Thursday, 27 July 2017

Against the Law

Even before 1954, there had been court cases involving sexual activity on the part of mutually consenting males ("acts of gross indecency") warranting a paragraph or two in the News of the World. Sometimes prominent figures, like the actor John Gielgud, were involved but were deemed to merit no more than a straight report.

Perhaps it was the involvement of a peer of the realm, coupled with the fact that one of those involved was himself a rising journalist, that brought the full front-page treatment to the Beaulieu affair. The reports three years earlier of the defection of Burgess and Maclean, in which homosexuality was a factor, may also have propelled same-sex relationships to the top of the press's agenda. Peter Wildeblood's 1955 book "Against the Law" gave an account of the affair and his fairly objective reporting elicited a great deal of public sympathy. Something had to give, and the Wolfenden inquiry was set up. It reported in 1957.

From there, Antony Grey's Quest for Justice: Towards Homosexual Emancipation takes up the story. He explains how two parliamentarians, Leo Abse, Labour MP for Pontypool, and Earl "Boofy" Arran, a hereditary peer, stirred a reluctant legislature into action. Lord Arran was already a controversial columnist in the London Evening Standard and well-known as a campaigner for protection for badgers, so when he led the way with his private Sexual Offences Bill in the Lords in 1965 it attracted some attention.

 It is worth at least skimming through the whole proceedings of the Second Reading debate if only to marvel at the unintentional humour of some of the opposition's remarks. It was also remarkable for the overwhelming expression of support in what was regarded as by far the more conservative of the two Houses of Parliament. As Lord (Frank) Byers pointed out, it also had the support of the broadsheet papers and the Daily Mirror - and of course the Liberal Council.

I did not attend that debate but was in the Strangers' Gallery for the closing moments of the earlier "motion for papers" (practically a sounding-out). I could have sworn that a noble lord asserted with great authority that this sort of thing did not go on in Scotland, though this is not recorded in the archive. Innocent as I was in those days, even I recognised that some of the artistic "goings-on" north of the border were at least camp. I was certainly there for Lord Arran's closing remarks, though he found it difficult to get started, close as he was to tears:

My Lords, I will not attempt to summarise this great debate. Too many good things have been said by too many good people to pick and choose. I will simply say that I have been surprised and delighted by the virtual unanimity of opinion in this debate on the need to implement the main recommendations of the Wolfenden 171 Committee on homosexuality. Lest noble Lords who spoke against should think I am disregarding them, I can say I am not. A former Chief Scout and a Commissioner of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland are major personages; but, as has been pointed out, out of 22 speakers I think 17 or even 18, have been broadly—and some of them very strongly—in favour. They have included four of the Lords Spiritual and other names which are noted and respected throughout the country.

The Sexual Offences Act eventually gained Royal Assent on this day fifty years ago. The wikipedia entry and an Independent piece on the thirtieth anniversary regret that not all the oppressive hangover from Victorian times has been removed.

1 comment:

Frank Little said...

Chris Ashworth in an article reprinted in the i newspaper reminds me that the Wolfenden committee was mandated also to look into prostitution, and that rather more of the Gielgud was prosecution was made than I suggested.