Conspicuously keen as New Labour was to liberalise LGBT laws, it always observed the culture of intense erotic shame specific to legislators, insisting its gay MPs – their sexuality a particular transgression – perform as highly articulate Ken dolls, respectable and pleasant but incapable of fucking. Yesterday, it came to light that Nick Clegg knew about the claims Lord Rennard harassed women; in government however, all sex is a crime. Had Bryant cheated on a partner, exploited an employee or divulged official secrets via pillow talk? Had he pressured or threatened partners into sex with him, or else been violent or verbally abusive? On the contrary, the act which publicly disgraced him at the time and seemed to threaten his career was his pursuit of casual sex. The same sex you, I or anyone we know might seek out unremarkably on Friday night.
Few countries have Great Britain’s rich-veined tradition of high-up sex scandals, and historically gay sex has been more scandalous than most; Westminster had queer debacles, in fact, before it had straight ones. While minister John Profumo’s dalliance in 1963 with Christine Keeler, a sex worker also linked to Soviet agents, is sometimes thought of as Parliament’s first bedroom fiasco, the scandal which kicked off gay politics in Britain occurred almost a decade previously, when the journalist Peter Wildeblood, the peer Lord Montagu and several others were charged with sex offences during time spent at Montagu’s beach hut. Wildeblood’s outing during the trial may have triggered commissioning of the Wolfenden Report, which later recommended relaxation of British laws against gay sex, but the targeting of Montagu was symptomatic of a sexual McCarthyism desperate for high-profile scalps; a few years later, MP Ian Harvey – like Montagu, a Conservative – faced arrest, found cruising in St. James’s Park.
At the same, gay sex remained taboo in any context, yet the witch-hunt for sodomites in the ruling classes stands in evidence of sex itself as an offence among politicians; its motive was to show that if the rot of homosexuality had set in even at Westminster, whose cleaner-than-clean paragons of fluidless virtue made up Britain’s parliament, it seriously must warrant drastic action. Post-legalisation, puritanism remained: during child-free, unmarried Edward Heath’s time as Prime Minister, rumours of his homosexuality persisted – as if anyone not drawn to the established tableau of the married politician with wife and children must be enveloped in sordid and forbidden desires – and two years after Heath’s defeat at Harold Wilson’s hands, claims of past indiscretions with a stable boy forced Jeremy Thorpe, then Liberal Party leader, to resign. What liberated advances in sexual politics we tell ourselves we’ve made rarely if ever reach the Westminster village: choose anything but lifelong, heteronormative monogamy, and your prospects there are shaky.
In the decade since Chris Bryant was so roundly tarred and feathered, not much except his hairstyle seems to have changed (it has, admittedly, made some degree of progress). A mere three years afterwards two candidates for Liberal Democrat leader were Mark Oaten and Simon Hughes. Though neither won, each managed to succeed Thorpe in at least one way, as both campaigns were scandal-hit within a few days. Hughes, after details reached the press, was forced to come out as bisexual; Oaten, the News of the World made public, had hired a male sex worker for an extended period. That he was cheating on his wife, even with a man, provoked less outrage than the kink-filled threesomes it was claimed Oaten enjoyed – we may have become used, in the age of Edwina Currie and John Prescott, to adulterous parliamentarians here or there, but God forbid they have the wrong kind of sex.
As recently as 2010, Foreign Secretary William Hague alerted the nation to hitherto unnoticed rumours he was gay by publicly denying them at a specially arranged press conference, opting bizarrely to reveal fertility problems which he and his wife had faced – as if the absence from his life of squealing, blue-and-yellow-wearing Coalition babies were more likely to have fed the relevant rumours than his sharing a hotel room with 25-year-old Christopher Myers. (In their cringe-inducing, much-publicised photo together, Hague certainly looked like he shouldn’t be allowed near children, vulnerable adults or effete Italian nail technicians). Like Edward Heath before him, his failure to procreate publicly – that is, to be wholly traditionally heterosexual – seemed to mark him out as a potentially sexual deviant, at least in his own eyes.
As last century’s Westminster gossip haunts us, the sex scandals of the past shed all too much light on contemporary ones; tell ourselves as we might that attitudes have changed, those tasked with running our society remain captives of a bygone sexual Zeitgeist compulsively re-enacting the most straitlaced heteronormativity, shamed by queerness, kink or casual encounters. If a lesson here exists, it’s that our politics must be far-reaching: we might accept the legal reforms which Parliament, under electoral pressure, offers us, but our goal should be its liberation as well as ours from puritanism. People like sex in all its sizes, colours and shapes, and so do politicians – the instinct which stops them saying so is one we’d all be better off without. Quite unlike Doctor Who.