Closet Queens by Michael Bloch, book review: The double lives of politicians

A sensitive study of sexuality in the corridors of power
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Michael Bloch's publishers did well to get Matthew Parris to give his imprimatur to this book. It could easily have been a sleazy parade of salacious innuendo but, as Parris writes in his Foreword, it absolutely isn't. Bloch is a scrupulous historian who wrote an excellent biography of Jeremy Thorpe and has now extrapolated from Thorpe to look at around 50 more politicians of the last century who led similarly double lives.

Treated unsensationally, this is a serious historical subject. Given the discretion with which these men – and they are all men – had to cover their tracks at a time when homosexuality was illegal (and still largely inadmissible for another generation after decriminalisation in 1967), there is inevitably a shortage of hard evidence. But in most cases there is enough reputable testimony to be more than gossip. There was a much more extensive network of covert homosexuality in British public life than has hitherto been recognised, and there is no longer any need for reticence in admitting it.

Bloch even suggests that the very attributes which enabled his subjects to live dangerously while covering their tracks – "quick wits and sharp antennae ... acting ability ... a talent for intrigue and ... a capacity for taking calculated risks allied to an aptitude for dealing with threatening situations" - actually contributed to their success in politics. "The need to keep one's sexuality secret tended to foster qualities which may be missed in future."

Some of his 50 were unquestionably and actively gay – some almost openly so, like the bisexual Bob Boothby or Tom Driberg. Some, like "Loulou" Harcourt, who committed suicide, or Earl Beauchamp (the model for Evelyn Waugh's Lord Marchmain), who was driven into exile, were ruined by exposure.

When Rosebery – Prime Minister at the time – was threatened with exposure by Oscar Wilde's nemesis, the vindictive Marquess of Queensberry, Bloch suggests Wilde may have been prosecuted to protect Rosebery. Others – Lord Esher, "Chips" Channon, Harold Nicolson and Norman St John Stevas – got away with an active gay life for years by a combination of charm and caution.

Others again suppressed their real nature. A particularly interesting chapter deals with a clutch of leading empire builders including Curzon, Kitchener, Cecil Rhodes and Lord Milner, about whose sexuality there is a lack of clear evidence but who all relished the intense male bonding that went with their vocation in remote outposts of India and Africa. One biographer quoted by Bloch sees the famous feud between Curzon and Kitchener as "a battle of wills between an essential heterosexual with a streak of masochism ... and an essential homosexual with a streak of sadism".

Some are perhaps unfairly included. Arthur Balfour, for instance, was an effeminate dandy who never married but was probably sexless rather than gay. And it is surely a stretch to include Churchill, who shared a preference for male company with the empire builders.

Once married to Clementine, he certainly showed no interest in other women, but his unusual fidelity does not make him gay. In fact, quite a lot of Bloch's subjects were happily married; though it does seem that several married distinctly masculine women who tolerated their husbands' proclivities and in some cases – most famously Vita Sackville-West, married to Nicolson – enjoyed same-sex adventures of their own. Coming towards the present Bloch rightly dismisses the rumours about Ted Heath for which no shred of evidence has ever been produced. At some deep level of his nature, Heath may possibly have been gay, but if so he repressed it rigidly in the interest of his ambition. He was not a natural dissembler. A more intriguing case is Enoch Powell who, though happily married, confessed to a romantic attraction to young men when he was young.

Finally Bloch's survey closes with a sensitive discussion of today's climate in which some like Chris Smith and Peter Mandelson have been able to "come out" without disgrace, but in which the "new terror" of being outed by the press can still lead someone like David Laws into deception which can still lead to resignation.

John Campbell's 'Roy Jenkins: A Well-Rounded Life' is out now