Copyright Sociological Research Online, 2000


Matthew Waites (2000) ''Homosexuality and the New Right: The Legacy of the 1980s for New Delineations of Homophobia''
Sociological Research Online, vol. 5, no. 1, <>

To cite articles published in Sociological Research Online, please reference the above information and include paragraph numbers if necessary

Received: 10/5/2000      Accepted: 30/5/2000      Published: 31/5/2000


This article addresses the relationship between the New Right and the politics of homosexuality in the United Kingdom. It begins by outlining recent political conflicts surrounding attempts to equalise the 'gay age of consent' and to repeal Section 28 of the Local Government Act (1988). The article then examines the New Right's relationship to homosexuality in the 1980s, and the history of socio-political analyses of this relationship. It is argued that pro-gay left theorists have tended to homogenize the New Right of the 1980s, with negative consequences for the analysis of more recent right-wing transformations. The article suggests that contemporary right-wing campaigns against equalisation of the age of consent and abolition of Section 28 need to be understood as the product of a complex right-wing alliance between old-style Conservatism and new right-wing generations. The sexual values of William Hague and Michael Portillo are very different from those of Margaret Thatcher or Norman Tebbit. More mediated forms of homophobia have surfaced in recent campaigns, particularly in the defence of Section 28. New analytical tools are needed to map 'new delineations of homophobia' emerging in the political language of the right, operating within a new terrain of sexual politics. The conclusion suggests ways in which such a perspective could inform future sociological and political research agendas.

Age of Consent; Conservative Party; Gay; Homosexuality; Lesbian; New Right; Section 28; Sexuality; Thatcherism


Recent months have witnessed venomous political campaigning by moral conservatives against the repeal of Section 28 of the Local Government Act (1988), and to a lesser degree against a reduction in the age of consent for sexual acts between men from 18 to 16. These twin conflicts over the politics of youth and homosexuality have focussed upon the New Labour government's only two firm public commitments concerning lesbian, gay and bisexual issues prior to the 1997 general election - to facilitate a free vote on the age of consent and repeal Section 28, both during the first term of government. A succession of parliamentary debates have occupied centre-stage in national politics, receiving extensive media coverage.

This article addresses these recent developments. Drawing upon detailed research into recent age of consent debates (Waites, 1999; Waites, 2000: pp.259- 311), it examines the contemporary politics of homosexuality of the British right. The article begins by examining how pro-lesbian and gay theorists analysed the right's politics of homosexuality during the 1980s, including that of the 'New Right'. By identifying the limitations of this work, the analysis suggests it becomes possible to conceptualise more clearly the emergence of 'new delineations of homophobia' on the right in the present day, which the article proceeds to examine. The article thus contributes to wider debates over the direction of the Conservative Party under the leadership of William Hague, in a context where party leaders have explicitly linked opposition to repeal of Section 28 to a wider strategy for defining contemporary Conservatism.

The New Right and Pro-Lesbian and Gay Theory in the UK

In the UK, the late 1970s and 1980s witnessed a resurgence of right-wing sexual moralism which forestalled even moderate proposals for reform of the state's regulation of sexuality. The Thatcher governments elected in 1979, 1983 and 1987 resisted most liberalising pressures, including demands for a debate over reducing the gay male age of consent from 21. The passing of Section 28 of the Local Government Act (1988), was indicative of a profound shift in the political climate with respect to debates over young people, sexuality, and particularly homosexuality.

The right's homophobia during the 1980s has been extensively documented and critiqued (Weeks, 1989, pp.273-304; Durham, 1991; Jeffery-Poulter, 1991, pp.199-267; Stacey, 1991; Abbott and Wallace, 1992; Thomson, 1993; Thomson, 1994; Cooper, 1994; Smith, 1994; Reinhold, 1994; Rayside, 1998, pp.19- 43; Epstein and Johnson, 1998, pp.44-72). However, has the dominant analysis of the right's politics of homosexuality by critical left theorists tended to excessively homogenize the new right of the 1980s? Pro-gay left-wing perspectives have, I shall propose, underestimated diversity and transformations occurring within the right, with negative consequences for the subsequent analysis of contemporary right-wing forces.

An important reference point for pro- lesbian and gay theorists has been Stuart Hall's conception of Thatcherism as a hegemonic authoritarian populist formation, with reference to the work of Gramsci (Hall, 1988). For Hall, sexual minorities were grouped among other 'enemies within', victims of Thatcherism's 'constant attempts to expel symbolically one sector of society after another from the imaginary community of the nation' (Hall, 1988, p.8).

'Thatcherism... has used its moral agenda as one of the principal areas where...identities are defined- the respectable normal folk who people the fantasies of the new right in relation to current debates around abortion, child abuse, sex education, gay rights and AIDS. It is above all through this moral agenda that the new right has become a cultural force' (Hall, 1988, p.282).

Hall's analysis of Thatcherism was widely cited in subsequent work on the politics of homosexuality in the 1980s. For example, it is a key influence in Smith's analysis of the introduction of Section 28 in New Right Discourse on Race and Sexuality (Smith, 1994). Hall's analysis of Thatcherism has also recently been cited approvingly in an overview of lesbian and gay politics in the UK by Ken Plummer, describing Hall as 'the foremost sociological analyst of this period' (Plummer, 1999, p.136). Hall's account is also a background influence in a variety of other works which share a sympathy towards a renewed and multi-dimensional left politics, and a strong critique of the New Right's politics of sexuality (eg. Stacey, 1991; Evans, 1993, p.5; Cooper, 1994). Even where Hall's understanding of Thatcherism is not endorsed, there is a tendency to overstate the affinities between Margaret Thatcher and Norman Tebbit, the New Right, and the direction of the Thatcher government and right-wing politics as a whole (eg. Weeks, 1989, pp.273-304). Though these various accounts of the politics of sexuality under the Thatcher governments differ in their analytical emphases, in my view they collectively overstate the coherence and cultural influence of the right's politics of sexuality during the 1980s.

A particular limitation has been their failure to distinguish sufficiently between 'Thatcherism' and 'The New Right', and to distinguish between different strands of New Right thinking. The tendency to conflate or elide differences between 'Thatcherism' and 'The New Right' in work on sexuality has inhibited appreciation of shifts taking place between political generations. 'Thatcherism' implies espousal of the doctrines associated with Mrs.Thatcher herself, marked by the traditionalist Christian morality of her political class and generation. The New Right, by contrast, has a broader reference. Though in America much of the New Right was deeply influenced by Christian and moralist themes, the New Right also encompassed more libertarian strands in right-wing thought. This strand of New Right thinking on the family and sexuality was inflected by the atomistic individualism and libertarianism which characterised the New Right's political economy, and was particularly influential among younger right-wing generations . The degree to which some critics have characterized their target as the 'New Right' has sometimes obscured such complexities (eg. Smith, 1994).

Sensitivity to such differences, and particularly to changes between political generations, points to a questioning of the centrality of a politics of sexuality to the constitution of the British New Right. Martin Durham has questioned the totalising tendencies of hegemony theory, and argued convincingly that Hall over-simplified the relationship between sexual politics and the British New Right (Durham, 1991, 1994). Durham emphasised the differences between elements of the right on issues of sexuality and the family, particularly the limits of influence upon policy-making experienced by family-values interest groups, and others have concurred (Thomson, 1994, pp.46-47). Yet similar attempts to examine the right more closely have been limited in recent sociological and political analyses.

Work on the origins of Section 28 embodies the problems with left analyses. Thus critics of Thatcherism's sexual politics have tended to present the right, rather than the left, as 'setting the agenda', underplaying the fact that Section 28 was created in the context of increasing moves by Labour local authorities to introduce discussion of homosexuality into schools. Some analyses (eg. Hall, 1988, Smith 1994) have tended to emphasise the role of political elites in constituting hegemonic political formations through political discourse, rather than the role of social movements such as the gay liberation movement in achieving social transformation throughout society through the long process of 'coming out'. Some theorists give an exaggerated emphasis to the anti-democratic centralising tendencies of Thatcherism, presenting Section 28 as a strategically motivated attempt toundermine and slur local education authorities. And they do so without sufficiently addressing public perceptions of local government's legitimacy as a democratic forum with respect to homosexuality, in a context where sexuality was increasingly being negotiated in national media and culture. (eg. Smith, 1994; Cooper, 1994). Some theorists have also attacked right-wing discourse without fully addressing the degree of truth in its claims that homosexuality can be 'promoted' (eg. Smith, 1994), thus failing to integrate the significance of 'social constructionist' arguments into their analyses, as advocated by Evans (Evans, 1995; Waites 2000).

The problematic analysis of the New Right's sexual politics is compounded in some cases by a tendency to view the Major governments (1990-1997) as a straightforward extension of the Thatcher period. For example, Plummer's account of Thatcherism states:

'This agenda continued when the subsequent prime minister, John Major, launched the (now infamous) Back to Basics campaign in 1993.' (Plummer, 1999, p.136).

However, as Martin Durham has argued, Back to Basics was not instigated by John Major with any explicit reference to sexual morality, though it was subsequently appropriated in diverse ways by a range of ministers (Durham, 1994). David Rayside has similarly pointed to the distinctiveness of the Major years, arguing that the period did mark 'a significant shift in the balance of forces' from those which generated Section 28 (Rayside, 1998, p. 45; cf. pp.45-75).

Given the seven-year duration of Major's tenancy as Prime Minister, the lack of detailed attention paid by British analysts to dynamics within the government and the broader political right concerning sexuality is surprising. Concrete shifts in policy were incremental at best, yet included, for example, the facilitation of a free vote on the age of consent, which after a decade of stubborn government immobility brought the country within 14 votes of equality. However, with respect to the forms of political discourse emphasised by analysts of the New Right hegemony (Hall, 1988; Smith, 1994),there were discernable shifts. There was no repetition, for example, of Mrs. Thatcher's questioning of children's 'inalienable right to be gay' in 1987 (quoted in Jeffery-Poulter, 1991, p.218). More precise and cautious boundaries were drawn. For example, Home Secretary Michael Howard MP made his argument for maintaining the male homosexual age of consent at 18 in 1994 with careful reference to the developmental processes of adolescent males and females, enabling him to speak in the language of scientific reason, and negotiate a path between overt homophobia and liberal claims for equality (H.C. 21.2. 1994, cols.92-97; cf. Waites, 2000, pp.259-318).

Vigorous pro-gay campaigning surrounding the 1994 age of consent debate, which witnessed significant shifts in attitudes among both the public and MPs (Waites, 1995; Smith 1995; Rayside, 1998, pp.45-75). The lesbian and gay lobbying group Stonewall played a leading role, articulating a sophisticated framework of arguments for equality (Stonewall, 1993)[1]. Opposition to equality, by contrast, was diffuse and disorganised - as I have discussed elsewhere (Waites, 1995; Waites, 2000; cf. Rayside, 1998, pp.67-68). The Conservative Family Campaign provided the most visible organised resistance, but became discredited when Director Stephen Green referred to equality campaigners as the 'forces of Satan'[2]. Otherwise, public opposition tended to derive from religious leaders and newspaper columnists.

New Delineations of Homophobia

What does a more detailed analysis of contemporary right-wing movements suggest about the form and degree of contemporary homophobia? In answering this question it is necessary to distinguish the values and politics of Conservative moralists and traditionalists from those of younger right-wing generations, including Conservative Party leader William Hague.

Baroness Young and the right-wing elements of her alliance in the House of Lords can be characterized as old-style Conservatives, imbued with a belief in authoritarian Christian morality. Young was a Leader of the House of Lords under the Thatcher premiership, and received prominent support from Baroness Thatcher during the first Lords debate in 1998. The strategic campaigning for retention of a gay age of consent at 18 and Section 28 by Young and her allies derives from an implacable belief in the deviant status of homosexuality. The coverage in right-wing tabloids such as the Daily Mail can be viewed in a similar light. Daily Mail commentator Simon Heffer has criticised William Hague's support for 16 as legalising 'the buggery of consenting fifth-formers', which 'helps cement the alienation from the party of many traditional Tories who could not bring themselves to vote Conservative in 1997...'[3]. These attitudes cannot easily be characterised as 'New Right', a term which is rarely invoked in contemporary public debates.

Conservative opponents of an equal age of consent and repeal of Section 28 have also been articulating their opposition in increasingly refined terms, such as being primarily against lowering the age of consent rather than equalising it, or in terms of demands for effective 'abuse of trust' legislation. Such formations became increasingly evident as stories of predatory gay male sexuality dissipated among Conservatives in the House of Commons during the age of consent debates of 1998- 1999, as Epstein et al have recently noted (Epstein et al, 2000, pp. 9, 14, 20-22). For example, the former Home Office Minister Conservative Douglas Hogg MP made a case. shared by many moderate moral conservatives, that the ideal outcome would be an age of consent of 18 for all, seeking to discourage 'the homosexual way of life', while simultaneously arguing that homosexuals should not be treated in a 'discriminatory way'(H.C. 1.3.1999, col.793). A more overt re-alignment of attitudes was evident in the speech of Conservative Shadow Home Office Minister James Clappison MP, who claimed: 'I do not feel any shred of homophobia' and 'I welcome greater tolerance in society', before continuing to argue that 16 is 'too young' (H.C. 1.3.1999, cols.803-806). These new Conservative languages, still defending discrimination, nonetheless suggest a significant moderation of previous attitudes, no longer premised upon a view of adult homosexuality as entirely socially marginal (Waites, 2000, pp.288-290).

But more significant is the further shift among some leading Conservatives in support of an equal age of consent. William Hague voted for 16 as a minister in 1994, and following his election as leader of the opposition gave a clear expression of continuing support for an equal age during the 1998 campaign for change in the law. Hague's stance illustrated a generational difference in attitudes from Conservative traditionalists, linked to a desire to renew Conservatism and appeal to wider political constituencies following the 1997 general election[4]. The issue of homosexuality, and Hague's support for an equal age of consent, repeatedly resurfaced in post-1997 public debates over the definition of a modern Conservatism. Hague's leadership team orchestrated a mention of the need to appeal to gay voters by a delegate at the 1997 Conservative party conference, and sent positive inclusive signals to the Tory Campaign for Homosexual Equality and the gay media[5].

Similarly, while potential party leader Michael Portillo had voted against an equal age of consent in 1994 (in favour of 18), and subsequently abstained during 1998-1999, his post-election comeback speech emphasised the need to redefine Conservative attitudes to the family and young people[6]. The documentary series 'Portillo's Progress' saw him openly discussing homosexuality in a nightclub[7]. A later public statement on 9 September 1999 concerning his own youthful homosexual experiences was calmly received by senior Conservatives. After being appointed Shadow Chancellor, Portillo voted for an equal age of consent for the first time on 10 February 2000. Thus consideration of Hague's record and Portillo's transformation illustrate that significant strands of contemporary Conservatism are able to blend traditional Tory authoritarianism and nationalist Euro-scepticism with a degree of sexual liberalism.

This analysis questions the apparent contemporary alliance between the younger generation of Conservatives surrounding William Hague and the Thatcherite old guard. The resignation and move to Labour by Shadow Spokesman for London Shaun Woodward, in response to the Conservative party's enforcement of a three line whip to defend Section 28, was interpreted by many as evidence of a gulf emerging between pro-gay forces and a right-ward shifting Tory party. Recent Hague policy interventions, particularly on the issues of the European single currency, asylum, and law and order, have also suggested a resurgence of Thatcherite authoritarian populism. Yet with respect to homosexuality at least, Hague must be seen as struggling to sustain and balance fragile alliances within the Conservative party between sexual traditionalists and liberals. Hague's acceptance of Steven Norris MP, an outspoken supporter of an equal age of consent and critic of his party's policy on Section 28, as the Conservative candidate for Mayor of London, represents the other side of this pragmatism[8].

It is certainly clear that some senior Conservatives continue to espouse views profoundly antipathetic towards homosexuality. Shadow Home Secretary Ann Widdecombe is the best known example, a vocal opponent of granting '...those sorts of lifestyle [...] equal validity with that of the traditional family[9]. Yet Widdecombe's position is associated with her deeply held Christian (Roman Catholic) convictions, and is not mirrored throughout the shadow cabinet. Differences in her values from those of Hague, Portillo and others, though presently concealed, may in the long term point to the fragility of Conservative alliances. This is also suggested by recent coordinated criticism of Hague's recent strategy from the Tory left including former Ministers Stephen Dorrell and Ian Taylor, and anonymous Shadow Cabinet sources[10].

Hague's support for Section 28 must be considered in the context of the balance of forces within the Conservative party, and the precarious state of his leadership. According to Quentin Letts, many Conservatives attribute the Shadow Cabinet's decision to support Section 28 to the trio of John Redwood, Ann Widdecombe and Iain Duncan Smith[11]; hence the policy may be part of a balancing act to keep the moralist right on board in Hague's Conservative coalition. Hague's main rival, Portillo, is tainted for many Conservatives by revelations of his own long hidden 'homosexual' experiences. According to a confident front-page report in the Daily Express in 1998, Hague himself has been subject of 'unprintable smears' from a snobbish 'coterie of huffiness' conspiring against his leadership with accusations that he is surrounded by a 'ring of faeries'[12]. He voted for 16 in 1994, and his private support for gay marriage was widely reported when he became party leader. Hence Hague's tough stance on Section 28 may be a particularly useful strategy to bolster his leadership against opposition, in a context where he is regarded as too soft on gay issues.

Hague's own discursive framework is evident, for example in a recent exchange with Tony Blair at Prime Minister's Questions on 9 February:

Mr. William Hague (Richmond Yorks.):
When archbishops, cardinals, the Chief Rabbi, the Muslim Council, Conservative Members of Parliament, many Labour Members, the chief inspector of schools, former Labour Cabinet Ministers, a majority of the Prime Minister's reformed House of Lords and the vast majority of mainstream opinion in the United Kingdom believe that the Government are wrong to abolish section 28, will the right hon. Gentleman listen to them and drop the whole idea?
The Prime Minister:
[...] ...the previous Government decided in 1994 guidance that section 28 did not apply in schools. [...] Although the right hon. Gentleman may wish to exploit the issue for the Conservative party's purposes, I believe that our country is more tolerant than he gives it credit for.
Mr. Hague:
We all believe in a tolerant society [...]
Mr. Blair:
There are two different types of concern over this matter. There are those expressed by churches and others [...] Another aspect of the opposition has to do with exploiting anti-gay feelings. Let us be quite open about that. Those are the opponents I intend to take on.
Mr. Hague:
In all the nonsense that the right hon. Gentleman has come out with over the past three years, he has never beaten that [...] The debate has become more than a debate about a clause in a local government Bill; it is about tolerance being a two-way thing in this country [...] It is about the tolerance demanded by the mainstream majority that its views and values be respected. (H.C. 9.2.2000 cols.240-241).

In these exchanges[13] Hague's calculated and cynical coded appeal to homophobic constituencies is apparent (as Blair recognises). But Hague's careful positioning of himself and the Conservative party is important to address carefully. Hague firmly aligns himself with a multi-faith alliance of supposed moral authorities, together with 'the vast majority of mainstream opinion in the United Kingdom', and asserts his belief in 'a tolerant society'. By doing so, Hague is able to render absurd in the minds of potential Tory voters Blair's accusation that he is 'exploiting anti-gay feelings'. Hague's careful positioning represents a significant new delineation of homophobia, rather than a straightforward restatement or resurgence of earlier Thatcherite discourse surrounding Section 28.

Elsewhere Hague has repeatedly emphasised 'strong and stable families' and 'the institution of marriage' in his rhetoric[14]. Yet as Hywell Williams has recently suggested 'the reactionary platitudes of the Hague winter and spring speeches are self-conscious. Mr. Hague's illiberal rants are designed to encourage liberal ones'[15]. The very self-consciousness of Hague's expression should alert us to the fact that both his values and the wider cultural climate have shifted from those in previous decades.

In understanding Hague's positioning, it is important to consider how the politics of repealing Section 28 are different from the politics of its introduction. The Conservatives in opposition, seeking to consolidate their core support, expecting to lose the next general election, and, anticipating the government will get its way whatever the resistance, were always unlikely to perform a U-turn on the merits of their own legislation.

But beyond these dynamics motivating the behaviour of political parties, it is crucial that Section 28 itself is a decidedly ambiguous piece of legislation subject to considerable re-signification. To pro-gay forces it represents a provocative and explicit piece of overtly discriminatory legislation. But recent media coverage and public debate suggest that to many of the general public it represents a more specifically defined boundary precluding acceptance of absolute equality between homosexuality and heterosexuality, operating in a context where openly gay and lesbian public figures are increasingly commonplace. The dynamics of the debate have reversed since the 1980s, with pro-gay forces now forced to make the case for changing a status quo in which Section 28 appears to many to have little tangible effect in terms of active implementation. Proponents of repeal now appear to be in favour of 'promoting' homosexuality. Opponents of repeal explicitly endorse sex education and health promotion; action to tackle homophobic bullying; and opposition to 'unfair discrimination'. But they argue that it is legitimate to legally prevent the promotion of homosexuality in a context where, for example, section 2 of Section 28 in the Local Government Act (1988) itself explicitly provides for action to treat and prevent the spread of disease.

The new attitudes of younger Conservatives, including the party leadership, have been influenced by wider cultural shifts. The decline of moral conservatism has mirrored the ascendance of a pluralist culture. As Bill Schwarz has argued, New Labour's victory signalled a broader cultural shift, a multi- dimensional challenge to each of the elements of the Conservative nation crafted since the nineteenth century[16]. An erosion of the foundations of reaction has taken place. This tendency has been evident in sexual politics, where a rejection of traditional patriarchal masculinities, Victorian protectionist assumptions of children's sexual innocence, and moralist objections to homosexuality as fundamentally 'unnatural', are now increasingly established in the political mainstream.

Contemporary right-wing campaigns against equalisation of the age of consent and abolition of Section 28 need to be understood as the product of a complex alliance between old-style Conservatism and new right-wing generations. The homophobia of family-values traditionalists and new religious fundamentalists is not shared in equal measure by many of the younger generation on the political right. For these the influence of new right ideology can imply an individualistic philosophy which sustains an emphasis upon personal liberty in moral and social matters. While William Hague and Michael Portillo make compromises to sustain a Conservative alliance, their underlying values and attitudes towards homosexuality are very different from those of Margaret Thatcher or Norman Tebbit (the latter withdrew his support for Portillo following the revelations of his homosexuality). Critics of the right need to reflect on why the social sciences have failed to generate analyses of the right which could facilitate an understanding of the new, more mediated forms of homophobia which have surfaced with renewed coherence in recent campaigns.


The provisional analysis of current developments suggests a number of agendas for sociological and political analysis and research.

By questioning whether the sexual values of Hague are those of earlier Thatcherite or New Right formations, my analysis suggests greater attention should be given to the commonalities between younger generations of Conservatives and the dominant New Labour hegemony with respect to the politics of sexuality. Both are heavily influenced by dominant forms of professional medical, psychological and child-welfare expertise, which structure the terrain in the firmly-established broad centre-ground of sexual politics, alongside political languages of tolerance, diversity, and respect for human rights (cf. Waites 2000). Refusing to exaggerate the distance between the parties paradoxically keeps open the possibility of examining ways in which New Labour and the Third Way represent a political accommodation with the New Right, as Hall has more recently proposed (Hall, 1998).

This analysis also facilitates a focus upon the particular dynamics operating to mobilise right-wing family-values campaigners. In particular it points to the need to theorise and politically address the social forces generating new forms of religious fundamentalism, particularly the forms of Evangelical Christianity which have provided funding and mobilised support against an equal age of consent and the repeal of Section 28. New fundamentalisms are indeed increasingly the subject of critical analysis in relation to the politics of sexuality (Bhatt, 1997; Herman, 1997).

The ways in which mainstream religion has resurfaced as a source of moral authority in an increasingly multicultural and multi-faith Britain also need detailed investigation. In recent controversies it has above all been religious individuals and groups who have taken a lead organisationally, and who have been the most outspoken critics of government policy. In recognising their 'shared values', at events such as a recent conference at Lambeth Palace religious leaders have been able to identify with one another against their shared foes, among which lesbian, gay and bisexual communities feature highly. At the same time as leaders of the major British faiths have been declaring their shared sense of common humanity and purpose, they have been repeatedly cited by Baroness Young and William Hague to vindicate homophobia, and have been harnessing their status to win influence over new sex education guidelines.

Recognising the new delineations of homophobia in critical analyses could also have practical benefits. Some pro-gay activists and lobbyists appear to have found it difficult to respond to the new, more subtle forms of political discourse being employed by anti-gay campaigners on the right to defend Section 28. Pro- Section 28 forces have re-emerged armed with a new-found apparent concern about homophobic bullying, and a rejection of 'unfair discrimination', alongside their refusal of the legitimacy of 'promoting' homosexuality to children (see eg. Daily Mail, Keep the Clause)[17]. The response from those campaigning in favour of repeal has in some respects been confused and inadequate. There has been ambiguity over whether Section 28 officially affects schools, the meaning of the legislation, and whether it is to be abolished because of its actual or perceived meaning. The government has floundered in its attempt to formulate a case for abolition in the face of resurgent opposition. Had pro-gay forces recognised the increasing subtlety and new delineation of arguments defending Section 28, it might have been possible to marshal a more coherent and sustained case for abolition.

Anna Marie Smith's work has pointed to the need to address a 'new homophobia', more subtley articulated and coded than in earlier political formations (Smith, 1994; 1997a; 1997b), although her work also tends to leave the (new) right undifferentiated and to view new political languages and policy-stances on the right as strategic rather than as more substantial shifts. In contrast, my argument is that Conservative opposition to repeal of Section 28 should not simply be attributed to the resilience of Thatcherism or a resurgent New Right counter-hegemony in contemporary politics. Political conflict has moved to a more complex new terrain, structured by more precisely articulated boundaries defining the inferior status of homosexuality (Waites, 2000). Understanding of contemporary Conservative discourse on Section 28 demands an analysis of new delineations of homophobia which acknowledges the significant shifts taking place among younger generations of right-wing politicians, who have been influenced by conflicting strands of New Right thinking as well as wider cultural shifts.


1See the Stonewall website: <>.

2The Times, 16.2.1994, p.14.

3 'The Tories stand for... er, what?', Simon Heffer, New Statesman, Friday 3rd July 1998, pp.32-33.

4 Andy McSmith 'Life, love, sex - and my new Tory party' - interview with William Hague, The Observer, Sunday 29th March 1998, p.23.

5These developments were discussed in detail in Panorama 'Gay Times', BBC1, 27.10.1997.

6 'The Ghost of Toryism Past: The Spirit of Conservatism Future', speech to Centre for Policy Studies fringe meeting, Conservative Party Conference, 9.10.1998.

7'Portillo's Progress', Channel 4, 20.9.1998, 9pm.

8Steven Norris 'Why the Conservatives must vote in favour of gay sex at 16', The Express, Sunday 21st June 1998, p.36.

9 Quoted in Pink Paper, 12.6.1998, p.2.

10'Tory mutiny over asylum rocks Hague', The Times, p.1.

11 Quention Letts 'Why Tories won't swallow gay sex', New Statesman, 13.12.1999, p.30.

12'Tory Plot to Oust Hague', The Express, 17.6.1998, pp.1, 6-7.

13Analysed on video from BBC2 Despatch Box, Wednesday 9.2.2000, 12.00-12.30am.

14See for example: William Hague, Conservative party conference speech, 8.10.1998.

15 Hywell Williams 'The gospel according to Wee Willie', The Observer, 30.4.2000, p.29.

16] Bill Schwarz 'All the King's horses and all the King's men', New Times, 7th June 1997, p.5.

17See the Keep the Clause website, <>.


ABBOTT, P. and WALLACE, C. (1992) The Family and the New Right. London: Pluto Press.

BHATT, C. (1997) Liberation and Purity: Race, New Religious Movements and the Ethics of Postmodernity (London: UCL Press).

COOPER, D. (1994) Sexing the City: Lesbian and Gay Politics Within the Activist State. London: Rivers Oram Press.

DURHAM, M. (1991) Sex and Politics: The Family and Morality in the Thatcher Years.London: Macmillan.

DURHAM, M. (1994) 'Major and Morals: Back to Basics and the Crisis of Conservatism', Talking Politics, vol.7, no.1, Autumn 1994, pp.12-16.

EPSTEIN, D. and JOHNSON, R. (1998) Schooling Sexualities. Buckingham: Open University Press.

EPSTEIN, D., JOHNSON, R. and STEINBERG, D.L. (2000) 'Twice Told Tales: Transformation, Recuperation and Emergence in the Age of Consent Debates 1998', Sexualities, Vol.3, no.1, pp.5-30.

EVANS, D. (1995) '(Homo)Sexual Citizenship: A Queer Kind of Justice'; in A.R.Wilson (ed.) 1995 A Simple Matter of Justice? London: Cassell, pp.110-145.

HALL, S. (1988) The Hard Road to Renewal: Thatcherism and the Crisis of the Left .London: Verso.

HALL, S. (1998) 'The Great Moving Nowhere Show'; in M.Jacques (ed.)(1998) Marxism Today, special issue, November/December 1998, pp.9-14.

HERMAN, D. (1997) The Antigay Agenda: Orthodox Vision and the Christian Right (London: The University of Chicago Press).

JEFFERY-POULTER, S. (1991) Peers, Queers and Commons: The Struggle for Gay Law Reform from 1950 to the Present.London: Routledge.

PLUMMER, K. (1999) 'The Lesbian and Gay Movement in Britain: Schisms, Solidarities and Social Worlds'; in B.D. Adam, J.W. Duyvendak, and A. Krouwel (eds.)(1999) The Global Emergence of Gay and Lesbian Politics: National Imprints of a Worldwide Movement .Philadelphia: Temple University Press, pp.133-157.

RAYSIDE, D. (1998) On the Fringe: Gays and Lesbians in Politics London: Cornell University Press.

REINHOLD, S. (1994) 'Through the Parliamentary Looking Glass: 'Real' and 'Pretend' Families in Contemporary British Politics' in Feminist Review, no.48, Autumn 1994, pp.61-79.

SMITH, A.M. (1994) New Right Discourse on Race and Sexuality in Britain 1968-1990. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

SMITH, A.M. (1997a) 'The Good Homosexual and the Dangerous Queer: Resisting the "New Homophobia"'; in L. Segal (ed.)(1997) New Sexual Agendas (London: Macmillan), pp.214-231.

SMITH, A.M. (1997b) 'The Centering of Right-Wing Extremism Through the Construction of an "Inclusionary" Homophobia and Racism'; in S.Phelan (ed.)(1997) Playing with Fire: Queer Politics, Queer Theories (London: Routledge), pp.113-138.

SMITH, D. (1995) 'Anatomy of a Campaign'; in A.R.WILSON (ed.)(1995) A Simple Matter of Justice? (London: Cassell); pp.10-31.

STACEY, J. (1991) 'Promoting Normality: Section 28 and the Regulation of Sexuality'; in S.Franklin, C.Lury and J.Stacey (eds.)(1991) Off-Centre: Feminism and Cultural Studies.London: Harpercollins; pp.284-304. STONEWALL (1993) The Case for Change: Arguments for an Equal Age of Consent (London: Stonewall Lobby Group).

THOMSON, R. (1993) 'Unholy Alliances: The Recent Politics of Sex Education'; in J.Bristow and A.R.Wilson (eds.)(1993) Activating Theory: Lesbian, Gay and Bisexual Politics. London: Lawrence and Wishart, pp.219-245.

THOMSON, R. (1994) 'Moral Rhetoric and Public Health Pragmatism: The Recent Politics of Sex Education' inFeminist Review, no.48, Autumn 1994, pp.40-60.

WAITES, M. (1995) The Age of Consent Debate: A Critical Analysis, unpublished MA dissertation, on 1994 age of consent debate, for MA Culture and Society, Department of Sociology, University of Essex.

WAITES, M. (1999). 'The Age of Consent and Sexual Citizenship in the United Kingdom: A History'; in J. Seymour and P. Bagguley (eds.)(1999) Relating Intimacies: Power and Resistance. London: Macmillan, pp.91-117.

WAITES, M. (2000) The Age of Consent, Homosexuality and Citizenship in the United Kingdom (1885-1999), PhD thesis London: South Bank University.

WEEKS, J. (1989) Sex, Politics and Society: The Regulation of Sexuality since 1800, second edition, London: Longman.

Copyright Sociological Research Online, 2000