the truth is a rather more complicated kettle of cod. For instance, it’s not widely known that in Thatcher’s first statement on her position on social issues was, in the epochal parliamentary debate of 1967, she was only one of a tiny number of Tories to vote in favour of decriminalising gay sex. This was at a time when the charming Earl of Dudley’s contribution summed up the general level of argument from the Conservative establishment: “I cannot stand homosexuals. They are the most disgusting people in the world. I loathe them. Prison is much too good a place for them.”
Maggie’s rationale was very simple, as her biographer Charles Moore confirms: ‘”Her backing of the liberalisation of the laws against homosexual acts derived from her observation in cases which she had seen as a barrister, which she had considered a humiliating intrusion into privacy and a waste of court time.” And there is every reason to think that the lady was sincere in her beliefs. Michael McManus, the unfortunately named author of recent book “Tory Pride And Prejudice,” reckons that “when Thatcher was a backbencher voting with her conscience and didn’t have elections to win, she was very libertarian.”
However, even after being gay was legalised, it was still considered a source of shame, and Thatcher wasn’t above drawing attention to the much whispered rumour that Edward Heath, British Prime Minister of the early 1970s and the man who’d only recently brought her into government, was an uphill gardener. Indeed, WF Deedes noted in his diaries that during a private conversation with Mrs T at the time: “M seems convinced TH is a homosexual.” And in a Sunday Express interview she phrased her sympathy for the political difficulties Heath, a confirmed bachelor til the day he died, was experiencing in a way that contrasted him unfavourably with herself: “All this is so wretched for him . . . And unlike me he hasn’t a family around him from whom to draw strength.” This being politics, naturally ambition played its part as well, and in 1975, after Heath failed to agree a coalition with his Liberal counterpart Jeremy Thorpe, himself later outed as a homosexualist in a sensational attempted murder trial, Thatcher challenged the old sailor for leadership and won.
McManus acknowledges that her social attitudes changed once she became PM herself in 1979. As he puts it, “In the 80s everyone just went a little mad,” as we’ll explore in part two…