Simon Hughes's real mistake was in covering up the fact that he was gay. Britain might just be ready to accept a homosexual leader
Published in later editions of the Evening Standard 26 January 2006
And then there was one. The top echelon of the Liberal Democrats could be forgiven for feeling like the cast of an Agatha Christie play. First it was Charles Kennedy to be summoned to the drawing room, to announce he had concealed a drink problem ? and then handed the metaphorical revolver by his senior colleagues. Then it was Mark Oaten, confronted by a nasty secret from his past involving a relationship with a male prostitute. Now trouble has found Simon Hughes, forced to admit this morning, despite earlier denials, that he has had homosexual relationships. The question any audience for this drama would now be asking is: what secrets is Ming Campbell hiding?
The answer is probably none, which means recent events are vindicating somewhat his campaign message: that he is the candidate of solid, predictable safety. When his aides devised that strategy they can?t have known how apt it was to become.
What Campbell?s rivals for the Lib Dem leadership failed to realise ?
Hughes as much as Oaten and Kennedy ? is one of the iron laws of political scandal: it?s never the ?crime?, it?s always the cover-up.
The definitive, textbook example is the mother of all scandals: Watergate. Most students of American politics agree that what was famously dubbed ?a third-rate burglary? would not, on its own, have toppled Richard Nixon. But the fact that the president lied and lied again ? staring into the camera to tell the American people ?I am not a crook? ? sealed his fate. His eventual successor, Bill Clinton, learned the same lesson. If he had told his legal interrogators that, yes, he had indeed had a dalliance with Monica Lewinsky, it would have been mightily embarrassing ? but there would have been no grounds for his impeachment.
Less dramatically, our own politicians have seen the same iron logic
operate. Whether its David Blunkett and his business interests or Peter Mandelson and a home loan, it?s almost always the initial failure to disclose the truth, not the deed itself, that does the damage.
Admittedly, it might not have looked that way to either Kennedy or Oaten. If the former leader had indeed come clean about his drinking, confessing in, say, last year?s interview with Jeremy Paxman, that he was an alcoholic ? rather than adamantly denying it ? that fact alone might still have forced his resignation. But it would have made his critics? job harder, denying them the easy option of saying, as the hunters always say when chasing their scandal-plagued quarry, that ?the issue is honesty.?
It?s similarly likely that Oaten?s career would have been terminated by admitting he used a male prostitute, even if he had made the admission long ago and unprompted. As it was, he laid himself open to the perennial charge of deceit and hypocrisy (not least because he had posed for cameras with his wife and two children a matter of days earlier).
None of this needed to apply to Simon Hughes. He is not married; he has lived no lie. The closest he gets to a hypocrisy charge is his connivance back in 1983 in the vicious Bermondsey by-election battle, when his Labour opponent, Peter Tatchell, was repeatedly pilloried as a ?queer.? But Hughes has since admitted his discomfort over that episode ? and Tatchell has forgiven him, even backing his bid for the Lib Dem leadership.
So, if Hughes had spoken truthfully about his sexuality a long time ago, no one would have hounded him from his post. Alcoholism in a leader is probably unacceptable to most voters; the use of a prostitute almost certainly is. But a homosexual or bisexual orientation might not be.
I say ?might? because the truth is we still don?t know. On this issue, we have never been tested: we have still not had an openly gay politician seek high office. The closest we got was Michael Portillo, who, pre-empting the iron law of scandal ? that the cover-up is greater than any supposed ?crime? ? made an honest, unforced disclosure, of his own homosexual experiences. He was never presented as a potential prime minister to the voters however, because Tory MPs thwarted his leadership bid. So we will never know if the British people would have had a problem with his sexuality or not.
It?s a tricky question, this, because the signals we collectively send, in London and beyond, are mixed. On the one hand, we know that violently homophobic attacks are on the increase: witness the brutal murder of Jody Dobrowski on Clapham Common last autumn. We also know
that ?gay? has become the term of abuse of choice in many playgrounds, suggesting that prejudice is alive in the next generation.
And yet, at the same time, many lesbians and gay men recognise that they are closer to equality now than at any time in their history. Whether it's civil partnerships or a change in the age of consent, the law grants a respect to gay relationships that was once entirely absent. In official, public discourse homophobia is fast becoming as unacceptable as overt racism ? to the point where the
police, once a byword for bigotry, now interview the likes of the
self-styled family values campaigner Lynette Burrows or the Muslim Council of Britain leader Sir Iqbal Sacranie over anti-gay remarks each of them made on the radio.
This is how London, indeed Britain, looks today ? homophobia far from
eradicated at street level, but deemed unacceptable in polite, established society. Hughes clearly judged that, for all the advances in this new, gay-friendly Brokeback Mountain Britain, it was still too risky for him to tell the whole truth about himself. It is a great sadness that he sought out the anonymity of the Man Talk chat line, rather than openly forming a relationship. Perhaps he thought Britain was not ready for a gay leader. Now it?s up to the Lib Dems to give Britain a chance to test itself ? and find out.