British Conservatives in Row over Promoting Homosexuality

By Patrick Goodenough | July 7, 2008 | 8:07 PM EDT

London ( - British Conservative Party leader William Hague sacked a member of his front bench parliamentary team Thursday night for refusing to back party policy on homosexuality.

Shaun Woodward, a Tory spokesman on London, said he could not support the party's opposition to a government motion to overturn a law preventing schools and local councils from promoting homosexuality.

Woodward, who believes Section 28 of the Local Government Act encourages homophobic bullying in schools and should be scrapped when debated in the House of Commons early next year, insisted members should be allowed a free vote on what he called a conscience issue.

He was fired after failing to reach a compromise with party officials on a proposal to amend the legislation to deal with the bullying concern while leaving the ban intact.

Pushed through by a former Conservative government 11 years ago -- and hugely unpopular among many liberals -- Section 28 outlaws activities deemed to promote homosexuality and "the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship."

Homosexual activists have long targeted as discriminatory Section 28, as well as another law setting the age of consent for homosexual relations at 18 - it is 16 for heterosexuals.

The Labor government intends to scrap both.

In a free vote earlier this year on lowering the age of consent for homosexuals from
18 to 16, Woodward compared the issue to a woman's right to vote and the abolition of slavery.

Analysts said Woodward's dismissal would send a signal that Hague was a firm leader, but complicate his efforts to portray the party as one that was becoming more "tolerant."

A homosexual activist group, Outrage, said the decision to fire Woodward would dismay many who believed "Hague was committed to ditching the party's backward, homophobic past."

But Hague said the issue was one of party discipline.

"Members of the front bench must support the policies of the party," he said in Wales Friday. "We must have discipline in our party. We've learned to our cost in the past what happens when we don't."

Former Conservative Prime Ministers Margaret Thatcher and John Major both suffered on occasion from party disunity and rebellion among leading ministers and members.

Woodward's departure may not be the end of Hague's troubles, however. Former Defense Minister Michael Portillo, who has just returned to the party's benches after winning a by-election, is coming under pressure to spell out his position on Section 28.

Portillo, a heavyweight suspected of having ambitions to lead the party, has been presenting himself as a "caring" and more liberal Conservative. He recently admitted having "some homosexual experiences as a young person."

Woodward is a trustee of ChildLine, a national telephone helpline for children in trouble or danger. He said in a letter to the party's chief whip, James Arbuthnot: "Bullying is a very serious problem in schools, particularly when it is directed at young people who may be unsure of their sexuality or simply on the end of ghastly taunts."

"I do not wish to 'promote' homosexuality. I simply want a decent environment for young people to grow up in and not be bullied because of their private sexual orientation ... The current legislation simply causes harm and does not protect our children."

Adam Atkinson, spokesman for Christian Action Research and Education (CARE), told Friday Section 28 had over the years proven to be "a good force for the protection of children."

But it had been raised as a standard by some groups, and debate around it had been "overly combative. It has received far too much and too unbalanced coverage in relation to what it is and what it seeks to do."

Atkinson said CARE took the issue of bullying very seriously but believed the argument being used in this regard was "like using a sledgehammer to crack a nut."

The Catholic Church in Britain last month accused the government of being out of touch with public views on Section 28.

"People do not, in general, wish their children to be taught the theory or practice of homosexuality at school," said the Catholic cardinal for Scotland, Thomas Winning.

"If we are not very, very careful, we will inadvertently promote a lifestyle for our children which will reduce their life expectancy, increase their chances of HIV infection and expose them to predatory and abusive relationships," he warned.

Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow