Leading Article: Mr Portillo may bring a new public morality

THE REACTIONS to Michael Portillo's "revelations" have been significant in themselves. As recently as 10 years ago, homophobic comments in the press were par for the course. Now, although there has been a sprinkling of sniggering jokes, Michael Portillo's self-outing seems to have paid off. It is possible that the burghers of Kensington and Chelsea will draw the line at the possibility of electing an MP who has admitted to gay experience; but with prominent Tories lining up to support him, that seems unlikely.

The prurience of the British press is still much in evidence, however, the tone of the leader columns has been broadly sympathetic to Mr Portillo, even in newspapers that until a few years ago would have thought nothing of declaring war on "poofters" in public places. In the 1980s, "gay rights" were a synonym for "disgusting left-wing propaganda". Now, The Sun and the Daily Mail speak almost approvingly of Mr Portillo's confessions.

We have gay Labour ministers, and nobody blinks. The Tories cannot be far behind. Those who refuse to change are failing to note that they are living in a different world. In the 1997 elections, those who openly declared themselves to be gay did not suffer electorally, even in areas with conservative values. In Michael Portillo's hitherto safe Tory constituency, the gay Stephen Twigg was elected in Mr Portillo's place.

The decision whether to declare oneself as gay must remain a personal matter. The hounding of public figures into declaring themselves - all for the sake of a dubious exclusive - is despicable. If somebody wishes to keep their sexuality private, then they should be allowed to do so, as public figures elsewhere in Europe have long been able to do.

More importantly, however, questions of sexual preference should be seen as morally neutral. Enormous changes have already taken place in the past 20 years. Already, there is an obvious generational difference. Many who grew up in a society where homosexuality was a prosecutable offence are still marked by the attitudes of that time. But social attitudes are changing radically - and look set to change further.

We must reach a point where being gay is simply not an issue. In this respect, both politicians and media can play a role. Until only a few years ago, diplomats were considered to be vulnerable if they were homosexual, because of blackmail. Now, that case is weakened: how can you blackmail somebody who does not regard their behaviour as a guilty secret?

The more that people in public life are open about their personal life, the better it will be. There should be more Portillos and less condemnation.

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