Leading article: Discretion, not dishonesty

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The Independent Online

How far this country has come, yet how far it has still to go, towards lesbian and gay equality. As we report today, half of all gay people say they do not feel they can be completely honest at work about their sexuality. Tolerance may be a virtue of which the British are proud, and discrimination may now be against the law. Yet it is too easy to assume, just because Elton John and David Furnish's wedding was warmly received, that deep pockets of homophobia do not remain. There are many sectors of employment, including teaching and the City, where it can be particularly difficult to be "out".

It is a pity, therefore, that both Simon Hughes and Mark Oaten set such a poor example. Neither of the leading Liberal Democrat MPs had done anything to render themselves unfit for public office. Yet they both behaved as if people might be justified in thinking that they had. Most people - including, apparently, his wife - would take the view that Mr Oaten's private behaviour fell short of the ideal. That he should have paid a man for sex less than a year before making political use of his image as a family man was certainly unwise. But he had already withdrawn from the Liberal Democrat leadership election because of the lack of support from fellow MPs, and he did not need to stand down as party spokesman on home affairs. He has not, as far as we know, broken the law.

The case of Mr Hughes is even more regrettable, because he has not even, again as far as we know, deceived anyone in his private life. That he should have categorically and repeatedly denied his homosexuality was foolish but, more importantly, leaves the implication that it is something of which he is ashamed. His attempts to justify his denials by saying he does not think of himself as gay or bisexual and that he was trying to put a "fence" around his private life are misguided. For an MP of 23 years' service - and a previous candidate for his party's leadership - to tie himself up in such semantic knots the moment the heat is really on does not reflect well on him.

This is an issue that David Cameron, the new Conservative leader, got right. Politicians are entitled to a private life, and the best approach is simply to draw a line and refuse to answer questions on the wrong side of it. Of course, the line has to be in a place about which there is a consensus. But questions of youthful drug use and sexual orientation are both on the wrong side of the line. Any politician is entitled to reply to questions about their sexual orientation by saying, politely, "That is none of your business." Beatrix Campbell argues overleaf that gay MPs have a duty to come out; we disagree. Just as we disagree with media witch hunts. It is important that some gay MPs have declared themselves. But the approach of Peter Mandelson is just as admirable. He has never discussed his sexuality, even when he shared his official residence as a cabinet minister with his partner, Reinaldo Avila da Silva, on the grounds that it has nothing to do with his ability to serve in public office.

At least Simon Hughes has had the courage to stay in the Liberal Democrat leadership contest and to fight for the politics in which he believes. Nor should we be too hard on him for his error of judgement. There is a wider question here about the immaturity of a society that titters at jokes about gays, and that is so interested in the sex lives of celebrities, politicians or anyone else who might have a spell in the limelight.

However, it is no use Liberal Democrats feeling sorry for themselves, or blaming the media for their slide in the polls. Charles Kennedy had to go because his private behaviour affected his ability to lead. Since then, two leadership candidates have brought trouble on themselves and their party. Ultimately, the best defence against our collective prurience is for public figures to refuse to answer questions about their private lives unless there is a clear public-interest justification.

Discretion is better than dishonesty.