Currie condemns 'pure prejudice'

"If there was a war tomorrow, you wouldn't be discriminating against gays and lesbians. You would be dragging them in just as you did in 1939."

The interruption by the veteran left-winger Eddie Loyden as Nicholas Soames defended the status quo in last night's debate on homosexuals in the armed forces, encapsulated the hypocrisy the reformers see in the MoD's position.

Mr Soames, Minister of State for Defence and a former Hussars officer, argued that allowing gays in the military would undermine morale and damage operational effectiveness. The services, he said, should not be "bludgeoned out of the esprit de corps that has won every war that Britain has fought since 1812".

But Edwina Currie, the former Conservative minister, said in proposing the change that the ban was "based on prejudice - pure and simply - and as such it is offensive, impractical and expensive".

Mr Soames was supported by John Reid, a Labour defence spokesman, who said special relationships within a unit could weaken its effectiveness - "and in battle that may mean the loss of lives, as well as ... battles".

With Labour MPs granted a free vote on the issue, Mr Reid acknowledged that his view was at odds with his backbenchers.

Intervening, George Galloway, Labour MP for Glasgow Hillhead, said: "It is possible and acceptable to be a homosexual member of a war cabinet or to be a homosexual defence secretary, but it is not possible to be a homosexual private in the Royal Corps of Signallers. There's an inherent absurdity in that proposition."

Would a war cabinet including two homosexuals in a special relationship be less effective at waging a war, Mr Galloway wondered. But Dr Reid said the difference between a Secretary of State for Defence and a member of an Army unit was "that the defence secretary doesn't have to sleep every night with the Defence Procurement Minister or the Armed Forces Minister".

Tony Banks, Labour MP for Newham NW, raised the case of the three "subhuman" heterosexual soldiers who murdered a Danish tour guide in Cyprus. "They're the sort of people that bring shame to our armed forces, not those homosexual men that loyally serve their country, are ready to die for their country and yet are still treated abysmally by this House."

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