Who's afraid of a gay soldier?

The issue of homosexuals serving in the forces tests the moral fibre of both main parties

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Sir James Spicer, the Conservative MP for Dorset West, has been recalling his war years. It would be nice, at this time of VE Day celebrations, if Sir James had been remembering camaraderie and solidarity in the trenches; but sadly, his anecdote concerns a problem he had with some of his fellow men. "There was a ring of them in another regiment during my time in service," the former major in the Parachute Regiment told a Sunday newspaper. "They became a little group who shut everyone else out. You cannot have that in a frontline force. Everybody has to pull together."

The "them" in question were homosexuals. Sir James was responding to reports that a Labour government would end the ban on homosexuals serving in the armed forces. Sir James is among the many in the Conservative Party and the military who are horrified at this prospect.

As we understand it from his remarks, Sir James, during the Second World War, made overtures of friendship and support to this "ring" in another regiment. But these overtures were rebuffed. The homosexuals had "shut everyone out". They were not prepared to "pull together" with the young Major Spicer. In short, homosexuals in the armed forces are a problem because they may tend to rebuff friendly approaches from other men.

Well, this is fascinating. I had always vaguely understood that the problem was perceived to be the opposite. For example, Lord Henley, the junior defence minister, says that gay soldiers "undermine discipline". Malcolm Rifkind, the Defence Secretary, suggests they would "undermine morale".

These phrases are rather opaque, but you get the impression that these chaps are not primarily worried, as Sir James Spicer is, about homosexual troops becoming an impenetrable clique. Lord Henley's remarks about the risk to "discipline" - and Mr Rifkind's about the threat to "morale" - can only plausibly be interpreted in three ways.

Possibility one is that they are implying that homosexuals are, by temperament, febrile, unreliable and physically weak. It is their fear that, in some future aquatic landing, a division will refuse to go ashore because they are worried about getting their hair wet. The second explanation is that Lord Henley is concerned about the impact of what he imagines to be gay lifestyles on army community living. He is worried, perhaps, about new recruits keeping the barracks awake all night, by squeakily ironing their leather trousers and roaring out a chorus of "In The Army", their cunningly rewritten version of Village People's "In The Navy". The third interpretation is that the ministers are well aware of the violent homophobia of the average member of the British military and are frightened that homosexual soldiers, should their orientation be known, will be beaten senseless by their colleagues.

The first two of these scenarios are the product of wild prejudice. Indeed, if strength and courage are the question, you might think that to be a gay soldier requires rather more strength and courage than to be a straight soldier. You would have to really want to be a soldier, wouldn't you, to sign up despite the opposition and hostility you must know that you would face. The third projection - that Lord Henley and Mr Rifkind are concerned about attacks by vigilante heterosexuals - is rather more believable, but if that is the objection, then surely the politicians should make clear that they are worried about gay soldiers being killed by their own side rather than their alleged inability to kill the other side.

In fact, we know what the Conservative defence team is saying; what "discipline" and "morale" are code for. At the back of all this is the question of the shower room. The ministers are alarmed that army life, by its nature, provides a ready supply of male bodies, occasionally naked. They believe that homosexuals are by nature predatory, that their libido has no off-switch, although a glance across the Conservative benches at the ranks of sexually disgraced ministers might remind them of how predatory and undiscriminating heterosexual sex may also be.

In reality, human sexual drives vary hugely, whatever the end object of desire, and most people know that there is a time and place for the expression of them. Mr Rifkind has so far managed to avoid jumping on Mrs Bottomley during Prime Minister's Question Time, though he is a man and she a woman, and I dare say a gay soldier might manage to avoid chatting anyone up on the battlefield.

Heterosexuals serving in the armed forces are subject to severe restrictions on when and where they may have sex - not on duty, not with each other, not with an officer - and have regularly been dismissed for breaking those rules. All the Labour Party is proposing is that a homosexual should be able to serve subject to acceptance of the same community rules.

Education offers a good example. It is not illegal to be a gay teacher, although boards of governors sometimes behave as if it were. However, strict rules of sexual conduct apply to teachers - not with the pupils, not with each other on the premises - and these apply equally, whatever the sexual persuasion of the employee. This code of conduct may not always work - some male teachers are drawn to boys' schools for the wrong reasons, just as the few male teachers in girls' schools are not always there because they are feminists - but it offers a sensible balance between human rights and cynicism about human nature.

The issue of homosexuals in the armed forces also usefully provides a test of the moral fibre of the two main political parties. John Major has so far proved unusually liberal on this subject for a senior Conservative. He invited Sir Ian McKellen to Number 10, and approved the appointment of a new Archbishop of York, Dr David Hope, despite the cleric's public admission of confusion about his own sexuality. Yet here is an opportunity for a bit of gay-bashing and Labour-bashing to please the tabloid press and encourage the disgruntled "family values" wing of the party. Let us hope that Mr Major's conscience - or, failing that, his fear of Peter Tatchell turning his attentions to the parliamentary Tory party - gets the better of him.

So, too, with Tony Blair. Here is a policy that will be unpopular in Middle England, in which there are no votes to be won and, perhaps, some to be lost. It is, however, a simple matter of civil liberties that any party with surviving liberal principles should support. Mr Blair has so far been good at doing things that are right but unpopular with his own party, but less willing to consider policies that are unpopular in the country but simply right. If Mr Blair and his advisers should retreat on this issue - muttering about easy targets for the Tories, not worth making a fuss over such a small thing, caused Clinton problems blah blah blah - then his liberal admirers, their faith already somewhat shaken by his flirtations with the right, may feel it is time to say goodbye.

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