Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

The Last Word: At a standstill

We must remember our hard-won battles for equality now more than ever, writes Robert Philpot

Thirty years ago yesterday, one of the most infamous and pernicious pieces of social policy legislation in modern British history came into force.

Section 28 of the 1988 Local Government Act prevented councils from ‘promoting’ homosexuality and barred schools from teaching ‘the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship’.

‘Children who need to be taught to respect traditional moral values,’ Margaret Thatcher had warned the Conservative party conference the previous September, ‘are being taught that they have an inalienable right to be gay.’ These children, she thundered, were being ‘cheated of a sound start in life – yes, cheated’.

Her words were taken as a cue for right wing Tory backbenchers to slip an amendment into government legislation then passing through parliament to address this grave threat to the nation’s moral wellbeing.

Ministers accepted it for what it was: a sop to the tabloid press, which had slavishly supported the Conservatives in the run-up to the 1987 general election with a barrage of stories detailing the antics of ‘loony left’ local councils and their alleged war on ‘family values’. Particular fury was focused on Jenny Lives with Eric and Martin, a ‘vile book’ which allegedly ‘promoted’ homosexuality to young children in schools. In reality, despite strenuous journalistic efforts to track down copies, only one – in a teaching centre which used it, subject to parents’ permission, with older children – was ever located.

Unsurprisingly, section 28 was a farce. ‘No prosecution was ever brought under it because there was never any plausible evidence that any council was intentionally promoting homosexuality,’ writes Andy McSmith in his history of the 1980s. ‘Nor was it explained how they ever could “promote” it had they wanted to.’

But the legislation was no joke. As Matthew Todd, the former editor of Attitude magazine has suggested the law operated as a bullies’ charter. Confused by how it impacted upon their responsibilities, many teachers ended up turning a blind eye to the vicious playground homophobia to which some of the children supposedly in their care were subjected. For some of them, Todd argues, the scars live on in mental health problems and alcohol and drug addictions.

Moreover, even though section 28 was repealed under Tony Blair’s premiership, it continues to stunt the debate about how to make the teaching of relationships and sex in schools inclusive for LGBT pupils, as the Terence Higgins Trust’s new campaign on the issue highlights.

But there is another, far more positive, legacy of section 28. Despite being battered by attacks from the press and politicians – one Tory backbencher openly welcomed the fire-bombing of the offices of London’s weekly gay newspaper – and still facing the tragic impact of the HIV/Aids epidemic, Britain’s LGBT community fought back. Mass demonstrations against the legislation were held in London and Manchester. Lesbian protesters abseiled into the House of Lords and invaded the studios of the BBC as the six o’clock news was being broadcast (the gallery talk back is priceless). And, in a room loaned to them by Richard Branson in his Heaven nightclub, the actors Ian McKellen and Michael Cashman, the former Tory member of parliament-turned-broadcaster Matthew Parris and the theatre critic Nicholas de Jongh – assisted by Labour’s head of communications, Peter Mandelson – met to plan tactics to fight the bill. ‘That self-recruited, self-appointed group in Heaven, with no rules, no constitution, no name, no agenda, no minutes, no agreed procedure and no institutional form at all,’ Parris later wrote, ‘was really the core upon which [Stonewall] was afterwards founded.’

In time, Stonewall would lead the fight not just to roll back section 28, but to equalise the age of consent, allow gay adoption, bar discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation, and to introduce civil partnerships and equal marriage. All but one of those achievements was passed into law under the last Labour government.

Three decades ago this week, the gay community – and all those who care for the cause of equality – lost an important battle. Many vulnerable young people suffered as a result. But let’s also remember that, from that defeat, many victories would later spring.


The Brexit vote, the governor of the Bank of England revealed this week, has cost each UK household £900 since the referendum. The remain campaign warned in the run-up to the vote that households would lose £4,300 over 15 years if Britain left the European Union. The problem with ‘project fear’, it now appears, is that it actually underestimated the hit we would all take when Boris Johnson, Michael Gove and the Brexiteers got their way.

Pure coincidence

Thank you to the Guardian Live Blog for publishing this early entry to this year’s British Comedy Awards. A government source, it reported, had been in touch to challenge the suggestion that new contingency plans to park lorries on the M20 have been drawn up in response to the risk of a no-deal Brexit causing customs chaos at Dover. Asked if he was saying that this initiative has nothing to do with Britain leaving the EU, even though it is scheduled to be ready by early 2019, the source replied: ‘Pretty much. It’s just a bit of a coincidence.’


Robert Philpot is a contributing editor to Progress, and writes the weekly Last Word column. He tweets at @Robert_Philpot


Photo: By mathiaswasik from New York City, USA – LGBT Solidarity Rally, CC BY-SA 2.0

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Robert Philpot

is a contributing editor to Progress magazine and former director of Progress

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