Ruined by a lie, not a lifestyle

Henry Porter analyses the tragedy of David Ashby, the homosexual MP who misjudged the spirit of the times
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The Independent Online
It is difficult today not to feel extremely sorry for David Ashby, the Conservative MP whose 20-day libel action against the Sunday Times ended in his humiliation and financial ruin. But as he sat with his head in his hands apparently weeping at the jury's verdict, it was also impossible not to wonder at the enormity of the damage that he has inflicted upon himself by bringing this case.

For the point that rings out clear from the Royal Courts of Justice is that shame lies not in the supposed homosexuality of a man in public life, but in the hypocrisy of his denial.

Nevertheless, the public response, I suspect, will be overwhelmingly sympathetic to Mr Ashby, and in the Commons MPs could only express regret at the way he had exposed himself and his family to the terrifying scrutiny of a libel trial. For everyone understands the forces that compelled him to fight the action to the last, and yet also the necessity of the newspaper proving its allegations. It was a tragic battle between reputation and truth, and with the evidence the Sunday Times had accumulated the latter was bound to be the victor.

Some 10 or 15 years ago, this same evidence might not have persuaded a jury. People were less likely to believe that public figures were gay, and consequently tended to give them the benefit of the doubt because of the great stigma attached to homosexuality.

Today things are very different. The ordinary people who sit on juries are much more comfortable with the idea of a politician's gayness. Moreover, they are familiar with the details of gay life. So they looked at the evidence less fearfully than they would have in the past, and decided that on balance Mr Ashby's behaviour suggested that he was in fact gay, and that he was therefore guilty of both hypocrisy and lying.

The tragedy of the case is that Mr Ashby did not appreciate how much things have changed and that his shame was in fact shameful. If he had been prepared to admit his relations with other men, or at least if he had let the Sunday Times's accusation pass, people would not really have thought any the worse of him.

There are many gay MPs in Parliament, some living discreetly homosexual lives, while others, such as Chris Smith, the Shadow Heritage Secretary, are completely open about their sexuality. For Smith, it is simply not an issue: there is nothing any newspaper can discover in this area of his life that would embarrass him. But if you are going to be a gay MP, then Smith's constituency of Islington South is the best place for you.

Mr Ashby felt differently, perhaps because at 55 he is 11 years older than Smith and was brought up at a time when homosexuality was barely admitted, let alone tolerated. But he also probably believed that Conservative voters are more hostile to homosexuality. There may be some truth in this, and with a majority of only 979 in his Leicestershire North West constituency he calculated that it was better to lie than to own up to what he regarded as a disgraceful and electorally damaging part of his life. It turned out to be a disastrous decision that was driven as much by his obvious ambivalence about his sexuality as any prejudice that might exist in his electorate.

It must also be said that lurking in his decision was probably an arrogance, or at least unworldly hubris, which allowed him to pursue this thing to the bitter end, exposing his daughter to cross-examination and the shaming details of his marriage break-up to unflinching public gaze.

Honesty would have been better, but it is difficult for such a man to gauge precisely how far attitudes have changed. People with different backgrounds are at variance on the matter of homosexuality in public life. And some roles will be regarded as perfectly acceptable for a homosexual, while others not. An entertainer such as Michael Barrymore, who recently came out on a radio show, has not been substantially damaged. Nor has the actor Sir Ian McKellen or Rabbi Lionel Blue. But if a Home Secretary was suddenly to emerge from the closet the reactions might be slightly different.

What is clear at the moment is that the British people - to say nothing of their ferocious press - will not endure hypocrisy in public life. If you emphasise the importance of family values, as David Ashby did in the last election, you cannot then leave your wife for another man without risking exposure and indeed ridicule. Hypocrisy was his crime, not homosexuality. That should be the message that goes out to anyone in public life who might be tempted to bring a similar action, and also to any libel lawyers who may persuade their clients, against their best interest, that they should pursue a case that is clearly hopeless.

In these conditions where there is growing but not yet absolute tolerance of homosexuality in public life, it is extremely difficult for politicians and their lawyers to make these line calls. We must believe that individuals, however prominent, should be allowed a degree of privacy, yet there is a point when the personal becomes political and the subject of public interest. That was reached when Mr Ashby's private circumstances became so hopelessly at odds with his public attitudes. The same was true of a Church of England bishop who after criticising gay priests was exposed as having had a brief encounter in a gentlemen's lavatory when a young man.

It demands great strength of character for a man of Mr Ashby's conservatism to shun a plainly hypocritical stance. He is of the old-fashioned school of gay, best represented by the late Lord (Tom) Driberg, who bedded as many men as he could, at the same time managing to preserve a public respectability of sorts. For a time Driberg was pretty brazen about his activities, and he relied on influential friends to get him out of scrapes, but there was also something about his style, a certain devil-may-care panache, which added to his protection.

This can be deployed much more effectively today. One only has to look at the flourishing career of Michael Barrymore to see that he has turned his coming out into a personal triumph, rather gratifyingly in defiance of the press, which had been tormenting him for a number of years but which now must reluctantly admit its admiration.

Openness may not yet completely disarm prejudice, but surely anything is better than the terrible humiliation through which Mr Ashby has put himself and his family over the past three weeks. He has only himself and perhaps his lawyers to blame, but it is right to extend our sympathy to him and to be grateful that his melancholy example will clear the thoughts of many in his position.