LEADING ARTICLE : The armed forces don't need a uniform sexuality

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"I am not a homophobe, but I think gays are a freak of nature," says one of the Tory-voting guests in The Dinner Party, a television documentary to be screened soon. This is a new variation on the theme of "I am not a racist, but..." and "I am not sexist, but...". Prejudice is still abroad in this country although it is, fortunately, not respectable. Hence the shock value of Channel 4's latest documentary foray. The last bastion of respectable prejudice, however, is the armed forces. A fellow Dinner Party diner contributes to the debate: "We don't want effing queers in the Army." This was perhaps rather crudely expressed, but Government ministers still feel able to express the same sentiments in the House of Commons. Nicholas Soames, the Armed Forces Minister, would not publicly urge women to get back to the kitchen or the Prime Minister to play the race card in the coming election. But he will say, as he did yesterday: "The Government supports the armed forces in their wish to maintain a ban on homosexuality in the services. Homosexuality is not compatible with the trust that must exist between comrades in arms."

This is pre-election posturing of the most unsavoury kind. He must know, as we all do, that the European Court of Justice will strike down the ban on gays in the military as contrary to European Union discrimination law. It will also be struck down by the other Euro-court, in Strasbourg, as contrary to the European Convention on Human Rights, which is separate from the EU. Mr Soames's determination to fight the Perkins case, referred to Luxembourg by the High Court yesterday, is synthetic. "I fear that Labour, if elected, would give up the case," he went on.

Tony Blair, too, has been guilty of unattractive pre-election posturing on this issue. Last May, he, his deputy John Prescott, his moral commissar David Blunkett, and his defence spokesman David Clark, all abstained in a Commons vote to lift the ban on gays in the military. Pretty it was not. Understandable, in the light of Bill Clinton's experience with this issue on coming to office. Understandable, in view of the depths to which Mr Soames showed the Tories were prepared to sink. But not at all appealing.

The question is whether discrimination on grounds of race, sex or sexuality is justified in any of the uniformed services. The answer is no. Twenty years after the Sex Discrimination Act and the European Equal Treatment Directive, this should not be controversial. And yet this Government has shown itself willing to pay out large sums of money on behalf of the armed forces and the police in hopeless defence of their right to discriminate against women and homosexuals. Police forces have recently been found by the courts to have failed to control sexual harassment of women officers, and the Strasbourg court will rule on Alison Halford's case over discrimination in promotion on Monday.

Why is it that uniformed services think they operate by different laws? All the arguments fall apart under close scrutiny. The distinguishing feature of these services is the requirement for discipline and teamwork in acutely stressful situations. Mr Soames's choice of terms goes to the heart of the discriminators' case: "trust" and "comrades in arms". The case is that you cannot have the essential bonding, the camaraderie, that will survive under fire or in a riot, unless you have a homogenous group of white straight men. But it is a difficult case to spell out, as MPs found when they tried to look at it in the Armed Forces Committee last year. Much nonsense was talked about people having to live in "close proximity" to each other, about showers and sleeping arrangements.

This is all about sex and symbolism and things people find difficult to talk about. But open discussion is needed, because it will help both the armed forces and the public at large confront their irrational fears. Many service chiefs used to be instinctively hostile to women in combat roles in the armed forces, but if they were made to talk about it came round to the idea. We suspect that the same would apply to the issue of homosexuals.

Homophobia runs deep in wider society, but there is also a countervailing liberal tendency of which this country should be proud, of tolerating what other people get up to in private. Open discussion would help the second overcome the first. Of course, there have to be rules about what people get up to in private in uniformed services, as there are, in fact, in most organisations, written or unwritten. Sexual conduct does matter, especially when bosses and subordinates have affairs: discipline and team loyalty can be undermined, and sexual tension creates uncertainties that can devastate proper working relationships. But sensible rules about sexual shenanigans apply equally to everyone.

Finally, the nonsense about "effectiveness". It is a code for virility, and, while there is a role for controlled aggression in the police and the armed forces (and almost any other job), there is no reason why women or gay men are not able to show it. True, women are not so interested in zapping aliens in computer games, but many excel at the team skills of running operations centres and making fast decisions which matter as much or more in real war, or running a crime-breaking operation.

For the police, certainly, effectiveness must depend to an extent on the force's connectedness with the society it exists to serve. How many miscarriages of justice would have been avoided if the social base of police forces had been broader, if the pool of talent on which they could draw had been deeper? That is the principal argument in favour of open recruitment. And it ought to go without saying that it is unhealthy for the armed forces, like the police, to be unrepresentative of the society they exist to defend. In a democracy, socially representative uniformed forces are an important guarantor of everyone's security.