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As Public Grows Tolerant, Chattering Class Doesn’t

Martin Walker, a contributing editor to Opinion, is European editor of Britain's the Guardian

Over the past week, photographs of a plump and genial and hitherto rather obscure fellow, standing in a farmyard and wearing a double-breasted suit and green rubber boots, have graced the front pages of Britain’s newspapers. He is Nick Brown, minister of agriculture and a most unlikely icon of tolerance in a British social revolution.

Until the flurry of publicity launched by Rupert Murdoch’s newspapers, most voters could not have picked Brown from a random lineup of farmers and their livestock. He is now famous because he has been “outed” as gay. There was no particular secret about this in political circles. But Brown did not publicize the fact because he thought it might make matters uncomfortable for his mother. Now, she is famous, too.

Brown came out because Murdoch’s News of the World, the best-selling Sunday paper in Britain, was about to name him. He got there first, informing the prime minister that he had had a two-year relationship with someone of the same sex. The former lover had gone to the Murdoch press with his story.

“Minister Confesses Gay Fling to Blair,” ran the News of the World headline. “It follows lover’s kiss ‘n’ tell threat.” Murdoch’s best-selling daily, the Sun, then ran a front-page editorial addressed to Prime Minister Tony Blair. The headline said, “Tell Us the Truth, Tony--Are We Being Run by a Gay Mafia?”

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“Is Britain being run by a gay Mafia of politicians, lawyers, palace courtiers and TV bigwigs?” was the truth the paper wanted told. “The public has a right to know how many homosexuals occupy positions of high power.”

The paper’s political editor, Trevor Kavanagh, wrote a column insisting the public had the right to know the sexual orientation of its politicians and celebrities. Otherwise, he warned, “there is the real risk of a secret society, a free-masonry of self-interested parties--what the Americans call a velvet Mafia.” (Note the subtle voice of English nationalism: It’s all the fault of you Americans.)

This all started three weeks ago, when another Cabinet minister, Ron Davies, the secretary for Wales, resigned after his car was stolen by a stranger to whom he had given a lift in somewhat unusual circumstances, involving a London park that is a popular gay cruising ground. Or, as Murdoch’s papers called it, “Gobblers’ Gulch.”

Then, Matthew Parris, a columnist at Murdoch’s respectable paper, the Times of London, informed a late-night TV talk show that there are “certainly” two gay members of the Cabinet. We all knew of Chris Smith, the arts minister, who lives with his partner of some years. Parris, a former Tory MP who is himself openly gay, named the second: the influential Trade and Industry Secretary Peter Mandelson.

The BBC’s political-affairs director decreed that his staff should make no further reference to Mandelson’s personal life, an overreaction that kept the story running. This inspired the Sun to tell Mandelson to come clean, and then to start the hunt that led to the hapless Brown, the man in the green rubber boots.

You might think from all this that Old England was in the grip of some unsavory witch hunt. Not at all. The public and the politicians actually have a striking display of tolerance for gays. The Guardian commissioned a special opinion poll, which found that a majority (52%) found homosexuality “morally acceptable” and only 36% thought it was not. Moreover, 52% thought being gay was quite compatible with being a Cabinet minister, while only 33% did not.

The results are interesting because this question about Cabinet ministers had not been put before. They are doubly interesting because they come hard on the heels of that other great statement of public tolerance about the snares that sexuality sets for people in public life, the U.S. midterm elections.

The irony is as rich as it is extraordinary. The sinning President Bill Clinton secured the strongest midterm endorsement since the days of Franklin D. Roosevelt. Speaker Newt Gingrich, who tried to exploit the president’s embarrassment, realized it was a verdict that demanded his resignation.

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This striking parallel in the Anglo-American reaction has rather confounded our French friends, who have made much recently about the combinations of prurience and puritanism that bedevil what they call les Anglo-Saxons. That most serious French newspaper, Le Monde, launched a furious attack on the “sexual McCarthyism” that showed how unsophisticated Americans are in matters of the flesh.

But something has evidently changed. Just as much of America’s chattering classes in Washington and the media found themselves behind the curve of rising public tolerance of sexual vulnerabilities, so much of the British press has misjudged the changing public mood.

This raises the question: What is going wrong with the antennae of the chattering classes? The media, politicians and showbiz industries never have spent more effort and resources on polls and surveys and focus groups to take the public pulse and divine its capricious moods. Yet, they are constantly surprised. Britain was stunned by the tsunami of emotions that attended the death of Princess Diana. The editorial writers of America’s most distinguished newspapers, like Republican Party leaders, were dismayed by the refusal of American voters to take Clinton’s transgressions quite as solemnly as Washington did. Hollywood has been downcast by the failure of Oprah Winfrey, who can sell books and commercials by the millions, to sell the movie “Beloved,” despite her own critically acclaimed performance.

There is more at work here than simply the refusal of the media to understand the opinion polls, which clearly told them the public did not much care about Clinton’s dalliances, or a Hollywood mistake in estimating box-office returns. There is a pattern traceable to the GOP’s strategic error in 1995, when party leaders failed to understand that the public did not want them to close down the federal government, which paid their pensions and inspected their meat. It is a pattern that includes Murdoch’s insistence on the prejudices of a 1950s Australia in a Britain of the 1990s.

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The Sun has, for many years, explored the rich jargon of English slang to publicize some of the more lurid synonyms for gays. The paper has warned us against the dangers of “shirt-lifters” and “sleazy khazi cruisers” (a “khazi” is a lavatory, in slang imported from the old Indian Army).

Ten years ago, Britain’s Campaign for Homosexual Equality was having some small success with its work. The Sun was appalled and published a stern editorial: “Homosexual organizations are sometimes seen as harmless, slightly comic eccentrics. In our view, they can be a force for evil in the land. . . . They deserve to be treated as pariahs.”

More recently, in 1990, the Sun’s popular columnist Garry Bushell noted, “It must be true what they say about nobody being all bad . . . even Stalin banned poofs.” Just last month, as this fuss first began, Bushell warned that the Sun would fearlessly expose “limp-wristed politicians” with a special “Inqueery.”

The Sun is, by far, the most popular newspaper in Britain, bought by one adult in 10; it claims to be read by one in three, and boasts it makes or breaks governments. But its gay-bashing propaganda, backed up by other papers of Murdoch’s stable (he sells almost half the newspapers bought in Britain), has clearly been a failure, as have efforts in America to exploit Clinton’s problems. Brown and Mandelson remain in government, with the full support of the prime minister and public alike, and political life is now safe for gays.

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On Wednesday, the Sun admitted it had been wrong, and editor Dave Yelland declared the paper was “no longer in the business of destroying closet gays’ lives--unless there is a major public interest reason to do so.” To prove it, or perhaps just to warn us it was not going soft, the Sun simultaneously sacked its only openly gay columnist, Parris.

The paper has finally caught on to the public’s attitude. For it could well be that the public, in Britain and the United States alike, is growing beyond its customary and self-appointed mentors. Perhaps it is now so swamped (or equipped) with information that it no longer takes to heart the solemn editorials of the grander newspapers, the jeremiads of politicians, the snooty disapproval of Buckingham Palace, nor even the solicitations of Oprah. In this context, the revolt of the public against the pundit puritans who disapprove of gays in public and Clinton in private is a lesser issue than the gloriously democratic fact that the people are thinking for themselves.


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