The lengthy debate has also allowed time for most of the opponents of change to emerge from the woodwork. And it is their arguments that I wish to review here. Many, of course, echo those of the Fifties - John Major's favourite decade of warm beer and insular prejudice - when the Wolfenden Report first proposed the legalisation of homosexuality. But there is an element that is new. It is the voice of authoritarian Christianity, boldly treading in the political sphere and claiming to speak on behalf of an unimpeachable moral majority.
In theory, the issue has been the lowering of the age of consent for male homosexual acts from 21 to 16. Opponents, however, have had little specific to say here. This is largely because of the sea change in the attitude of the medical profession. In the Fifties and Sixties, doctors - Freudians in psychology and Conservatives in politics - were die-hard opponents of liberalisation.
Today, however, the Royal College of Psychiatrists declares that 'there are no psychiatric or developmental reasons why the minimum age for homosexual practices should be other than 16 years'. This destroys, at a stroke, the best argument in favour of an unequal age of consent: that as boys were slower to develop than girls, they needed special protection.
Robbed of their best argument on the narrow front, the homocritical, as they now like to call themselves, have had to shift ground to the broad question of the undesirability of homosexuality as such. This means, if they were serious, that they would be arguing not that the age of consent should remain at 21, but that homosexuality should be recriminalised. Only a few have dared to go so far, and then only in jest.
The joke, and it is not a very good one, is a proposed amendment to the Currie motion that would raise the age of consent to 99. Two of the dimmer Tory backbenchers vie for the honour of having thought this up. One is Sir Nicholas Fairbairn, who advertises his irredentist heterosexuality by sporting a variety of fancy outfits designed by himself. The other, at the opposite social and geographical extreme, is Terry Dicks.
Mr Dicks, as I discovered when I recently confronted him in a television debate, is florid of face and loud of voice. He described the act of buggery in graphic detail in prime time, and expressed his passionate sense of injustice that buggery should be legal for me as a homosexual whereas it was illegal for him as a heterosexual. This was not the only chip on his shoulder. 'Mere backbench MPs like me don't appear on Question Time.'
Mr Dicks, in one sense, is as British as a dirty seaside postcard, or fish and chips wrapped in newspaper. In another, he is the fodder from which extremist parties of right and left have always been recruited. But for the leaders we have to look elsewhere.
We find them in a bevy of Roman Catholic journalists, including Paul Johnson, Piers Paul Read and William Oddie. They argue that, since homosexuality is against natural and divine law, the heterosexual majority has the right to repress the aberrant homosexual minority as one threatening the core values of the nation. The irony is that, for most of the history of Britain, Roman Catholics were regarded as just such an aberrant minority threatening the core values of a Protestant state.
They were banned from the universities and public office and (as they still are) from the succession to the throne. There were anti- Catholic riots and scares over popish plots. Long after emancipation in 1829, Catholics remained a beleaguered minority. And it is this minority status which meant that many of the most interesting writers of the first half of this century - Belloc, Chesterton, Waugh - were of that faith.
But now Catholics become complacent, even triumphalist. Ferdinand Mount in the Spectator even regrets emancipation. This is because they aspire to reoccupy the throne of St Augustine. My fear is that the church, newly militant, is aspiring to assume its old role and regulate - not very gently - the realm of personal behaviour as well. Consider the following summary of an article by Mr Oddie.
It appeared recently in the Sunday Times under the headline, 'A tiny minority with too much cultural clout'. Oddie denied thrice that he was prejudiced. But, he continued, it has been revealed by the recent Social and Community Planning Research (SCPR) survey into sex in Britain that homosexuals are only one in 90, and not one in 10, as Alfred Kinsey thought in the Forties. This, Mr Oddie concluded, 'gives us an unassailable reason to resist any further changes in our law and our culture. Enough is enough.'
Of course, Mr Oddie would deny that these were the consequences of his argument, but he cannot deny that the logic of his position is exactly the same as the Nazis' denunciation of Judaism as a subversive cultural influence.
Remember that, if the SCPR figures are correct, the size of the Jewish and the homosexual minorities in Britain are the same. And remember that the wearers of the Pink Triangle joined those labelled with the Star of David in the gas chambers because they threatened the core values of the nation and had 'too much cultural clout'.
Which, of course, in a sense we do. For culture is consumed by majorities. But it is made by minorities. This is why J S Mill in his classic essay 'On Liberty' argues that when majorities protect minorities, both parties benefit: tolerance is not largess but self-interest. For progress comes only by dissent, by challenging received opinion and refuting the norm.
There is no doubt who has made the most effective challenges in the 20th century. As George Steiner, the incoming Professor of Comparative Literature at Oxford, writes: 'Judaism and homosexuality . . . can be seen to have been the two main generators of the entire fabric and savour of urban modernity in the West.'
The vote in the Commons tonight is not only about being nice to a minority, it is about whether Britain, and the Tory party in particular, can come to terms with modernity or whether it wants to retreat into a pseudo-
medievalism of one nation, one culture, one faith.
James Fenton is away.Reuse content