In August 1954 the Conservative government commissioned a committee under the chairmanship of Sir John Wolfenden to investigate whether the law needed to be changed on homosexuality (and also prostitution), and their findings were published in September 1957. A previous blogpost analysed the views of the House of Lords on the recommendation of the committee to legalise homosexual relations for males over the age of 21. This post examines the views of MPs towards the Wolfenden Report.
The parliamentary debate was opened by the Home Secretary R A Butler who recognised that ‘the perennial dilemmas of organised society is, how far the law should seek to regulate the behaviour of individuals…. and what is the sphere which it is proper to leave to the dictates of the individual conscience.’ The main issue he thought needed to be considered was whether ‘such conduct between consenting adults in private is injurious to society, or is it a matter entirely for the private consciences of the parties concerned.’ The Committee had argued that to carry the criminal law beyond its proper sphere is to undermine the moral responsibility of the individual. The Home Secretary agreed that ‘in a free society there are few things more important than to sustain the sense of individual responsibility’, but that this argument can only be accepted ‘if one is convinced that society will not be harmed by so doing.’ This is the dilemma faced on many issues even today namely, when should the rights of individuals take precedence over the collective concerns and interests of wider society.
The Home Secretary asked the question ‘can we be certain that homosexual conduct between consenting adults is not a source of harm to others’ and raised his concern ‘that a homosexual group may tend to draw in and corrupt those who are led by curiosity or weakness into homosexual society.’ In practice this fear turned out to be much exaggerated, as only those with a homosexual inclination are likely to be interested in such a practice. He was also worried that there was ‘a very large section of the population who strongly repudiate homosexual conduct and whose moral sense would be offended by an alteration of the law which would seem to imply approval or tolerance of what they regard as a great social evil.’ Therefore, on this basis, the Home Secretary concluded that the Government ‘would not be justified in proposing legislation to carry out the recommendations of the Committee.’ However he did express his personal concern for the problems created by blackmail, and whether a prison term was appropriate for the ‘redemption’ of those convicted of homosexual offences. The country would have to wait almost a decade before the government of the day reached a different conclusion on this matter.
The Labour front bench MP Anthony Greenwood spoke on behalf of the opposition. He was reassured that nobody was suggesting ‘relaxing the law on homosexual offences involving males under 21 years of age. I do not think that anybody would press for a relaxation of the law in that direction.’ But of course, this was precisely the activity for which Alan Turing was convicted. One female MP put the matter succinctly ‘when a man of 21 and over goes to a young fellow of 18, the younger can say at present that this is a crime as well as a sin. He will no longer have this reinforcement behind him. The tempter will be able to say to him - it is all right, Parliament has approved it.’ In time she would be proven right.
Greenwood went on to suggest that ‘what we have to decide is whether men who, for a reason we do not understand - which may be hereditary, environmental or physical, practise homosexuality, should live their lives under the shadow of the law and at the mercy of the blackmailer’. He concluded that ‘this state of affairs cannot be seriously justified. Life is harsh enough for these people without society adding to their burden. The fact that the law is largely unenforced, and, indeed, largely unenforceable, is certainly no reason for retaining it.’ He did however rather spoil this enlightened outlook by adding ‘It seems to me that one is as likely to cure a homosexual of his perversion by sending him to an all-male prison as one is likely to cure a drunkard by incarcerating him in a brewery.’
One MP clarified how a private activity managed to come to the attention of the authorities by pointing out that ‘the evidence is almost invariably obtained by one or other of the parties turning what is called Queen's evidence and in consideration for not being himself prosecuted giving evidence against his partner. It may be considered as somewhat objectionable that in these circumstances a conviction should depend upon the evidence of an accomplice.’ This should be borne in mind when assuming all homosexuals were victims of this law, when in fact quite a few were collaborators in it. The MP also highlighted a surprising statistic that only one eighth of convictions for homosexual offences were between adults over 21 in private. During the debate an estimate was given that there were about 500,000 practicing homosexuals in the country, but only a 100 or so were convicted of homosexual activity with another male over 21 in private each year. As there was realistically only a very slim chance of an individual being convicted of this offence, it was argued that the law provided little in the way of a deterrent.
An MP who sat on the Wolfenden Committee pointed out the wide disparity in enforcement between different police authorities stating that ‘some chief constables prefer to put the telescope to the blind eye unless some specific complaint is put firmly in front of them. Other chief constables take the view that here is an offence with a maximum penalty of imprisonment for life and, therefore, that they must show the same zeal in following up possible offences as they would in a case of manslaughter’. He also stated that there was a ‘most regrettable tendency to prosecute extremely stale offences. Some of the examples which we give are shocking, of offences disclosed by accident three, four and five years after they were committed.’ Today, of course, the authorities prosecute sexcrimes which were first reported over 50 years later, yet we are supposed to believe that we live in a tolerant and enlightened society. The MP concluded that the justification for a change in the law was ‘to swing the majority of homosexuals, practising and non-practising, on to the side of the law, against those whose preference is for boys and those who offend against public decency.’
Other MPs took a very different view, such as one who believed that ‘humanity would eventually revert to an animal existence if this cult was so allowed to spread that, as in ancient Greece, it overwhelmed the community at large’. Another expressed similar sentiments ‘these unnatural practices, if persisted in, spell death to the souls of those who indulge in them. Great nations have fallen and empires been destroyed because corruption became widespread and socially acceptable.’ This highly alarmist viewpoint has never come anywhere near close to being fulfilled. But it does illustrate the fear mongering and exaggeration, whether through ignorance or design, which often motivates zealots attacking disapproved sexual behaviour.
Then, as now, the fear of what might happen to children was raised, One MP expressed the view that ‘I should very much resent any of my children coming into intimate contact with homosexuals, I would do all I can to keep such gentlemen as far away as possible from my own children.’ By children he presumably meant his sons. Another MP conjured up the ancient past by mentioning that the ‘study of the sexual habits of Greece and Rome serves to confirm that homosexual instincts soon make themselves apparent whenever they are given free rein. It is perfectly true that if one adopts a lax attitude towards homosexuality one promotes its growth.’ In fact what did occur was not a growth in homosexuality, but a huge increase in the belief that it was a supposedly normal, and thus acceptable (or even virtuous), sexual activity.
This same MP came out with another trope fondly believed at the time that ‘because the homosexual in society has a very difficult place indeed. He becomes against society. He becomes bitter, his mind becomes twisted and distorted because he feels he is not as other men are. It is essential in the interests of the man himself that we should do everything to discourage him. He is always beset by fears of discovery. The more sensitive ones wear a hunted look. They are not happy in their life.’ The MP seemed unable to comprehend that the ‘hunted look’ might be due to the law making homosexual acts criminal.
The medical treatment of homosexuals to change there sexual orientation is condemned utterly today. But back then it was seen as a solution as suggested by an MP who found ‘that it was remarkably easy to cure these people with the aid of hormone treatment. By reducing the sexual tension of the individual, this treatment can so suppress it that a reorientation of ideas has time to take place so that sexual desires take a more natural form’. Today, although hormone treatment is deemed unacceptable for homosexuals, it has suddenly become fashionable for kids undergoing ‘gender reassignment’. The agendas may change but the mental confusion still seems to stay the same.
A Labour MP, who subsequently became a cabinet minister, declared that the law on homosexuality was ‘obsolete and unjust, mainly because it infringes a basic principle of individual freedom’. He added that ‘I do not believe that the State or the criminal law has any right to interfere with the conduct of the individual, unless that conduct has some effect upon some other people.’ Moreover this MP feared that ‘once we depart from this principle and start arguing that, because we dislike some practice, or because we ourselves think it morally wrong, we should therefore legally prohibit other people from doing it, even though it has no effect upon anyone else, we are on a very slippery slope. This seems to me to be the beginning of all intolerance. It is a road which leads eventually to concentration camps and to the persecution of heretics’. He was quite right, a sane voice floating in a sea of nonsense. With our current obsession with disapproved sexual activities we appear to be heading in the same direction as he feared, but with the added handicap that today’s self styled ‘progressive’ thinkers are inciting the mob, not fighting the injustice.