It appears to be a developing habit of mine only to write blog posts when something in the Guardian on a Saturday has annoyed me. This one is delayed slightly, as I read the article in question on a train heading out of wifi range for several days.
There are many things to dislike about Michael Bloch’s article ‘Double lives – a history of sex and secrecy at Westminster‘ in this weekend’s Guardian.* A quick survey of homosexuality in twentieth-century British politics, its creepy prurience is very thinly masked by an insincere decrial of the “cruel and illiberal atmosphere” of less enlightened times, and an equally phoney thankfulness that “gay men and women, in politics as elsewhere, can now be honest about their sexuality”. This humbug sits ill with the overall tone of the piece, which is very much in the “And HE was one, too!” line. (Always he: the mention of gay women is too passing even to qualify as tokenism.) No more sincere than the larding of right-thinking sanctimony is the putative analytical argument of the piece—that homosexual men made effective politicians because they were flamboyant yet secretive, takers of calculated risks, etc etc. This is crass, not to mention riddled with homophobic assumptions, but that doesn’t matter: even more than the hand-wringing at the illiberal past and approbation for the more tolerant present, this nonsense is confined to the opening and closing paragraphs and doesn’t relate in any functional way to the intervening text. Bloch damns himself with the disingenuous contortions of his final sentence, part of which I’ve already quoted:
Following the election, Westminster now boasts 32 openly gay MPs and while one must be thankful that, in Britain, official homophobia is a thing of the past, and that gay men and women, in politics as elsewhere, can now be honest about their sexuality, the necessity for homosexuals in public life to hide their nature, though in itself deplorable, did not, perhaps, exercise an entirely negative influence on the 20th-century political scene.
These criticisms could easily be developed by anyone working on queer history or indeed modern British politics, I’m sure. (I doubt Bloch has any more idea what queer history is than the average Sun staffer.) I don’t work on either of those things, though, so I just want to highlight one point that seems to me to be at the core of the whole shabby enterprise.
The 1957 Wolfenden Report, the piece explains, was delayed for a decade after the cabinet that commissioned it refused to follow its recommendation that homosexual acts between consenting adults be decriminalized. “It is ironic”, Bloch says, “that the Macmillan cabinet that resisted implementing Wolfenden seems to have contained more ‘closet queens’ than any other of the century.”
No: it isn’t ‘ironic’. This is the very thing that needs explaining, and the fact that Bloch can’t see it demonstrates why this article, with its hypocritical voyeurism and reheated scandals, is not a history of anything: the failure of historical enquiry here is absolute.
I promise that my next post won’t be about something I read in the Guardian.
*The piece is a potted version of Bloch’s forthcoming book Closet Queens, whose objectionable title tells you more than enough about his perspective on the subject.
Click image for source (PA/PA Wire).