Gross indecency

Michael Arditti convicts the '50s Establishment of vicious bigotry: Heterosexual Dictatorship by Patrick Higgins, Fourth Estate, pounds 18.99
Anyone who has ever heard the dread words "I shall now read the minutes of the last meeting" will have reason to fear Patrick Higgins's blow-by-blow account of the workings of the Wolfenden Committee. Fortunately, these fears are soon dispelled by Higgins' account of a key, if largely symbolic, moment in the liberalisation of British sexual mores.

Higgins is concerned to challenge many myths about the committee and, in particular, about its chairman who, since his death, has been elevated to the pantheon of secular saints. Higgins paints a picture of a craven careerist, toadying to official witnesses, while barely courteous to the "criminal" Peter Wildeblood. Although in a minority, he refused to recommend a gay age of consent of 18.

Those looking for a working definition of the British Establishment could do worse than take the lawyers, doctors, churchmen, MPs, academics and one peer who made up the committee. Even the most "liberal" peer, Goronwy Rees, wrote a series of articles in The People about his friend, Guy Burgess, in which he described him as a Jekyll and Hyde with "depraved tastes". In fact, it was Rees himself who exhibited the split personality, a lone voice of tolerance in committee while demanding a witch-hunt in the tabloid press.

Some of the committee's antics resemble a Whitehall farce. To safeguard their female clerical workers, they decided on the euphemisms Huntleys (homosexuals) and Palmers (prostitutes). Wolfenden opposed hearing evidence from homosexuals themselves for fear of attracting exhibitionists. He had no idea of the numbers of men involved and refused to accept the Kinsey Report.

Higgins documents the virulent homophobia of the period. True to its 19th-century model, homosexuality was regarded as a disease by liberals and reactionaries alike. The distinction lay between reformers who saw it as a mental disorder that needed treatment and opponents who considered it an infection that would corrupt society. The church maintained its antagonism, the Bishop of Rochester even declaring that he found himself "feeling more sympathy with a curate or scoutmaster who has offended with a boy than with two men misbehaving together."

Press coverage, with a few exceptions, was grossly indecent. The rush for advertisers and circulation battles led to coarsening of sensibilities in both journalists and readers. Parliamentary prejudice ran rife; although, remarkably, the young Margaret Thatcher proved to be a constant supporter of reform. In the Lords, Archbishop Ramsay's admission that he knew the difference between oral and anal sex led one peer to claim that he had "turned Hansard into a piece of pornography."

In the second part, Higgins provides extensive documentation of 1950s homophobia. This section is less analytical - and less effective - than the first, consisting largely of short reports of court cases, which come to resemble a relentless diet of the seamier Sunday newspapers. There are sad tales of blackmail and extortion, evidence of the lengths to which lonely men would go to obtain a little love. The behaviour of one Gloucester Cathedral curate reads like a Le Carre spy tale. We learn of a vicar who asked an 18-year-old to view his model railway and a farmer whose teenage boyfriends slept over because they were "crazy about milking". They, like so many others, were found guilty.

Reading this material demonstrates how radically society has changed in the past 40 years, and yet the 1950s distinction between the good homosexual (heterosexual in all but sex) and the bad homosexual (challenging, promiscuous) remains. Higgins belongs to the activist, street-theatre rather than tea- with-John-Major tendency. But anyone who considers the title unwarranted in a liberal democracy will have thought again by the end of the book.