Closet Queens: Some 20th Century British Politicians by Michael Bloch

cq(We have not discussed this in the group but it was a ‘spin off’ from one of our meetings and this review is in a personal capacity.)

Bloch is a Freudian who believes that all men, from Churchill down, are sexually ambiguous, and that the strenuous heterosexual endeavours of politicians like Sir Alfred Milner and Lord Curzon were “fuelled by a degree of repressed homosexuality”. He has little documentary evidence to go on, private correspondence and diaries being routinely destroyed by the authors or their estates; his bricks “have had to be made with limited straw”. The word “rumour” crops up frequently. Churchill may have been more at home in male company, but evidence for the proposition that he was bisexual is slender. Likewise, there is no evidence that Edward Heath ever had a sexual relationship with anyone. Edward Boyle is said to have “never showed any discernible romantic interest in anyone of either sex”. In which case, one might ask, what is he doing here?

He has little documentary evidence to go on, private correspondence and diaries being routinely destroyed by the authors or their estates; his bricks “have had to be made with limited straw”.

According to the author, the Macmillan government, which balked at decriminalisation, “contained more closet queens than any other of the century”. Macmillan’s 1959-60 cabinet “included a homosexual or bisexual foreign secretary, chancellor of the exchequer, colonial secretary, health secretary and minister of labour, and was presided over by a prime minister who was rumoured to have been expelled from Eton for homosexuality”.

Some of the behaviour documented here, whether the perpetrators were gay or heterosexual, would have been scandalous or distasteful in any era. Loulou Harcourt was said to have tried to seduce all four children (male and female) of a friend, colleague and fellow bisexual. Labour’s Tom Driberg spent a lot of time cruising public lavatories. Ian Harvey, a foreign office minister, was found in the undergrowth in St James’s park with a guardsman. Labour’s former secretary of state for Wales, Ron Davies, had his celebrated “moment of madness” on Clapham Common. Not forgetting the murky business surrounding Jeremy Thorpe and the alleged attempted assassination of his gay lover.

This book is the product of 12 years research. Many biographers left out any papers which hinted at homosexuality so there isn’t much to go on.

It isn’t as gripping as his Thorpe book.

It seems that the authorities often turned a blind eye to homosexual activity except for times when a puritan stirred up persecution.

Although David Maxwell Fyfe was opposed to relaxing laws against homosexuality and blocked Wolfednen’s reforms for 10 years, he was liberal on other issues, e.g recommended limiting the death penalty’s scope

For those who blame religion for homophobia, it is worth noting that Queensbury, who persecuted Oscar Wilde, was an atheist.

One of Churchill’s boyfriends appointed bishops.

Balfour, who mucked up the Middle East, was a masochist.

My father adored and canvassed for Lord Hinchinbrooke as MP for South Dorset up to 1962. It turns out that he bordered on being a paedophile.

Lord Boyle, the vice-chancellor of my university, comes across as pleasant as I expected.

It is to a gay, Jewish liberal, Hoare Belisha, that we owe the Highway Code, zebra crossings and diving tests as well as his famous beacon.

Though closeted, most of these MPs supported law reform.

Many of them were Anglo-Catholics.

The author perpetuates the myth that local authorities ‘promoted’ homosexuality in the run up to Section 28

The Gay people I know today, including my former MP, seem quite adjusted and normal indeed some are very boring. Many people seem unaware or uninterested in how very difficult it would have been pre 1967.

In 1958, Churchill said about a minister who had been caught with a soldier in the bushes of St James’s Park: ‘On the coldest night of the year? It makes you proud to be British’

” George Brown says to Harold Wilson, ‘Harold what are we going to do about the Homosexual Bill?’ – ‘Pay it of course’.”


Gossip about secret homosexuality has always invited prurient curiosity.”

Here…for what it is worth, is my survey of homosexual, bisexual and sexually ambiguous British politicians of the last century. I have cast the net wide, including some who managed to be fairly open about their tastes while avoiding trouble, others who led complex double lives, often married with children, and some who to a greater or lesser degree repressed their sexuality, along with some who seem to have been genuinely bisexual, and some who would normally be considered heterosexual but who had homosexual pasts, or who exhibited a strong vein of platonic homosexuality in their relationships with young men. (I have also included a few who had no discernible sexual feelings – though who knows what lurked in the hidden depths?) Inevitably, the result is more a bird’s-eye glimpse of the subject than a through-going analysis: much remains shrouded in mystery; bricks have had to be made with limited straw; cautious use has sometimes been made of oral testimony whose value can be difficult to assess.

“that failing acquired by most of the Egyptian officers, a taste for buggery”.

the Führer “is certainly a homosexual”, and that his failure to rise above the rank of corporal in the First World War was due to his “very pronounced perversion”. To many, this later explained Hitler’s surprise appointment of his handsome architect, Albert Speer, as Minister for Armaments. “Tell Speer I love him,” Hitler informed Field Marshal Milch.

As all homosexual activity between men was illegal in England until 1967, and continued to attract intense social disapproval for a quarter of a century after that (the annual Social Attitudes survey suggested that half of the population still considered it to be ‘always wrong’ as late as 1993), this was something that Thorpe, like so many others, had to keep secret from the world at large. Any public exposure of his sexual activities, apart from putting him at risk of criminal prosecution, promised to spell the ruin of his political career amid circumstances of the utmost disgrace. He therefore led a double life

Thorpe developed as a clandestine homosexual were not dissimilar to those which made him such an effective politician. These skills may be said to fall into four categories: (1) quick wits and sharp antennae; (2) acting ability — enabling one to dazzle the public with show­manship, and cover up and dissemble where necessary; (3) a talent for intrigue and subterfuge (surely a necessary part of the equipment of even the most ‘virtuous’ politician); (4) a capacity for taking calculated risks, allied to an aptitude for dealing with threatening situations. Another factor in Thorpe’s story was that there seemed to be a psychological link between the thrill of ‘feasting with panthers’ (as Oscar Wilde described the dangerous allure of casual homosexual encounters) and the general excitement of politics.

the very fact that they were actors, risk-takers, intriguers, etc. would tend to draw them towards the profession.

many of the century’s educated at all-male boarding schools, which (while officially proscribing homosexuality on pain of expulsion) fostered intense and often sexual friendships among their pupils, and also provided training in `playing the game’ (which from the closet-queen point of view meant breaking the rules and getting away with it).

In the not so distant past, to describe anyone (let alone a public figure) as a homosexual was a slur, and a book dedi­cated to so describing a whole group of people would have been regarded as potentially libellous in the case of the living, a cruel attack on those who cannot answer back in the case of the dead, and altogether in poor taste. But now that, in most Western societies, homosexuality is generally accepted as a normal preference, and psychologists usually consider that an element of it resides in us all, it is surely time to try to under­stand the strain of ‘closet-queenery’ which runs through recent political history and has made a significant (and by no means entirely negative) contribution to it. And it implies no disrespect to these often brave and gifted men, and to the tribulations and disappointments they endured, to suggest the phenomenon, viewed retrospectively, of professing set of mores for public consumption and adhering (if only mentally) to another for private satisfaction possesses comedic possibilities: I make no apology for the fact that this book aims to entertain as well as enlighten. It might be said that such lives were hypocritical. But hypocrisy is not one of the seven deadly sins; it can spare feelings, avert trouble, and act as a useful social lubricant. It is said to be a very British quality

Churchill had written: ‘State intervention … in the form of statute … will never eradicate evil. It may make it more dangerous for the evildoer. But such a policy, while not decreasing immorality, only increases its ill effects … The state should protect [its citizens] from harm, and must govern men as they are and not as they ought to be:)

In old age (they were born and died in the same years), Maugham is said to have asked Churchill whether he had ever had a homosexual experience, and allegedly received the reply: ‘I once went to bed with Ivor Novello: it was very musi­cal. If such an event took place (or, indeed, horseplay with fellow cadets at Sandhurst) we may assume that it was inci­dental, and Churchill was surely a virtual stranger to physical homosexuality: for that matter, he seems to have had a low sex drive and is unlikely to have engaged in much serious cohab­itation with his wife except as was needed to produce their offspring. Yet emotionally, he was clearly drawn to men rather than women, a fact which needs to be borne in mind when assessing his complex personality: the closest relationships of his life were with members of his own sex, even if they stopped short of the physical.

Although Browning’s obsession with teenage boys was well known (when he later became a Cambridge don it was an open secret that he frolicked with young soldiers and sailors), Curzon remained devoted to him after his disgrace, often accompanying him on continental holidays, and later having him to stay as a viceregal guest in Calcutta and Simla.

Curzon might therefore have been expected to take a rel­atively tolerant view of homosexuality. However, as Viceroy he was bizarrely obsessed with the prevalence of what he called ‘abominable practices’ among the princely rulers of the native states, which he regarded it as his mission to stamp out. This topic took up an inordinate amount of space in his cor­respondence with the Secretary of State for India, Lord George Hamilton, a broadminded man who was frankly puz­zled by Curzon’s obsession. When Curzon opined that the cause of this ‘horrible taint’ was the custom of early mar­riage – ‘a boy gets tired of women at an early age, and wants the stimulus of some more novel or exciting sensation’ ­Hamilton dared to suggest a simpler explanation: that what Curzon regarded as ‘unnatural vice’ was ‘for the Indian upper orders, a natural pleasure. He warned Curzon against treat­ing the princes like ‘a set of unruly, ignorant and undisciplined schoolboys’. But Curzon was not to be deflected from his moral crusade. When the Maharajah of Ulwar, despite being ‘an active youth and splendid polo player, was found to be ‘infected with this virus, he was deprived of power in his state and ‘placed in the hands of a British officer under a strict system of discipline and control. When the Maharajah of Jodhpur was found to be indulging in ‘dissolute orgies at the palace … a carnival of unnatural vice, Curzon decreed that ‘he be treated like a confirmed drunkard or madman, writing to Hamilton that ‘far the best thing is that the boy should die. Similar sanctions were taken against the rulers of Bhurtpore, ‘a confirmed sodomite, and Bharatpur, who was suspected of having murdered the objecting father of one of his catamites. When Queen Victoria expressed her fondness for the Maharajah of Holkar, who sent her charm­ing telegrams on her birthday, the Viceroy hastened to disillusion his octogenarian sovereign with the news that this ruler was ‘addicted to horrible vices. Curzon’s naive solution to this ‘problem’ was to set up a Cadet Corps to train young native princes to serve as his bodyguard. When he first inspected the Corps at their headquarters at Dehra Dun in 1902 he was delighted. Its tone and spirit [writes his latest biographer] seemed admirable, and he believed its well-born apprentices were as enthusiastic … as if they had been English public schoolboys. Unfortunately it soon transpired that the Corps shared another trait popularly associated with public schoolboys: It was fortunate that the inevitable scan­dal did not break until after the Delhi Durbar of 1903 in which the Corps had played a prominent role. Richard Davenport-Hines, noting that Curzon’s descriptions of the `depravities’ of the princes contain a mixture of ‘effulgent dis­gust and prurient relish, sees his behaviour as an attempt to `overcome his own femininity’ through `fury at the sexual ambivalence of others … There were no open and honest memories of Eton; no realisation that what he feared most were the feminine traits in himself’

Curzon showed a similar attitude to the case of Sir Hector Macdonald, a Scottish hero who had risen from the ranks to become the general commanding the army in Ceylon, and who in 1903 was accused by white settlers of indulging in orgies with ‘temple boys’: after returning to London to explain himself to the military authorities, he committed suicide.

A cartoon by Max Beerbohm shows him looking isolated and out of place in the House of Commons, a tiny, refined, foreign figure surrounded by coarse, fat, baying Tory MPs.

I have known many homosexuals in the course of my life, in this country and abroad; and some of them are my friends … Down the centuries they have played a large part in the development of … western civilisation. As artists they can depict and interpret emotion … perhaps better than anyone else; but in their own lives they shrink from it. With rare exceptions they are by nature promiscuous. They like to pick each other up, casually, in bars, clubs and Turkish baths. They enjoy sex in its cruder manifestations; but the enjoy­ment is transient … They don’t believe in a past, or a future. They live for the day, and even for the hour. Many of them are attracted by the ritual of the Church, and by the per­sonality of Jesus – no nonsense about family life there; but few of them are religious in depth. They call themselves ‘gay, and so they are, for they are nearly always good company; but basically they are not happy. Homosexuality is equally prevalent among what used to be called ‘the higher and the lower orders’; and sometimes these are attracted to each other. This is known in homosexual circles as ‘plain sewing: They are addicted to blackmail [sic] . . . It is because they have played, and always will, an important part in shaping all our lives … that I have done and written so much about them. The trouble is that, to a considerable extent, and much against my will, I share their general outlook on life.

Enoch Powell (1912-98) was one of the most brilliant politi­cians of his generation, considered by some to be more than a trifle mad. He was the only child of primary school teachers in the Black Country; like Edward Heath (who was to be his hated rival) he was a mother’s boy, though his messianic fervour prob­ably derived from his father’s Welsh ancestry. He also resembled Heath in showing early promise as a musician — though Powell gave up his beloved clarinet in early youth because (as he later put it) he feared it might release passions he could not control. At Trinity College, Cambridge, where he was an outstanding classical scholar, he fell under the influence of the great classicist and poet A. E. Housman: he admired Housman’s collections A Shropshire Lad (which was covertly homosexual) and Last Poems (which was overfly so), and wrote poetry in a similar style throughout his life. Powell (again like Heath) was a solitary and self-absorbed character with few social graces who shunned inti­macy with his fellow human beings; but in old age he confessed to Canon Eric James, a former Trinity College Chaplain, that he had been in love with a fellow male undergraduate at Cambridge (probably Edward Curtis of Clare College), and that this infat­uation had inspired love verses published in his First Poems. CI love the fire/ In youthful limbs that wakes desire … ‘) In 1937 Powell was appointed Professor of Greek at the University of Sydney, from where he wrote to his parents, with astonishing frankness, that he was repelled by his female students, while feel­ing ‘an instant and instinctive affection for Australian males between the ages of seventeen and twenty-three. This, he added, might be ‘deplored, but it cannot be altered; and it therefore had to be ‘endured — and (alas!) camouflaged.

When he was invited to contribute an entry to Who’s Who, she had to stop him giving as his recreation ‘to diaphtheirein tous neous’ (ancient Greek for ‘the corruption of young men’).

However, while the Fabians were relaxed about alternative sexual preferences, the British labour movement as a whole was deeply rooted in the fierce Evangelical Christianity which also spearheaded the crackdown on homosexuality during the Victorian era. Radical reformers such as W T. Stead and Henry Labouchere who sought to clear the streets of child prostitutes saw homosexuality as an equivalent scourge: hence the Criminal Law Amendment Act of 1885, which raised the age of (heterosexual) consent from thirteen to sixteen, incor­porated the `Labouchere Amendment’ which criminalised virtually all homosexual behaviour between males as ‘acts of gross indecency.

iave and gifted men, and to the tribulations and disappointments they endured, to suggest the phenomenon, viewed retrospectively, of professing set of mores for public consumption and adhering (if only mentally) to another for private satisfaction possesses comedic possibilities: I make no apology for the fact that this book aims to entertain as well as enlighten. It might be said that such lives were hypocritical. But hypocrisy is not one of the seven deadly sins; it can spare feelings, avert trouble, and act as a useful social lubricant. It is said to be a very British quality

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