Issue 243 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published July/August 2000 Copyright © Socialist Review
Over the last six months Scotland has been subjected to a dirty gay-bashing campaign on a level not seen since the tabloid hysteria over so called 'loony left' councils in London in the late 1980s. Brian Souter, the multi-millionaire boss of the union-busting Stagecoach transport empire, and member of the deeply homophobic Christian fundamentalist sect the Church of the Nazarene, assembled a rag tag coalition of the religious right and other social reactionaries to oppose the repeal of anti-gay legislation by the Scottish Executive. The subsequent campaign of lies and misinformation by his Keep the Clause organisation has borne the hallmarks of the media frenzy which ushered in Margaret Thatcher's gay-basher's charter 12 years ago.
Section 28 of the 1988 Local Government Act (known as Section 2a in Scotland but commonly referred to as Section 28) was introduced by the Tories on the back of a series of lurid stories in the right wing tabloids about the supposedly 'politically correct' policies of London Labour councils. Council initiatives to address discrimination against lesbian and gay people, black people, and women were misrepresented and distorted out of all recognition. According to the tabloids, children were being force fed a diet of gay propaganda at school.
Thatcher seized on the homophobic atmosphere generated by her favourite newspapers to introduce Section 28. Local authorities, the legislation stated, would no longer be able to 'promote' homosexuality, and relations between gay people themselves, and between gay people and their children, would now be described in law as 'pretended family relationships'. The Tories had brought onto the statute books a deliberately vague piece of prejudicial legislation which could at once frighten off council employees, and teachers in particular, from discussing homosexuality with enquiring young people and give carte blanche to any homophobic headcase who might want to prevent gay people having access to safer sex information or support services.
The problem for Thatcher and the bigots who cheered her on was that the arguments upon which Section 28 was based were founded on lies. There were no teachers encouraging kids to be gay and no councils feeding gay pornography to the young. In the 12 years since the legislation was introduced there has not been a single conviction under Section 28.
These facts, however, have meant nothing to Souter. Recruiting former Scottish Sun editor Jack Irvine as the 'brains' behind his campaign, the Stagecoach boss launched a vicious public relations exercise driven by scaremongering and hatred.
Keep the Clause claimed that without Section 28 children in Scottish schools would be forced to act out the part of rent boys in roleplay, and explicit gay sexual images would be made available in the classroom. When Souter bankrolled a nationwide poster campaign its slogan, 'Protect our children', was reminiscent not only of the filth in the tabloids in the 1980s but also of the age-old homophobic slander that gay people are a greater danger to children than heterosexuals.
This litany of lies and bigotry was helped on its way by the full support of Scotland's biggest selling newspaper, the Daily Record, and by the backing of the leader of Scotland's Catholics, Cardinal Thomas Winning. The Record launched its own petition to keep Section 28, while Winning scuppered Keep the Clause's ludicrous claim that it wasn't homophobic by describing homosexuality as a 'perversion' and comparing it to the threat of fascism.
When Labour lost the Ayr by-election in March, Souter claimed that it was his intervention over Section 28, rather than the disillusionment of Labour's traditional supporters, which had returned the seat to the Tories. He financed a private referendum on the legislation. Ignoring the obvious charge of cheque book democracy, Scotland's richest man then embarked on one of the most inept exercises in the history of opinion polls. Many voters received multiple ballot papers. Many others, including 25,000 students in halls of residence, received none.
Souter's so called 'referendum' was immediately denounced by the Scottish Trades Union Congress and socialist parties as a homophobic, anti-democratic sham. Their call on people to 'bin the bigots' ballot' was taken up by many others, including the Herald newspaper, which described the poll as 'a highly expensive piece of junk mail'. While the STUC and individual unions could and should have done more by way of funding a publicity campaign, there can be little doubt that the labour movement's intervention had a positive impact.
When Keep the Clause announced the result of its rigged referendum at the end of May, it claimed to have proved that most Scots backed its campaign. Indeed, 86 percent of those who responded (just over a million people) voted to retain Section 28. However, a closer look at the poll suggests that Souter did not achieve the endorsement he was looking for.
Firstly, the 35 percent turnout was only half that for the only comparable postal ballot in Scotland in recent years, the Strathclyde Regional Council referendum on water privatisation. Secondly, 75 percent of voters either refused to participate in the ballot, returned a spoiled paper or empty envelope in disgust, or voted to repeal the legislation.
This is not to say that Souter and his homophobic friends have not had some success. Given the torrent of scare stories and misinformation, it is not surprising that many people have been taken in by the Keep the Clause campaign. The opinion poll, totally flawed though it is, indicates that a significant number of Scots were manipulated into scapegoating gay people.
The fact that Souter's project has made some headway is down to more than just his heavily financed PR campaign. The Tories may be the only party in the Scottish Parliament which opposes the repeal of Section 28, but the actions of the Labour-Liberal Democrat coalition and the Scottish National Party have given considerable encouragement to the bigots.
The SNP, which has received financial support from Souter in the past, has put forward the supposed 'compromise solution' of replacing Section 28 with a clause which promotes heterosexual marriage as the ideal family relationship. Party leader Alex Salmond's claims that this can coexist with a clause stating that no child should be stigmatised because they do not live with two married parents is a classic case of a party of the political centre trying to play to the right and left simultaneously.
The Labour-Lib Dem executive, for its part, has vacillated between a confrontational and conciliatory approach to Souter's campaign. No sooner had first minister Donald Dewar met arch-bigot Cardinal Winning to offer him 'reassurances' than the executive announced that the repeal of Section 28 would be accompanied by the introduction of 'guidelines' stressing the importance of 'stable family relationships'. Even when, in early June, it finally dawned on communities minister Wendy Alexander that the Keep the Clause campaign was out for 'capitulation, not compromise', her promise of no more concessions to Souter was being undermined by press briefings suggesting that the parliamentary committee looking into the issue might back the SNP's 'marriage clause' as the solution. Certainly this would be in line with the position at Westminster, where Tony Blair and education minister David Blunkett have indicated their desire to give marriage pride of place in any new legislation.
The net result of the executive's dithering and compromising has been an increasing political confidence among the homophobes. Souter is now talking about funding candidates to stand against specific Labour MPs, and there is even a suggestion that he might simply throw his financial weight behind the SNP in order to punish Labour over Section 28.
Perhaps the nastiest example of the implications of this homophobic campaign has come in the shape of a landmark legal action, the first ever under Section 28. With the possibly illegal financial support of the Christian Institute charity, a legal challenge to Glasgow City Council's funding of HIV and gay organisations has been mounted on the grounds that they carry graphic depictions of gay sex in their safer sex publications. As a result the Labour local authority has shamefully voluntarily suspended all financial support to the four organisations until the judicial review is over.
This action represents a last ditch attempt by the gay-bashers to make use of Section 28. Increasingly the moralistic right understands that the legislation will be repealed and is turning its attention to trying to ensure that what replaces it promotes heterosexual marriage over all other forms of family relations. This should come as no surprise to socialists. The nuclear family has always been of immense importance to capitalism, both as a provider of huge amounts of unpaid labour (whether in domestic work or care of the young, the old and the sick) and as a central building block for its ideas of private property. The family unit reflects capitalism's interests in the subjugation of women to men and of children to parents, and its promotion is the basis of both sexism and homophobia.
Section 28 may be supported by a disgusting coalition of right wing religious zealots, but when Thatcher introduced the legislation she did so not out of religious conviction but in the material and ideological interests of her class. Souter has not ploughed as much as £2 million of his money into a campaign simply in support of his own religious prejudices. He is acting as a capitalist in the interests of the capitalist system.
The reason the right has taken to banging the 'family values' drum with such ferocity is not difficult to see. Divorce is on the increase. Marriage figures are at an all time low. Gay people are gaining more confidence to challenge their oppression and come out of the closet. When the moralists refer to the 'unravelling of the fabric of society', what they mean is that the church and the state are exerting a declining influence over our personal relationships.
It is precisely these social changes which have created the indecisiveness over Section 28 on the part of Scotland's Labour-Lib Dem coalition. On the one hand, as pro-capitalist parties, they want to reassure the ruling class that they are trying to hold the line on family values. On the other, they have to relate to an electorate which is increasingly unwilling to see children stigmatised because their parents or guardians are single, unmarried or gay.
The Section 28 issue in Scotland shows how quickly society can be polarised over social questions. Nevertheless, the general trend is towards more progressive social attitudes. For Blair and the Labour Party this situation creates a difficult dilemma. For socialists it provides the basis for building the campaigns against both Section 28 itself and the family values ideology behind it.