According to the old wives tale, if you corner a rat it will go for your throat. And with this in mind, we move on to the subject of William Hague.
You will remember that soon after he was elected leader of the Conservative Party, the glabrous northerner promised that he would remodel the Tories into a party of tolerance and good will. There would be a place for everyone in Mr Hague’s new party, be they black, white, straight or gay.
Liberals applauded this volte face, but the unpleasant rump of the part – the arsehole of Little England, you might say – shook their blue-rinsed heads in disbelief. “What is this young whippersnapper saying?” they asked. “No more hanging or flogging? No more paki-bashing and homo-hating? This must be stopped.”
Sensing the unease, the traditional Tory rags The Mail and The Telegraph, swung ever further rightwards. The reactionaries reacted. Mr Hague was eventually left with no alternative but to listen to the baying voices of the hateful old bats who pay his wages, and the foaming journos who reflect their opinions.
And despite the pleas of gay Tories such as Ivan Massow, William Hague has turned from being a pussy cat into John Bull’s attack dog. Liberalism is once more a dirty word in Toryville and its inhabitants feel much better for it.
Of course, old-time Tories like Baronesses Young and Blatch have never wavered from the hate-is-a-family-value position. They never had truck with this new-fangled equality rubbish, knowing that in the end the Party would return to its roots.
So now that he has decided to swing to the Right, Willy is making a good job of it. He seems to read the reactionary papers from cover to cover and accept every word as law. Or, as David McKie in The Guardian put it: “Thrashing around for a lifeline, Hague has seemed increasingly ready in recent weeks to take his cue from the leader and letter writers and columnists of The Telegraph.”
First in the firing line were asylum-seekers. The Daily Mail and The Sun led the way, whipping up a storm of prejudice against them. Abetted by Anne Widdecombe, Mr Hague then came in to kick the filthy foreigners while they were down.
After he’d bashed the “bogus” asylum seekers he moved on to the issue of “self-defence”. A man who shot a 16-year old burglar in the back and was convicted of murder was more or less canonised by Mr Hague.
“Let my people go,” became his theme tune. It shouldn’t be the householder in prison but the burglar. Which is fine, except for the fact that the burglar in this instance is six-feet under. The delightful Ms Widdecombe then appeared to be promising to legalise something akin to lynch law.
Strict Willy received strong signals that the British people were right behind him in both campaigns. Fired up with the much-vaunted tolerance for which they are so famous, hundreds of thousands of them rang the The Sun’s hate-lines – sorry, hot-lines – to say that they thought Mr Hague was right. They also wrote in their thousands to tell him that he was right about keeping Section 28, another example of the new Tory Party’s right-wing populism.
Mr Hague was the only Party leader to accept an invitation to speak at the Spring Harvest Conference of evangelical Christians at Minehead this year. As The Church of England Newspaper reported: “Eighteen months of listening to Britain’s churches has convinced the Conservative leader that far from being dead, the church in Britain is very much alive and advancing in many parts of the country.”
You remember this is the same Mr Hague who once said he would rather got for a walk in the Yorkshire Dales than go to church. However, he now seems to be born-again (and again and again) and his speech was carefully crafted to fit the event. Many people at the Spring Harvest feel as violently antipathetic towards homosexuals as do the Tory rump, so naturally Mr Hague was pleased to make encouraging noises about the current Christian obsession with Section 28 (which has become a by-word for more generalised homo-hatred). Mr Hague told his pious 8,000 strong audience: “It is vital that parents have confidence in the values taught in schools. Section 28 should stay.”
Ruth Gledhill, the religious affairs correspondent of The Times, wondered if Mr Hague was trying to emulate the Republican tactic in the USA of affiliating with the religious right. Is he, in fact, trying to create a Bible-belt of his very own? She quoted the Archdeacon of Northolt, the Ven. Pete Broadbent, who admitted to being a card-carrying member of the Labour Party: “William Hague pressed all the right buttons. The evangelical movement is growing in confidence but some sections of it are also growing in arrogance.”
He questioned whether Mr Hague realised exactly what a dangerous lot he was courting in his desperation for votes. “Some of the stuff being produced by the conservative evangelicals at the moment is a bit over the top,” said the Ven. Pete. Anyone who has seen the anti-gay material being circulated by these groups will think that an understatement. Ruth Gledhill wonders how much longer other party leaders will be able to ignore the rapidly-expanding evangelical movement.
“A number of festivals similar to Spring Harvest take place throughout the year,” she revealed. In July, the black-led churches meet in Brighton in an event organised by the African-Caribbean Evangelical Alliance. The Methodists have their own Easter People get-together. House churches such as the Surrey-based Pioneer Group meet over the summer. American preachers are often flown over to address the crowds. Millions of people are involved At Spring Harvest alone, more than 50,000 committed Christians turn out over the three-week break.”
At all these events, gay-bashing is high on the agenda. The “committed Christians” have convinced themselves that gay people are their mortal enemies, a threat to their future and an insult to their God. They’ll go to almost any lengths to derail our push for equality and Mr Hague has shown that he is ready to help them. But although his rightward tilt might get him some easy headlines and appearances on the Nine o’Clock News, the populism he espouses is shallow and dangerous. Following the herd, particularly when it is stampeding, is not the mark of a sound politician. We want them to consider the issues fairly and thoroughly and then make informed decisions on our behalf.
Mr Hague and Ms Widdecombe will eventually realise that when people have considered all angles they will realise that nothing is quite as simple as the Tories make out. The instant a visiting Jehovah’s Witness is shot in mistake for a burglar is when the tide will turn. As Voltaire said: “Once people begin to reason, all is lost.”
Indeed, the backlash has already begun. Satirising Mr Hague as a Pokémon (or Toréman in this instance) Brian Reade in The Daily Mirror asks: “What exactly are these Toréman? What do they do? And how low will they stoop to win seats at the election? Well, I have recruited someone who is being targeted by Toréman. Someone who understands exactly what they are about. A man with the mental capacity of a seven-year old called The Bar-room Bigot.”
According to Mr Reade’s consultant: “Homosexuality will be banned. As all Toréman know, God gave us our backsides to talk through and nothing else.”
Meanwhile, Katherine Raymond of The Daily Express wrote of her contempt for Anne Widdecombe, who is on the telly almost the instant a suitable story breaks. “As soon as there is a groundswell of popular opinion about anything, out comes the instant press release, the knee jerk solution, the Widdecombe sound bite promising to change the law to suit the circumstances of a particular story. That is not how law should be made. You need to engage your brain first.”
Although the Tories have no chance of winning the next election (and they have admitted as much themselves in a leaked document) they can, like the cornered rat I spoke of at the beginning, do a lot of nasty damage on the way to defeat. Their rabble-rousing on gay issues is harmful, creating hatred and fear where there need be none and trading on lies and stereotypes.
So, what is the alternative? Now that Mr Blair has failed so dismally to deliver on his promises of reform, are we in for another decade or two of waiting and hoping? Mr Blair will never again be such a strong position in the House of Commons. At present he can do whatever he likes. As Tim Haines wrote in The Times: “The Government’s real obsession now is with a second term, not with sex.”
They cannot afford to upset the bigots anymore because even bigots have votes and they’ve already been pushed to their limits by the furore over the age of consent and Section 28 (and now gay adoption). But, asks Tim Haines, “What is the Labour Party for if not civil rights?” The answer seems to be self-preservation.
“Despite a huge Commons majority, the Government is terrified of what a partisan press might do to whip up public opinion,” Mr Haines comments, “it has been outflanked by the scorched-earth campaign particularly associated with The Daily Mail., the essence of which is that New Labour wants to hand out Gay News (sic) with the history homework. Tony Blair has condemned this as ‘hysterical’ but has been unwilling to confront The Daily Mail’s argument that homosexuals have already got equality, what they want now are ‘special rights’ which, in the elegant prose of the paper, are to be ‘vociferously promoted’ – at public expense – in the classroom.”
Mr Haines chides the Government for its gutlessness on the whole gay rights issue. “For all the fuss and fury over Section 28 and the age of consent, there is little chance that ministers will be recalled for the courageous manner in which they took on the press and the peers or reshaped public opinion. They will not have presided over a shift from qualified to unqualified equality. Mr Blair’s Government has taken very few risks and imposed little change – not much of an epitaph, really.”