Leading Article: Against gays and all reason

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The Independent Online
BRITISH homosexuals feel justifiably angry at Parliament's unwillingness to legislate a common age of consent. By lowering the age only to 18 for gay men, the majority of MPs have reduced rather than eradicated discrimination that is unfair, illogical and potentially damaging to the physical and mental health of young men.

This law will be difficult to police, though fear of it may haunt some teenagers. The change is also unlikely to last long: it will probably be overturned by the European Court of Human Rights, which is expected to demand the same age for both sexual orientations. Humiliatingly, Britain may - yet again - be forced by an external authority to recall its liberal tradition. In a period marked by poor legislation, frequently requiring hasty revision, Parliament has again passed a law unlikely to stand the test of time.

That said, the campaign led by Edwina Currie can take comfort in a victory nearly won. Had just 14 MPs switched their votes, the age of consent for homosexual men and heterosexuals would have been equalised at 16. The debate has challenged public perceptions in many positive ways.

It has encouraged people to reconsider their disapproval of homosexuals and established the gay rights lobby as a force to be reckoned with. This pressure group barely existed when the last change in the law was enacted in 1967, a time when debate was less public and widespread than today.

However dissatisfying the result, the votes on Monday night demonstrate the paradoxical nature of British parliamentary democracy. MPs were prepared to go against public support for the death penalty by again rejecting the reintroduction of hanging. Yet, despite strong expert and professional evidence recommending 16 as the homosexual age of consent, most MPs bowed to general disquiet over such a radical change.

This ambivalence towards popular opinion shows how liberalism sits uneasily with democracy in Britain's political system. The compromise on homosexuality suggests that MPs feel obliged to reflect the views of their constituents - even if this means that homosexuals are still treated in some respects as second-class citizens. Yet the majority were not so deferential as to approve legislation placing condemned murderers in the shadow of the hangman.

Parliamentarians recognise, particularly in a period when they are held in low regard, that they cannot afford to ride roughshod over every public preference. This is, in general, a healthy disposition, preventing the political classes becoming so removed from the grassroots that their ability to legislate effectively is called into question.

Despite their understandable disappointment, it is now up to Britain's homosexuals to build on recent public debate. They must convince even more people - peaceably - that their case for equality is just.