GAY TIMES September 2002

Terry Sanderson’s autobiography “The Reluctant Gay Activist” is now available on Amazon

Alan Duncan and Ian Duncan Smith – who are they? Well, Sun readers were certainly having problems telling them apart on the day that Alan Duncan came out as gay. But to save confusion in this article we’ll start by explaining that Alan Duncan is the Conservative Party’s diminutive shadow Foreign Office Minister, and Ian Duncan Smith (or IDS) is the party’s leader. Alan Duncan is the one with hair and Ian Duncan Smith the one without.

Sun readers were still bewildered but then, they would be.

Anyway, the pair of them were involved in what was, perhaps, the most transparent piece of media manipulation of recent times. Tory frontbencher Alan Duncan comes out as gay just as his party is attempting to reposition itself as the all-inclusive, caring sharing Conservatives.

Coincidence or what?

The suspicion is that Mr Duncan, MP for Rutland and Melton, had colluded with his party leadership, and possibly with The Times (which carried the coming out interview) to ensure that the revelation of his sexuality came at a moment of maximum convenience for the Tories.

The week before the announcement, there had been an embarrassing row as the party messily got rid of its traditionalist chairman, Alan Davis. Mr Davis was not thrilled with the party leadership’s desire to open up the ranks to all comers and was, therefore, seen as an obstacle to the creation of their new image. So down came the chopper. Mr Davis was not best pleased and kicked up an awful fuss.

All the same, he was rapidly replaced by Theresa May, the first woman to have this particular position in the Tory party. See, they said, aren’t we modern and with-it? We welcome women into top positions.

So that’s women taken care of. Now for the gays.

Cue Mr Duncan, who had been dragged from his accustomed obscurity to be suddenly the subject of an interview in The Times. But why was The Times interviewing him? He wasn’t in the news, he wasn’t promoting a book, he hadn’t done anything particularly interesting, so what was the paper’s sudden fascination for him?

Well, it seems Alan Duncan had contacted his former colleague, Matthew Parris (a columnist on The Times), to let him know that he wouldn’t mind doing a coming out interview with the paper. The task eventually fell to Paul Waugh, the Deputy Political Editor. The first sentence of the interview tells the whole story: “Alan Duncan is gay”.

Almost at once, Ian Duncan Smith (IDS), the Tory Party leader, issued a letter offering full support for Mr Duncan. (Although the letter was presented as some kind of spontaneous expression of support and reassurance for the newly self-liberated Alan Duncan it had, in fact, been prepared some time before the interview was published).

Theresa May, whose unenviable job as party chair is to convince the electorate that black is white, said: “There are many people who will say this shows how a Conservative party that has moved on. It’s always been open, decent and tolerant.” (See what I mean?)

In one fell swoop, the Davis row was swept from the front page to be replaced by acres of comment about the Tories’ new branding. The clumsy, unsubtle message was clear, the Tories really are inclusive – and here’s the evidence that we practise what we preach. (The fact that Ian Duncan Smith or IDS had ordered his MPs to vote against allowing gay couples to adopt when the issue came up in the Commons a couple of months ago was all forgotten. Except by me.)

And even as the press were downloading the leaderships’ messages of admiration for Alan Duncan, Anne Widdecombe was in front of the TV cameras pouring cold water on the whole episode. The voters don’t want to know about this, she said, they aren’t interested in peoples’ private lives – they’re interested in public services, transport and hospitals. Why can’t Mr Duncan just keep quiet?

Sour-faced Norman Tebbit was even more acerbic in an article in The Spectator. He said the Conservative Party faced oblivion if it continued its “headlong pursuit of the vulnerable and minorities”.

Tebbit wrote: “Despite the ramblings and spoutings of the over excitable and scarcely rational children in Central Office, the nation is not possessed by an overwhelming urge to fill the cabinet with 25-year-old black lesbian and homosexual, asylum-seeking Moslems.”

On Alan Duncan’s coming out he said: “The great mass of us have no desire to emulate Mr Duncan’s activities under his duvet; we do not think it is our business exactly what he does there; we do not wish to join in; we just wish profoundly that he would not bore us with his sexual problems.”

Another Tory “grandee” (as the powerful old guard are called), Jean Searle, a former president of the Party’s National Convention and – until earlier this year – the woman in charge of parliamentary candidate selection, told The Independent that many elderly members, particularly in the North, would have preferred Mr Duncan’s private life to remain private.

“What concerns me,” she told The Indy, “is the Conservative Party is getting slightly North-South divided. South of Watford Gap people accept homosexuality as a norm. I don’t think the North of England has quite accepted it in the same way. What disturbs me is that people feel they have to come out and say what they are. We don’t come out and say we are normal and happily married with 2.4 children.”

Tony Collinson of the Reigate Conservative Association led the blue rinse, grass roots revolt when he told The Guardian: “I would not be happy if we had a gay candidate here – I would always go for a candidate with a normal background. Our current MP is happily married with two children.”

A Tory voter of that parish, John Andrew, 75, said: “If he’s practising then it’s unacceptable. If he’s non-practising then he’s made a mistake bringing it up. The Conservatives must have more people around that they can choose from to be MPs.”

There were others, who had managed to shuck off the 19th century, who weren’t quite as censorious, but it will take more than this manipulative publicity stunt to end the war between the modernisers and the traditionalists in the Tory party.

But maybe the Tory party aren’t speaking to their members at all when they insist that they are gay-friendly now. And although the perception may be that they want more gay people within their ranks, maybe they aren’t talking to the gay community either.

Much more likely, they are trying to impress that vast majority of the electorate who perceive the Conservative Party to be a conclave of narrow-minded, intolerant curtain-twitchers that no civilised person would touch with a barge pole.

How are they going to get the popular vote if everyone thinks they are ghastly, discriminating old fogies?

And so the conclusion must be that the show was put on for the floating voters who have deserted the party because of the revulsion they feel every time Norman Tebbit opens his gob and every time Anne (Virgin-on-the-Ridiculous) Widdecombe wobbles into view spouting her reactionary nonsense.

Nobody, except died-in-the-wool bigots, wants to be associated with such a party.

I am put in mind of President Bush’s behaviour just before the last American election. He was giving out signals to the gay community there that they would be safe in his hands, that he had nothing against them etc. etc.

Despite appearances, he was saying these things not to gain gay voters, but to reassure wavering straight voters that he wasn’t really in the thrall of the Religious Right that seemed to be pulling his strings.

So he got himself elected, and since then there has been not one crumb of comfort for gay people, and lots of very concerning developments for those compassionate voters who were tricked by the message of inclusivity that was, in fact, a big fat lie.

We have to be aware that the Tories might be trying to pull the same scam.

But then again, maybe they aren’t. Maybe the urge for a more caring Conservative Party is genuine, and they are prepared to leave their traditional supporters behind in order to take the party into the twenty-first century.

This is relatively new territory for Ian Duncan Smith (IDS). We shouldn’t forget that he won the Conservative leadership mainly because he wasn’t Michael Portillo. At the time of his election there was no evidence of enthusiasm for the advancement of minorities. He has made no promises about the repeal of Section 28 or any other progressive issue. In fact, only months ago he was regarded as a hard-line right-winger. Can a leopard really change its spots overnight like that?

Meanwhile, Alan Duncan gains a small footnote in political history by being the first MP in the Conservative Party to have come out voluntarily – and survived.

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