Ending the closet
I had it in my mind from the middle of last week that my next entry would be on David Laws, but had thought to write little more than a few words on the praise he had been receiving from Tories. In Thursday’s FT, I read the comments of Edward Leigh, Conservative chair of the Commons Public Accounts Committee, who asked “Can I welcome the return to the Treasury of stern, unbending, Gladstonian liberalism?” and he he been described as an unreconstructed nineteenth century liberal. ConservativeHome reported on how Laws refused a potted plant in his office and cut the Treasury’s budget for potted plants. He also declined the use of the Treasury’s £100,000 limousine, which his predecessor Liam Byrne has used and which he was entitled to use, saying that with a London home, he wouldn’t need it.
Consider that much in assessing his character. He was not someone who went into politics for the money or the perks. He found himself tripped up by a form of words, not fully confident in himself that he could describe his relationship as that between cohabiting partners. They had been in a committed relationship since 2001, but did not outwardly live as a couple. When he first started to claim his rental allowance, it would seem fair that he would not have to detail his budding romance. At what point in the intervening nine years would they then have become partners as defined by the rules? My instinct would be some time before they moved house together, but considering how private they were, that even their family and many friends did not know, let alone his stated justification of separate bank accounts, I can understand how he felt they didn’t fit the description.
Yes, as a millionaire he did not need the money, but all MPs from outside London are as entitled to a housing allowance as their salary. And it should be said that had he acknowledged their relationship, he could have claimed even more from the exchequer through an allowance for mortgage repayments. He is not someone who set out to defraud the state.
That he was in the closet helps understand a lot of small things about his political career. He was offered a front bench position in the Conservatives by George Osborne, and could well have found himself as Chancellor of the Exchequer, but Laws likes to tell of how he told Osborne that “I am not a Tory”. A profile of Laws last week, before the controversy, gave Conservative support of Section 28 as his reason for not joining, a provision banning promotion of homosexuality and the “acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship” in schools, introduced by Margaret Thatcher in 1988 and supported by the Tories including David Cameron until its repeal in 2003. Of course, there are prominent openly gay Conservative MPs, such as Alan Duncan and Nick Herbert, both now junior ministers, but I’d imagine it was far more comfortable for him to be a closeted gay man in a liberal party than it would have been in a conservative party.
It also might have played a part in his ruling himself out of the 2007 leadership election, following the resignation of Sir Ming Campbell. After the leadership election of the previous year, in which the supposedly happily married Mark Oaten had withdrawn after controversy with a rent boy, and a second candidate Simon Hughes admitted that while he was not gay, he had had relationships with both men and women, Laws would have spurned such public scrutiny. I remember wondering during that contest in early 2006, whether I might find myself in some such situation later in life. Thankfully, I think I have now set aside that possibility.
It is a sad thing to consider that now in 2010, a government minister who had previously done well for himself in life as a City banker felt that he could not be publicly gay. Given every way politics has changed, and the number of prominent gay politicians and public figures there are, such that it really is not considered any big deal, it is most likely simply because he did not wish to raise it with his family. Matthew Parris wrote a very considered piece on how despite all political developments, it would still have been difficult for Laws to broach the subject with those close to him.
But whatever his reasons, we should surely by now move on from a situation where the closet is considered a reasonable option for public figures. Laws explained that he did not wish to disclose his sexuality, but while he is entitled to respectfully ask that the only brief reference is made to his sexuality, his personal relations can at times form part of the public interest. For example, an instance such as this, the financial situation of his living arrangement. Or suppose he were in a position to regulate his partner’s firm, it would be a matter of public interest that he recuse himself.
Ultimately, however private politician’s spouses and partners like to keep themselves, they cannot be anonymous. The public like to get a feel of what those governing them are like, and there is nothing wrong with that. Eamon Delaney said yesterday morning on Sam Smyth on Sunday that he noticed the absence of a family in a profile of Laws, though he thought nothing of it at the time.
A gay politician who reaches a certain rank does have to take responsibility and talk to their family about their sexuality. At 44 now, could Laws really have supposed that he could have got away with not tripping up on this for the rest of his political career? Whenever it was to emerge, if connected with anything dubious, he left it open to embarrass either his party or the government. But at the same time, openly gay Labour MP Ben Bradshaw’s response shows an unwillingness to understand Laws’ personal circumstances.
This has been a reminder that whatever the advances towards equality in public acknowledgement of gay relationships, and British civil partnerships are far closer to marriage than would be the case under the coming Irish legislation, there is still a certain stigma attached to the revelation and a fear of the discussion and what others would think. This is prolonged by the acceptance that it is a private matter, rather than merely one facet of a politician’s overall character. While I don’t think anyone should be outed, I don’t like the habit of those who are well known in particular circles to be gay but do not to let it be mentioned publicly. It bothered me that one of those I saw who made a strong speech in favour of the Civil Partnership Bill in December would not use the first person. It continues the acceptance of it as something to be silent about. While the work of David Norris has been and continues to important as a consistent campaigner, a publicly gay politician need not make a particular issue of it. In the last election, Colm O’Gorman of the Progressive Democrats and Dominic Hannigan of Labour both acknowledged that they were gay, without it being a part of their campaigns.
I feel great sympathy for David Laws, not just because of what he has gone through over the last few days, and that he was not able to tell his family that he was gay at a time of his choosing that he was gay, but that for so long, he felt he had to endure the claustrophobia of the closet. I can empathise with the feeling, which I felt most at times during my first and second years in college. I felt conflicted because of the enduring genuine attraction to certain girls. After an unwanted gay experience with someone in his late middle age, I became straight for all intents and purposes. I think at a subconscious level, I wanted to be with a girl before committing myself the other way, though at the time I didn’t consider it in those terms. I wrote to both Fiona O’Malley and Michael McDowell in the early months of 2007, expressing disappointment at the lack of recognition for gay relationships, as well as other issues, despite two terms in office, but didn’t consider any personal interest in the matter. During that campaign, I did have a girlfriend, who actually encouraged me to be more forthright in advocacy of equal marriage, and even in the time after only really considered dating girls.
Then in the early hours of 5 November 2008, as I watching the final results from the election of Barack Obama come in, but for reasons unconnected with that, I realized I was very much gay. So it was only once Prop 8 passed in California that I took any real interest in it as a political question. It still took quite a while for me to put my attraction towards particular girls in perspective, so that letting people know took longer that I had thought it would, but as time went by, though I did not take every opportunity, it was a relief to mention being gay (even if more than once, those I told didn’t believe me).
Because it’s not just one small part of someone’s life. One’s relationships usually mean more than anything else to someone. And as long as differences remain in the eyes of the law and society at large in the status of relationships, and even after, there will be a certain consciousness and sensitivity on the part of gay people towards the issue. Imagine someone like David Laws during any of the debates in the Commons involving gay rights issues, who could not feel that he could even mention his feelings and interest quietly to someone while having a drink in the Commons bar during the discussion. However irrelevant it should be, it was something big for Laws himself, that he was conscious of every day, not just what his relationship meant to him, but he had to remember not to mention it. In this way, they did not treat each other as spouses.
I had a lot of respect for Laws and his fiscal prudence and commitment to liberalism in all respects before any of this emerged. I do not believe he acted wrongly. I understand why he felt he wished to resign, but I hope to see him return to cabinet.