As of May 2015, there are more openly gay members of parliament than there have ever been before. But how many are still “in the closet”? And what about those who kept their sexuality under wraps in the past, perhaps before the homosexual act itself was legalised in 1967?
Michael Bloch’s book is extremely gossipy but also highly informative revealing that far more of the British politicians who shaped the last century were gay than was commonly thought. In some cases, it was just a phase: Roy Jenkins and Tony Crosland’s very intense early relationship fizzled out into mere friendship by the time both had began their careers as Labour politicians. They later became fierce rivals. The still homosexual Crosland was bitterly disappointed when the now keenly heterosexual Jenkins was appointed Chancellor in 1967. Jenkins felt the same when Crosland became Foreign Secretary seven years later. Jenkins left to become Head of the EEC. Crosland, a heavy drinker, died soon afterwards. But it was Jenkins who as Home Secretary oversaw the legalisation of homosexuality. Bloch points out many of the key architects of the change in the law, in fact, had secret homosexual pasts themselves. Bloch even suggests the bisexual Lord Boothby may have blackmailed the notoriously homophobic Home Secretary David Maxwell Fyfe into permitting the Wolfenden Report which urged legalisation in the Fifties.
What about Downing Street? Bloch repeats the rumours that the 1890s Liberal Prime Minister Lord Rosebery may well have been gay, rumours which ultimately wrecked his career at the time. As for Edward Heath, one of only three bachelor Prime Ministers, Bloch re-enforces the growing conventional wisdom that Heath (a misogynistic mummy’s boy) was essentially homosexual but chose to suppress his sexuality as he knew it would destroy any chance of a political career. This throws an interesting angle on the brief coalition talks Heath went through with Liberal leader Jeremy Thorpe in 1974. Heath knew from the security services that Thorpe was gay and indeed that the younger man was already in difficulties with the Norman Scott affair which would ultimately destroy him. He kept his knowledge to himself, however.
Some might raise eyebrows at the inclusion of Winston Churchill in a book entitled “Closet Queens” though. Yes, Churchill reportedly had a low sex driver, was a misogynist and enjoyed a number of close friendships with young men. This does not, in itself, make him a “closet queen” and this chapter should have been expunged from the book.
However, with the wealth of biographical information on the likes of such characters as “Chips” Channon, Bob Boothby, Tom Driberg, Harold Nicolson and Peter Mandelson and the like, this is a useful book even if you choose to ignore the bits about their sex lives.
Closet Queens: Some 20th Century British Politicians by Michael Bloch. Published by: Little, Brown