Two major political anniversaries were commemorated recently: the thirtieth anniversary of the election of Baroness Margaret Thatcher as Britain’s first woman prime minister and the fortieth anniversary of the Stonewall Riots in New York. Both watershed events have been the subject of widespread review and commentary.
The Stonewall riots were the first time in America when people in the homosexual community fought back against a government-sponsored system that persecuted sexual minorities. The riots — following closely the tragic assassinations of John F Kennedy, his brother Robert, and Martin Luther King Jnr — were the harbinger of the gay rights movement in the United States and around the world.
At a recent event to commemorate this anniversary, the leader of Britain’s Conservative Party and likely next prime minister, David Cameron, gave a speech apologising for the previous Conservative government’s record in passing the notorious Section 28 Amendment. This legislation which banned the “promotion” of homosexuality in schools was passed when Margaret Thatcher was prime minister in 1988.
Condemning section 28 as “offensive to gay people”, Cameron predicted that a Conservative would become Britain’s first openly gay prime minister. Cameron’s speech made me realise that I have witnessed a remarkable shift in Britain to a liberal and tolerant society in my generation. I recall vividly the temperament of Britain’s then ruling party.
I am a naturalised South African whose roots lie in Torbay, a beautiful coastal constituency in South West England; a traditionally Conservative seat and conservative with a small “c”. I was 22 years old in 1994 — the year of South Africa’s first democratic election — when John Major’s Conservative government voted against equalising the age of consent from 18 to 16.
My friends and I were impressed with a young and polished barrister, the then shadow home office minister, who spoke in the House of Commons Debate. In an elegant and stylish speech, he told the House of Commons that the unequal age of consent was “prejudice wrapped in reason”. Little did we know Tony Blair, after the tragic death of John Smith, would, within months, become leader of the opposition and walk into Downing Street three years later.
Wind on to 1996, the Tories final year in office, Michael Portillo, the defence secretary came to Torbay to address the local Conservative constituency dinner. Portillo, the charismatic, exotic — of Spanish descent — and one time anointed successor of Thatcher, had, like the Iron Lady herself, a certain camp following on the fringes of the Tory party.
So how could I resist going with two of my Tory friends to see the coiffed legend: the Elvis Presley of the Tory Right? Despite being a member of the local Liberal Democrat party, the matronly Tory constituency secretary kindly said I could come with the proviso “as long as you don’t throw any bread rolls”.
Portillo, to use a well-known description of Thatcher’s political assassin Michael Helestine, always knew how to hit the “G-spot” of any Tory gathering. This sultry summer’s evening on the “English Riviera” was no different as he lathered up the well-heeled blue rinse brigade with charm and his (then) brand of reactionary conservatism. I still have the menu he signed for me.
The bonhomie, alas, turned sour at question time. A young Tory got up and asked Portillo if he opposed gay men serving in the armed forces at which point another man shouted “hang them”. He was greeted with more than a few “here, heres”. Portillo did not repudiate them and expressed support for the ban. I resolved that same night to campaign hard for the local Liberal Democrat candidate.
The Liberal Democrats did win the Torbay seat with a knife-edge twelve vote majority in the closest result of the 1997 election. Even more dramatically, Portillo unexpectedly lost his Enfield Southgate seat to the openly gay Labour candidate, Stephen Twigg. This exquisite moment of British schadenfreude became the election night’s most famous television moment and the title of a book: Were You Still Up for Portillo?
But politics is a funny old game and times are fast-changing. Britain has moved on. And Torbay has moved on.
Two years later, in 1999, Portillo returned to parliament and reinvented himself, genuinely, I believe, as a socially compassionate Conservative. But his ambition to lead his party, sadly, eluded him. I asked Michael a few years ago in London if he missed politics. “Not at all” he laughed — and sincerely.
My closest friend in Torbay and a regular visitor to Cape Town, Nick Bye went on to become the Conservative’s first directly elected mayor in 2005 (there are only a handful of elected mayors in Britain) for Torbay. In 1987, Thatcher’s third and final election campaign, Nick had been the Liberal/SDP candidate for Torbay’s parliamentary seat. He was one of the three final participants in the Tories American-style primary election for the Conservative Party nomination for the neighbouring constituency of Totnes — another first for the Conservatives and Britain. As Nick wrote in the London Times a few weeks ago, the three candidates put forward by the local Conservative Association were a real break with the past too, showing that politics has moved on a great deal.
“While not quite an all-girls race, here were three candidates (two women, and me with a colourful past) and not one of them the typical Tory would-be MP stepping off the London train and then hoping for an easy ride back to Westminster. The association made it plain that it wanted a local and stuck to that decision — age, sex and everything else were immaterial.”
As for the Tory Titan herself, although my own political instincts hover around the right polar of social democracy, Margaret Thatcher is undoubtedly Britain’s most important post-war prime minister: the linear successor of Winston Churchill who arrested, albeit temporarily, Britain’s post-war relative decline.
In a sense, Thatcher and Blair’s premiership form two bookends (of which John Major and Gordon Brown are codas): Thatcher inspired economic prosperity and Blair social freedom and investment in public services. Many commentators say that New Labour, which, until recently, presided over unprecedented prosperity and record investment in public services, would not have been possible without Margaret Thatcher.
It would be equally true to say that David Cameron’s speech would have been unimaginable only a decade ago without the socially progressive governments of Tony Blair.