John Nicolson: I’m glad the government will pardon the dead, but they have failed the living
Scottish National Party MP John Nicolson writes for PinkNews after his bill to pardon men with historical gay sex offences was blocked by the government in favour of a rival Lib Dem proposal.
Last Friday, Westminster was at its best and worst as MPs debated my Stonewall sponsored ‘Turing Bill’ to pardon gay men found guilty of historic crimes no longer on the statute book.
I’d been drawn first in the Private Members’ ballot, and had chosen a piece of legislation I knew could win all party support. In fact, I’d been approached by Tory whips earlier this summer, and in a scene straight from ‘House of Cards’ was told that if I chose this bill they’d support me “with no tricks and no games.”
The Tories under Cameron had long been keen to repackage the party as friendly towards gay rights.
I’ll return to events last Friday in a moment, but first let me say why I wanted to pass the Turing Bill.
When I was born in the 1960s two men who were in love could be sent to prison for what they chose to do in the privacy of their own home. It’s hard now to fathom the mindset of those who defended such gross intrusion into the lives and rights of others.
Small wonder that it was hard to come out as gay. Who’d want to be gay in a country where you’d to hide who you were, and lie if you wanted to keep your job. It was, after all, legal to sack someone simply because you’d discovered he was gay.
You could refuse to rent a house to a gay person. You could arrest a gay couple if they shared a hotel room. And perhaps most horrifyingly of all, because of the discriminatory age of consent you could arrest a 21 year old for sleeping with his 20 year old boyfriend.
He could be tried, convicted, and sentenced for underage sex.
As a young journalist I made a film about how the law discriminated against gay men. I interviewed military personnel with exemplary records who’d been followed home by the military police, determined to investigate a tip off about a same sex partner. If caught they’d be dismissed.
I interviewed gay men who’d been entrapped by ‘pretty policemen’, a practice defended by Chief Constable Anderton of Greater Manchester, beloved of the tabloids as ‘God’s Copper.’
He’d send out attractive young police officers to give gay men the eye. If the gay man responded, he’d be arrested, and his life ruined.
Gay men weren’t protected by law. They were under sustained attack by the law.
I never forgot the men in that documentary and the ruined lives. So when I was chosen top of the Private Members’ ballot I saw a golden opportunity to do some good by addressing the injustices of the past.
My Turing Bill – named after the war time codebreaking hero subsequently arrested for homosexuality and chemically castrated – was sponsored by Tory, Labour, and SNP MPs. It proposed a pardon for any gay man convicted of a crime which is no longer a crime.
It would confer no immediate advantage except this; it would, I hoped, bring closure to those men who’d had to endure, perhaps for decades, unfair criminal convictions.
So back to the debate last Friday. We heard some wonderful speeches from the SNP benches. But it was never my intention to make the issue party political, and I was delighted to see Labour and Tory MPs rise to speak.
The Conservative MP Iain Stewart talked about how tough it was to come out as a boy in Glasgow. And his colleague Nigel Adams said he was voting for my bill to atone for his vote against gay marriage. He gracefully apologised to family, friends, and constituents.
And then the Government minister Sam Gyimah rose to his feet at 2pm.
He knew if he talked for thirty minutes he would filibuster the bill, and it would be dead. And that was what he did, as the House booed with disgust.
One Conservative MP told his front bench he thought them “slippery and discourteous.” Another said ministers’ behaviour “brought the House into disrepute.”
Mr Gyimah has been engaged in a furious press spin operation since Friday.
His most audacious claim seems to be that my Stonewall bill wasn’t really the Turing Bill at all.
He says that an amendment accepted in the Lords on the Policing and Crime Bill to pardon the dead was the Turing Bill delivered. A bit like the Chinese claiming theirs is the real Panchen Lama, it’s excruciating to watch the unconvincing contortions.
Then there is his claim that my bill would have ‘unintended consequences’ allowing paedophiles to exploit the pardon passed by Parliament.
Let me knock that one on the head. The first clause of my Bill offered pardons ONLY for those found guilty of a crime no longer on the statute book. Since paedophilia remains a crime, paedophilic offences would not, by definition be covered by my bill.
I’m glad that the Government has promised that they will pardon the dead. But for me the living are infinitely more important.
We failed the living last Friday – men who wanted nothing other than an acknowledgement they’d done no wrong.
John Nicolson is the Member of Parliament for East Dunbartonshire