New documents released by the National Archives give an enlightening account of the views of Prime Minister Winston Churchill and other Cabinet ministers on homosexual men in 1950s Britain.
The notebooks kept by the Cabinet Secretaries contain short handwritten accounts of the conversations of ministers on a range of issues, and have just been released to the public.
On the 24th February 1954 the Cabinet discussed the issues of prostitution and homosexuality, then inextricably linked as ‘sexual offences’ in the eyes of the legislators.
Gay sex between consenting adults, even in private, was a criminal offence, and many hundreds of gay men were being caught and convicted of sodomy and gross indecency every year.
The high-profile journalist Peter Wildeblood had been arrested for homosexual offences the previous month, but he did not stand trial until March.
The scandal surrounding his arrest and that of Baron Montagu of Beaulieu led to public discussion of homosexuality.
At Cabinet the Home Secretary David Maxwell Fyfe seemed mystified at the spike in convictions for homosexual offences:
“While crime generally has doubled, these offences have risen four and a half times.
“Some think existing law should be limited to protection of young and public indecency. I don’t agree: homosexuals make a nuisance of themselves. But admit I can’t account for this increase.”
Prime Minister Winston Churchill bluntly replied that the Tory party were not going to accept responsibility for making the law more lenient towards gay men.
He suggested that an enquiry might be the way forward, proposed limiting press coverage of the convictions of homosexuals, and suggested that any man caught by police should be offered the option of medical treatment.
“Otherwise, I wouldn’t touch the subject,” he said.
“Let it get worse – in hope of a more united public pressure for some amendment.”
The idea of an enquiry into prostitution and homosexual offences was considered by several Cabinet ministers, among them Oliver Lyttleton, Secretary of State for the Colonies.
But the Prime Minister perhaps best explained the realities of politics in 1954.
“Remember that we can’t expect to put the whole world right with a majority of 18,” he told his colleagues.
Seven months after that Cabinet meeting, the Wolfenden committee met for the first time to consider whether a change to the laws on homosexuality and prostitution was needed.
They took evidence from a range of people, including religious leaders, police officers and Peter Wildeblood.
When the Report of the Departmental Committee on Homosexual Offences and Prostitution was finally published in 1957, it came to the conclusion that:
“The law’s function is to preserve public order and decency, to protect the citizen from what is offensive or injurious, and to provide sufficient safeguards against exploitation and corruption of others.
“It is not, in our view, the function of the law to intervene in the private life of citizens, or to seek to enforce any particular pattern of behaviour.”
It was ten years before a Labour government backed a private member’s bill to introduce the changes to the law on homosexuality that the Wolfenden committee recommended.
The Cabinet Secretary’s note
Prostitution : annoyance and 40/= maximum : couldn´t get law amended without an authoritative enquiry. Homosexuality. While crime generally has doubled, these offences have risen 41/2 times. Some think [existg] law shd. be limited to protn. of young and public indecency. I don´t agree: homos. make a nuisance of themselves. But admit I can´t account for this increase.
Tory Party won´t want to accept responsibility for makg. law on homosexuality more lenient – or for maisons tolerées. But, w´out enquiry –
i) could we not limit publicity for homosexuality, as was done for divorce?
ii) persons convicted shd. have opportunity to apply for medical treatment.
.Otherwise, I wdn´t touch the subject. Let it get worse – in hope of a more united public pressure for some amendment.
i) might be tried by Private Members Bill under 10 min. rule. The divorce legn. began on that basis.
There is also the case for amending law re prostitn. On that there is a case for enquiry.
London is a public scandal. Cd. we not try to deal with that, w´out enquiry. E.g. by increasing penalties.
Course i) wd. not command unqualified support. Some say tht. publicity is a deterrent. But you cd. get ques ventilated by such a Bill ; and Govt. cd. decide after discn. Winterton has suggd. motion in H/L. I have discouraged him for the time. But he will revert to it, if we don´t make any statement.
Immedte. legn. Diffy. is tht. Women´s Societies wd. make an issue of it. That´s why I wanted to be strengthened by enquiry.
If it is thght tht. R.C. is too heavy, Dpt. Cttee. wd. meet me.
Confirmed tht. Woman´s Societies wd. oppose any legn. – wh. they wd. represent as unfairness to women.
Let us turn it over in our minds and discuss again the ques of an enquiry.
Remember that we can´t expect to put the whole world right with a majority of 18.
Taken from C.C. 11(54) – Meeting held on 24 February 1954.