Six degrees of separation is the most that stands between any two individuals on the planet. That’s the theory, anyway. As far as British politics is concerned, it takes a lot less than six steps to connect any two individuals. In fact, most of them seem to be up each other’s arses.
A recent spate of political memoirs and interviews has revealed a little of what vain politicians imagine we didn’t already know about what was going on behind the scenes in Westminster.
We’ll start with Matthew Parris, who was one of Mrs Thatcher’s boys. After packing her in, he came out.
Of course, his revelations about his sexuality were hardly a surprise to most people who’d been following his career. He’d scattered unsubtle hints along the way like confetti.
Now Mr Parris has written his memoirs of those times, and a right tortured soul he turns out to be. The Times – for which he now writes a column – serialised his book (Chance Witness: An Outsider’s Life in Politics, Penguin Viking) day after day for a whole week.
Matthew is honest to the point of embarrassment, which is not a bad thing for someone writing an autobiography. He admits that he doesn’t like to read other people’s life stories only to find ambiguity and reticence. He likes the full facts, plainly stated, right on the table.
We had to wait until the Thursday for his admission that, when he was a member of parliament, he had continued, somewhat half-heartedly, his habit of cruising for sex on Clapham Common. By his own admission he wasn’t very good at it and he recounted – in rather more detail that I’m sure Times readers would have preferred – one of the few occasions he had scored, and the fact that he didn’t enjoy being penetrated. He also retells the story of his unfortunate queer-bashing.
Mr Parris was lucky. He never got caught, unlike the hapless Ron Davis, whose career, as you’ll remember, crashed around his ankles (where his trousers were) after his infamous “moment of madness”, also on Clapham Common. But Parris does confirm one suspicion: that there are more gay MPs than anyone could imagine. Or, as he puts it: “If, proportionately, as many citizens are gay as MPs are, then homosexuality in Britain is rampant even beyond the wildest calculations of the militant queers.”
But why do celebrities put themselves in such a position in the first place when they know the consequences of discovery?
Matthew Parris has a go at explaining it. “Why do public figures – of all people – take such risks? When Oscar Wilde called it ‘feasting with panthers’, he meant seeking sex with working class youths. But it’s an apt expression for many sorts of adventure. It means foolish, reckless excitement. It means danger, secrecy and shame… Why might a career in the Commons dispose an MP to such a risk? Nobody without a gambling streak, a taste for uncertainty and a belief in his own luck would embark upon a Commons career. However regular a guy a candidate may present himself to his electors as being, no unadventurous family man is likely to want a career in politics.”
He also thinks politics: “self-selects men with a streak of exhibitionism, buccaneering or bravado. MPs are a miscellaneous bunch, but united by this: a craving for applause. They are attention-seekers. Thus the selection process attracts adventurers with more bravado than self-confidence, more exhibitionism than idealism, and more ambition than talent. Then it lands them in a dead-end job. What follows, follows. It is not surprising that MPs learn to despise, if not themselves, then the thing they are pretending to be. It is not surprising that they sometimes try to escape this, sometimes in a manner which to the rest of us looks desperate… Crushed by decency they embrace hazard as a means of escape.”
Such analysis is not good enough for The Daily Mail, of course, which thinks that people who step out of line should be severely punished. “Do you think The Times would employ a writer who made a habit of having sex with women in London parks and later publish the details?” asks The Mail’s Mrs Grundy-style gossip columnist. “So why is it acceptable to run the former parliamentary sketch writer Matthew Parris’s seedy recollections about homosexual cruising’, including his first ‘penetration’ by a male stranger who picked him up on Clapham Common?”
Matthew is able to shake The Mail’s sanctimonious position on the moral high ground, though, when he reveals that during the Ron Davis scandal, The Mail offered him £10,000 to write an article about his own experiences.
Another episode from the book tells of the time Matthew “outed” Peter Mandelson on Newsnight.
As far as Matthew is concerned “the whole fuss was perfectly absurd” which, of course, it was. Everyone knew Mandelson was gay – his homosexuality had been referred to in the media at least half a dozen times before the Newsnight to-do. But still he was throwing hissy fits every time it was mentioned.
Mandelson then managed to get the BBC to issue a fiat banning any further mention of his sexuality, but, of course, even that backfired. Journalists do not take kindly to being told what they can and cannot say about MPs, particularly if it is true. The Beeb’s attempted censorship of the issue gave the story new legs, allowing it to drag on for weeks.
Parris reveals that he saw Mandelson some months later at a party. At first they ignored each other, but then Matthew decided that he must not shrink from confronting the issue. He approached Mandy and apologised: “I would never have said what I did on Newsnight if I had known the trouble it would cause you.”
Mandy was friendly and said there was nothing to apologise for. “He said that this had forced him to deal with something he really should already have dealt with. In doing so, it had done him a service. I do not know whether he really believes this but it was a generous thing to say.”
Well, maybe we can help Matthew out here. The Guardian carried a long feature about Mandelson by Ian Katz, who had followed him about for weeks to see how he was “coping with his time in the wilderness.” Most of the time in the feature Mandy is guarded, but towards the end, he and the reporter are relaxing over drinks and Katz senses he might be able to tackle the subject of sexuality.
“The assiduousness with which Mandelson attempts to keep reference to his sexuality out of the public domain can seem slightly puzzling given the widespread public awareness of his sexuality and his almost camp openness with a wide circle of acquaintances. A recent example of the kind of evasion he is prepared to deploy in that cause was the homepage entry of his website which declared: ‘It is always a relief to swap congested London for the calm of Hartlepool with my family’.” (The Times describes the website as “hugely entertaining in a Mills and Boon way” and asks whether Reinaldo knows about this mysteriously recent “family” of Mr Mandelson’s. It turns out that, in fact, the “family” consists of his dogs Jack and Bobby.)
Katz wonders whether Mandelson’s desperate attempts to divert attention away from his sexuality is a signal that he considers being gay something dark and shameful that needs to be hidden?
Mandy’s friends say that there is another explanation: he thinks that if he is more upfront about his preferences, he will come to be “defined by them”, and this in turn would make the press feel that they could intrude even further.
But when pressed by Katz, Mandelson refuses to discuss the matter, commenting: “I regard my private life as my own. There is very little of it left. There is very little aspect of my life that hasn’t been disseminated, dissected. You live with that. You don’t complain about it. I don’t cry about it. But what there is of it left I’ll keep that way, thank you.”
So there’s the answer to Matthew Parris’s question. Nothing’s changed. And while he continues to be so reticent, Mandelson’s journalistic tormentors will continue to jab him. As with this, from The Daily Mail’s gossip column: “Twice-sacked Labour Minister Peter Mandelson…tells The Guardian his favourite fruit is the mangosteen. The dark-purple Malaysian sphere is known as the queen of fruits – and, for all I know, the fruit of queens.”
There’s something to be said for being out and proud, Peter. When you’re not, you’re at the mercy of your enemies (and I understand you’ve got plenty).
But back to Matthew Parris, who during his promotional duties for his book, bizarrely found himself being interviewed, for The Times, by Michael Portillo. Presumably the paper had imagined that by putting the two of them together, they might end up with something extraordinary and revelatory about both men. You can see the features editor’s thought process: maybe Matthew’s painful honesty about the conflict his sexuality had with his job as an MP will cause Michael to let down his guard and tell us something new about himself.
Regrettably it did not happen. Mr Portillo rather cheekily wrote: “Matthew’s book returns quite often to his search in public places for sex, and some of the detail is graphic. I suggest to him that he has used the book in order to be very brave now about his sexuality so as to make up for not being brave enough in the past.”
This is so dizzyingly strange that I shall have to sit down for a moment and reassure myself that one day Mr Portillo might write his own memoirs and be interviewed about them by Peter Mandelson who will then chide him about his own… oh well, maybe.
Later, in another article, Matthew reveals that he doesn’t actually like Michael Portillo very much and has reported cruel anecdotes about him in his book. He says that being interviewed by Portillo was “horribly unsettling” and they both avoided mentioning it.
Another political memoir, the diaries of Edwina Currie, are set in a time when the Tory party was actually interesting. Forget about her affair with John Major. That was her moment of madness (well, four years of madness, actually).
The really interesting thing she tells us – in an interview in The Times – is why she became so enthusiastically involved in the campaign to lower the gay age of consent.
“Currie says that it always struck her as unfair that MPs were put into a goldfish bowl and expected to behave better than everybody else in the country,” writes her inquisitor, Ginny Dougary (the same woman who wrote the now-famous interview with Portillo in which he admitted his gay past). “But it could be argued, I suggest – admittedly without much conviction – that since you are elected servants of the people, the expectation is that you will behave better than the rest of us.” Edwina replies: “Well, I did my best not to tell my constituents how to live their private lives. And that’s one of the reasons why I campaigned later for changes in the law for gays. It seemed to me iniquitous that the law interfered in private lives in that way.”
Of course, all this soul-bearing is just clearing up the debris of the past. These has-beens can afford to be honest about their historic indiscretions. But what about those who are in office now – what risks are they taking? What kinks are they indulging?
Let’s hope we don’t have to wait until they’re desperate to earn their retirement fund before we find out.