David Butterfield

Persistent buggers: how The Spectator fought to decriminalise homosexuality

Persistent buggers: how The Spectator fought to decriminalise homosexuality
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Fifty years ago today, on 27 July 1967, the Sexual Offences Act received royal assent, at last decriminalising male homosexuality - for those over 21 in England and Wales, anyway. The credit for finally getting the bill through Parliament is due to Harold Wilson’s Labour government, inspired by the strenuous efforts of the Labour MP Leo Abse, and the Conservative peer Arthur Gore, 8


Earl of Arran. However, a journalistic campaign to overturn an unjust and unworkable law began with The Spectator, which had for the previous dozen years been the lead supporter of the cause in the press.

After the dust settled in post-War Britain, disparate members of the Houses of Parliament held the sincere but mostly tacit belief that the law criminalising homosexuality desperately needed amendment, if not scrapping entirely. The Spectator was swift to champion the major recommendation of the Wolfenden Report of 1957 that homosexuality be legalised in private between adults over 21. A leading article of 6 September outlined the magazine’s position:

Since the Criminal Law Amendment Act of 1885 homosexual actions between consenting males have been criminal, even when they are performed in private. This measure—the Labouchere amendment—was passed late at night without discussion and, possibly, by mistake. There is no doubt that the Wolfenden Committee (with one dissentient) is right to propose its repeal.

Whatever feelings of revulsion homosexual actions may arouse, the law on this point is utterly irrational and illogical. It is impossible to argue that homosexual actions between consenting males are more anti-social than adultery, fornication, or homosexual actions between consenting females, none of which are crimes. Not only is the law unjust in conception, it is almost inevitably unjust in practice. Save in very exceptional circumstances a prosecution can only be brought on the evidence of one of the parties concerned, who is, necessarily as guilty as the party who is prosecuted. Indeed it was a particularly unfair prosecution of this sort which was largely responsible for the setting up of the Wolfenden Committee, and it is pleasantly ironical that the actions of those concerned in that case should have led to a recommendation that the law should be changed.

The ‘unfair prosecution’ refers to the so-called Montagu Case, the most prominent of thousands of criminal trials for homosexual activity brought each year. In 1954, Lord Montagu of Beaulieu was imprisoned for twelve months for ‘consensual homosexual offences’ with some guests on his private estate; two of his friends received eighteen months. The verdict so outraged The Spectator’s editor and proprietor, Ian Gilmour, that he wrote a 2,500-word broadside under his own name, which asserted that the trial was vitiated by police malpractice. He expressed his hope that the country would not see ‘the Director of Public Prosecutions staging such a circus again’. Gilmour subsequently opened up the pages of The Spectator to frank discussion of the issue and campaigned for a Royal Commission.

The magazine first hosted an anonymous doctor’s ‘medical viewpoint’ on homosexuality in the issue of 17 December 1954. The piece was sympathetic to ‘biological homosexuals’ who ‘constitute one, or perhaps two, per cent of the population.’ The writer argued that the law should not punish such people for sexual relations with those of the same persuasion. A month later (14 Jan. 1955) the Spectator ran a candid autobiographical article, giving ‘a biological homosexual’s view’. The writer, understandably not named, recorded his conviction ‘that biological homosexuals have no freedom of choice at any time during their lives as to whether they will or will not so be.’ The author objected that homosexuals were ‘debarred from a permanent and publicly esteemed cohabitation with a loved and loving partner’.

The open expression of such attitudes prompted widespread hostility in the press. John Gordon, the editor-in-chief of the Sunday Express, dubbed the magazine ‘The Bugger’s Bugle’ for having trumpeted reform so loudly. At that time, The News of the World called homosexuality ‘the evil in our midst’, and The Sunday Pictorial published a three-part series on ‘Evil Men’ that argued that this ‘unnatural sex vice’ produced ‘the horrors of Hitlerite corruption’ in Germany, ruined classical Greece and would in turn destroy Britain. Even the country’s Lord Chancellor (and former Home Secretary), Sir David Maxwell-Fyfe, could assert that ‘homosexuals, in general, are exhibitionists and proselytisers, and a danger to others, especially the young’.

Uncowed, The Spectator openly supported the creation of the Wolfenden Committee. The magazine expressed its hope that the committee could find the moral strength to tackle ‘a field of enquiry in which prejudice is bitter; which is riddled with feelings – conscious and unconscious – of fear, hate and lust’. Despite the progressive conclusions of the Wolfenden Report, however, it did not find favour with Macmillan’s cabinet, and was defeated by the Lords in December 1957.

To encourage society – or those in power – to reform their attitudes, The Spectator continued to fight for the cause. On 17 January 1958 – as part of a long series of correspondence on ‘Vice prosecutions’ – it printed a letter from the novelist E.M. Forster (then 79) demanding that the conclusions of the Wolfenden Report be heeded. He saw the report as ‘a living document which will be constantly discussed and will gradually influence public opinion.’ But progress in Parliament proved achingly slow. Bernard Levin (‘Taper’) echoed the lament of Leslie Hale MP in his ‘Westminster Commentary’ on the issue (28 Nov. 1958): ‘The vice Anglais is not buggery but humbuggery’. Levin was uncompromising in denouncing the histrionic opponents of legal reform:

It will be a long time before I hear a speech as nasty, hysterical, and incoherent as that of [the Labour MP John] Bellenger; at least I hope it will. He doesn’t hold, he told us, with all this ‘fancy talk’ about love and affection between homosexuals, but there was no evidence that he understood or had studied anything on the subject other than what can be picked up on top of a bus... It appears that a representative [of the people] cannot agree to a proposal that might bring an end to the agony, misery, degradation, corruption and suffering that many of his fellow-beings suffer as a result of a law which does no corresponding good.

Nevertheless, the recommendations of the Wolfenden Committee suffered equal defeat in the Commons.

As heels continued to drag throughout Macmillan’s prime-ministerial terms (1957-63), The Spectator remained a vocal and engaged campaigner to overturn this social injustice. A leader of 1960 (24 June), entitled ‘Stand up and be counted’, called upon MPs to support the motion of Kenneth Robinson to take heed of the crucial ‘Part II’ of the Wolfenden recommendations. The Spectator lamented what it called ‘a sorry story of delay and cowardice... it is to be hoped that it is at last coming to an end... It is time for all those in Parliament who are capable of being moved to action at once socially desirable and morally humane, to stand up on Wednesday next and be counted.’ That call was again in vain.

In 1960, three gay men turned to The Spectator to come out: their joint letter declared their homosexuality and bravely signed off with their real names, which they acknowledged ‘may well be foolhardy’. Together they complained that homosexuality ‘is often called a problem, but is only a problem because of the prevailing attitude towards it and because of the ludicrous law which encourages such an attitude and hinders every attempt to overcome it.’

In 1962, the Labour MP Donald Donnelly likewise used The Spectator to set out a draft ‘Private Member’s Bill’ to overturn the ‘Labouchere Amendment’. The then editor, Brian Inglis, had instituted ‘a series of such articles, contributed by back-benchers’ each introducing a bill ‘in the form in which it will – or should – be discussed in Parliament, coupled with a discussion of why [the author] is anxious for it to reach the Statute Book.’ Inglis archly observed, ‘if time cannot be found to discuss such proposals at Westminster, at least they can be aired in the press.’ Making the most of such a platform, Donnelly set out a lucid and eloquent case for legal reform, placed in the historical context of progress and relapse.

Throughout these years, The Spectator received supportive letters from all quarters. The magazine in fact became the primary public outlet for the Homosexual Law Reform Society, the private but powerful lobby group founded by A.E. Dyson (a future Spectator columnist) and steered by ‘Antony Grey’ (Edgar Wright). Dr Robert Reid, a founding member of that organisation, told The Spectator in 1960 that ‘largely owing to your efforts and those of other liberal-minded journals, the persecution of homosexual people is entering upon a new and milder phase.’

It therefore was unsurprising that Leo Abse, the MP who proposed the decriminalisation of homosexuality in 1961, but only attained success in 1967, saw The Spectator as a longstanding ally in the campaign. He later became a regular contributor to the magazine, writing a retrospective survey of the Sexual Offenses Act on its ten-year anniversary (9 July 1977). It is also noteworthy that the Home Secretary who supported his bill, Roy Jenkins, had been for many years an impassioned Spectator writer.

For almost half a millennium, male homosexuality was outlawed (female homosexuality has not been prohibited by law): Henry VIII imposed his ‘Acte for the punysshement of the vice of Buggerie’ in 1533. At last, fifty years ago today, major progress was made in overturning the substance of that law – even if convictions for homosexual behaviour rose in the wake of the Sexual Offences Act 1967. The pages of The Spectator went on to argue for lowering the age of consent to sixteen, and incorporating Scotland and Northern Ireland in the law – something not achieved until 1982. A particularly strident campaigner for further change was Ian Harvey, the Conservative MP for East Harrow before his political career ended in tatters when in 1958 he was charged with ‘gross indecency’ after being arrested with a Coldstream Guard in the bushes of St James Park.

The Spectator never preached to its readers: as the online archive reveals, its comment and letters pages hosted the full spectrum of opinion with respect. It led the columnist Alan Watkins to observe that ‘in many respects Gilmour’s Spectator of the 1950s anticipated the Britain of the 1960s’. Here's a timely reminder that an often conservative magazine can help usher in such progressive reforms.

A shorter version of this article appears in this week’s magazine.