Anthony Lester on how Lib Dems and liberal politics have influenced progress of gay rights in UK

Yesterday in the House of Lords, Lib Dem peer Anthony Lester spoke about the Liberal Democrat involvement in changing the law, and, more importantly, public opinion on LGBT rights.

Here is his speech in full:

This year is the fiftieth anniversary of Leo Abse’s Private Member’s Bill that became the Sexual Offences Act 1967. It came ten years after the Wolfenden report recommended reform. The Act abolished the crime of sexual love between two men over the age of 21 in private.  It had crucial support from the then Home Secretary, Roy Jenkins.  But the path of reform has been long and tortuous and has required intervention from the European Court of Human Rights and the European Union.

The 1967 Act did not apply to Northern Ireland, and it required a judgment by the Strasbourg Court in Jeffrey Dudgeon’s case to persuade Parliament to abolish the offence in Northern Ireland.

The 1994 Act repealed the clauses in the 1967 Act that made homosexual activity in the armed forces and on merchant navy vessels a criminal offence. But clauses were introduced in this House that provided that nothing in the 1994 Act would prevent homosexual activity from constituting grounds for dismissal. The clauses were approved in Committee by a division on 20th June 1994.

The Strasbourg Court ruled in 2000 in Smith and Grady’s case that the provisions in the 1994 Act violated the right to respect for private life under a policy that involved investigating whether personnel were homosexual or had engaged in homosexual activity. If so, they were discharged.

EU employment equality directives and the Equality Act 2010 dealt with the problem. But the offending provisions remain disfiguring the statute book. As the Minister, Andrew Jones MP, said the Bill “addresses a historical wrong and the inadequacy of legislation to keep pace with out culture”.

When I became a member of the House in November 1993, it was deeply homophobic. Section 28 of the Local Government Act 1988 was in force. Among other things, it forbade local authorities “from teaching in any maintained school of the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship”.

Tony Blair’s New Labour government tried to repeal it, with strong Liberal Democrat support, but the government was defeated on 7 February 2000 by a campaign led by Baroness Young, I spoke in favour of repeal. The House also rejected lowering the age of consent to that of heterosexual couples. Baroness Young was supported not only by Conservative and some Labour peers but by religious groups, including the Salvation Army, the Christian Institute, the African and Caribbean Evangelical Alliance, the Muslim Council of Britain, the Chief Rabbi, Dr. Jonathan Sacks, and orthodox Jews, groups within the Catholic Church and the Church of England, and several retired Law Lords. She was also supported by The Daily Mail, The Sun, and The Daily Telegraph. They claimed that section 28 protected children from predatory homosexuals and from advocates seeking to indoctrinate young people into homosexuality.

After the death of Baroness Young, and with the appointment of a new liberal generation of life peers by Tony Blair, organized opposition in the Lords was weakened. The House finally voted in favour of repeal in 2003, a year after I introduced my Civil Partnership Bill that led to the Blair government’s Civil Partnership Act in 2004.

David Cameron’s politically acrobatic record illustrates how times have changed for the better. In 2000, he opposed the repeal of section 28 and accused Tony Blair of being against family vales and of “moving heaven and earth to allow the promotion of homosexuality in our schools.” In 2003, he voted against the repeal of section 28. A year later, he supported civil partnership for same sex couples. In 2009, he apologized for having supported section 28. In 2013, he supported same sex marriage that is still not allowed in Northern Ireland.

In her important and timely book, The Enemy Within, Baroness Warsi recalled how her party had rabble-roused the party faithful at conferences and meetings against gay people and enacted legislation that stigmatized them from birth. She is deeply ashamed of having been homophobic at a time when homophobia was a so-called “British value”.

But she and her colleagues were not alone. Homophobia was not and is not confined to the Conservative Party and it is driven, here and abroad, by the ideology of orthodox clerics and their adherents in the three Abrahamic religions – Judaism, Christianity and Islam. When this Bill becomes law it will rid the statute book of an ugly relic from a bigoted past but it will not of course end the culture of intolerance of gay love.

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  • Philip Squire 7th Apr '17 - 5:43pm

    Strangely silent on the contribution of Simon Hughes on his 1983 campaign against Peter Tatchell.

  • Jonathan Linin 7th Apr '17 - 9:16pm

    I worked on Simon Hughes’ campaign in 1983 over a period of several weeks. Homophobic campaigning was not part of what we did. The Independent Labour candidate made much of it as did the tabloids.

    Perhaps we should have done more to distance ourselves from it, but that is easily said at this distance, remember it was only a few years after the Jeremy Thorpe scandal and the other parties and the press would have been quite happy to jump all over us at any opportunity.

    It is difficult to remember that public attitudes were VERY different then, things have moved on so fast (thankfully).

  • Lorenzo Cherin 8th Apr '17 - 1:10am

    A great shout out for decency and humanity by Lord Lester, and very Liberal understanding of the often very fine Baroness Warsi and her personal journey to common sense and modern values.

    Marred not one jot even by the above absurd reference to Simon Hughes in anything other than a positive light, the camp[aign alluded to even seen by Tatchell, as one of forgive and forget all round !

    We do well to remember the wonderful liberal Roy Jenkins, before he was the Liberal one he became in name as he had been in reality.

  • Lorenzo, you’re far too young to know anything about the Bermondsey by-election campaign. It took place, I would guess, years before you even joined the Labour Party. You should moderate your over fulsome comments accordingly.

    The facts are that Simon Hughes (twenty three years later when he was ‘outed by the Sun) did have the decency to apologise to Peter Tatchell for the nature of the Liberal campaign which included a leaflet headed ‘It’s a Straight Choice’ – alluding to Tatchell’s sexuality. This turned out to be somewhat ironic following events in the leadership election of 2006.

    How do I know ?,,,,,,,,,, because at the time of the by-election I was PPC for Richmond, Yorkshire, and went down to London to help in the campaign. For the record, when I saw the ‘Straight Choice’ leaflet (note the capital ‘S’) I refused to deliver it.

    I’m afraid there is nothing absurd about Philip Squire’s comment, although I wish that it was..

  • The leaflet is available online -a Google image search will turn it up. It’s a ‘sorry you were out’ leaflet which says this election is ‘A straight choice’ between left wing Labour & Simon Hughes. Tatchell isn’t mentioned & the definite article isn’t used. If you want to see a real homophobic campaign just Google ‘Miranda Grell’

  • Dave Orbison 8th Apr '17 - 1:09pm

    David Raw – thank you for having the honesty and integrity to set the record straight, no pun intended, as to Bermondsey by-election. I was a ‘non out’ gay teenager at the time living in the political backwaters of North Wales. It was a terribly depressing era with the introduction of the Tory ‘s Clause 27, later to become Clause 28, rooted in homophobia running alongside the Tabloids’ witch-hunting hysteria as we faced up to the onslaught of AIDS.

    Some of my friends were Liberals and had reassured me prior to Bermondsey as to how “pro-Gay Rights” the Liberal Party was. So it was doubly depressing to witness the Bermondsey Liberal byelection campaign back then.

    Lornezo – to dismiss such an appalling act, one that Simon Hughes at least had the decency though somewhat belatedly to apologise for, does you or the LibDems no service. It feels like you are rubbishing the hurt and fears of the LGBT community at that time. In the context of all the homophobia that was prevalent back then, the Liberal Bermondsey byelection material was outrageous and offensive.

    Of course, there were many homophobic elements within the Labour Party too. But thankfully Labour, LibDems and unions have worked together to tackle discrimination and make the UK a better place than it was once for members of the LGBT community. But there is much more to do and we need to remain vigilant that the progress gained over recent years is not fritted away.

    The LibDems deserve credit yes, but so do others. But let’s not air brush mistakes of the past. Equally, I should remind you that all in not plain sailing still within the LibDems. Tim Farron has, as well documented, had his own issues with some aspects of gay equality. Let’s not get too complacent

  • Lorenzo Cherin 8th Apr '17 - 1:23pm


    I dispute knowledge based on reading and thinking as being not relevant. Your presumption is wrong, I joined the Labour party in my very early teens and was a member then, anyway, so did follow the by election, I was in a nearby constituency.

    Your direct experience is very important, as is your age , and position then, involved far more. I think you are to be praised for your principled stand in not delivering the leaflet that was a very poor reduction of the campaign to where it got, the gutter.

    I just want forgive and forget to be far more prevalent, as with Baroness Warsi, learning from mistakes is important. So much more today is based on modern shared understanding and values.

  • @Paul Walter Thank you for producing the leaflet. It shows the pecant words in stand out bold block capitals – (Colin W please note) which, given the echoes elsewhere in the tabloid press, had a perfectly clear meaning. It also carried a verging on the ambiguous
    headline which could be taken to imply that the candidate called personally if one ignores the very small print.

    Questionable tactics were also used when Kate Hoey first stood in a by-election nearby.

  • Lorenzo Cherin 8th Apr '17 - 9:33pm


    As with your fellow David , above, you do me and you a disservice by presuming or accusing in your case, me, of any unintended motive or responsibility or in effect herein,rather ,meaning, in my comments.

    Under any circumstances I, would say more good than anything about Sir Simon Hughes. In this complicated matter I would more so, despite the wretched, note my words, campaign.

    He obviously was conflicted and troubled, as he has shared, about his own sexuality , and public persona, religious beliefs perhaps involving guilt feelings , we who do not share those beliefs, or have more confidence in our beliefs, might not feel.

    I was and am a critic of the old seventies, eighties Liberals, in some way, I think sometimes, too often populists or leftists, compared to the Grimond era before I was born, or the age old party, which was broad in outlook, by the eighties, it was the added SDP , pragmatists and centrists, gave it the broader church, I prefer.

    The Liberal reputation was for fighting dirty once in a while, in certain circumstances in by elections , as they were making up for what they lacked in money or clout.

    That would explain the culture, quite apart from the homophobia of the era.And the dirtiness in Labour as well as the outright prejudice in the Tories then.

    Nobody cares more about these matters than me. You would be hard pressed to find a stronger ally.

  • If the “straight choice” leaflet was homophobia in 1983, where does that leave Jeremy Corbyn campaigning for the Labour leadership in 2016 against Angela Eagle at a podium bearing his “straight talking” slogan?

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