Can a leader be gay?

Simon Hughes's real mistake was in covering up the fact that he was gay. Britain might just be ready to accept a homosexual leader

Published in later editions of the Evening Standard 26 January 2006

And then there was one. The top echelon of the Liberal Democrats could be forgiven for feeling like the cast of an Agatha Christie play. First it was Charles Kennedy to be summoned to the drawing room, to announce he had concealed a drink problem ? and then handed the metaphorical revolver by his senior colleagues. Then it was Mark Oaten, confronted by a nasty secret from his past involving a relationship with a male prostitute. Now trouble has found Simon Hughes, forced to admit this morning, despite earlier denials, that he has had homosexual relationships. The question any audience for this drama would now be asking is: what secrets is Ming Campbell hiding?

The answer is probably none, which means recent events are vindicating somewhat his campaign message: that he is the candidate of solid, predictable safety. When his aides devised that strategy they can?t have known how apt it was to become.

What Campbell?s rivals for the Lib Dem leadership failed to realise ?

Hughes as much as Oaten and Kennedy ? is one of the iron laws of political scandal: it?s never the ?crime?, it?s always the cover-up.

The definitive, textbook example is the mother of all scandals: Watergate. Most students of American politics agree that what was famously dubbed ?a third-rate burglary? would not, on its own, have toppled Richard Nixon. But the fact that the president lied and lied again ? staring into the camera to tell the American people ?I am not a crook? ? sealed his fate. His eventual successor, Bill Clinton, learned the same lesson. If he had told his legal interrogators that, yes, he had indeed had a dalliance with Monica Lewinsky, it would have been mightily embarrassing ? but there would have been no grounds for his impeachment.

Less dramatically, our own politicians have seen the same iron logic

operate. Whether its David Blunkett and his business interests or Peter Mandelson and a home loan, it?s almost always the initial failure to disclose the truth, not the deed itself, that does the damage.

Admittedly, it might not have looked that way to either Kennedy or Oaten. If the former leader had indeed come clean about his drinking, confessing in, say, last year?s interview with Jeremy Paxman, that he was an alcoholic ? rather than adamantly denying it ? that fact alone might still have forced his resignation. But it would have made his critics? job harder, denying them the easy option of saying, as the hunters always say when chasing their scandal-plagued quarry, that ?the issue is honesty.?

It?s similarly likely that Oaten?s career would have been terminated by admitting he used a male prostitute, even if he had made the admission long ago and unprompted. As it was, he laid himself open to the perennial charge of deceit and hypocrisy (not least because he had posed for cameras with his wife and two children a matter of days earlier).

None of this needed to apply to Simon Hughes. He is not married; he has lived no lie. The closest he gets to a hypocrisy charge is his connivance back in 1983 in the vicious Bermondsey by-election battle, when his Labour opponent, Peter Tatchell, was repeatedly pilloried as a ?queer.? But Hughes has since admitted his discomfort over that episode ? and Tatchell has forgiven him, even backing his bid for the Lib Dem leadership.

So, if Hughes had spoken truthfully about his sexuality a long time ago, no one would have hounded him from his post. Alcoholism in a leader is probably unacceptable to most voters; the use of a prostitute almost certainly is. But a homosexual or bisexual orientation might not be.

I say ?might? because the truth is we still don?t know. On this issue, we have never been tested: we have still not had an openly gay politician seek high office. The closest we got was Michael Portillo, who, pre-empting the iron law of scandal ? that the cover-up is greater than any supposed ?crime? ? made an honest, unforced disclosure, of his own homosexual experiences. He was never presented as a potential prime minister to the voters however, because Tory MPs thwarted his leadership bid. So we will never know if the British people would have had a problem with his sexuality or not.

It?s a tricky question, this, because the signals we collectively send, in London and beyond, are mixed. On the one hand, we know that violently homophobic attacks are on the increase: witness the brutal murder of Jody Dobrowski on Clapham Common last autumn. We also know

that ?gay? has become the term of abuse of choice in many playgrounds, suggesting that prejudice is alive in the next generation.

And yet, at the same time, many lesbians and gay men recognise that they are closer to equality now than at any time in their history. Whether it's civil partnerships or a change in the age of consent, the law grants a respect to gay relationships that was once entirely absent. In official, public discourse homophobia is fast becoming as unacceptable as overt racism ? to the point where the

police, once a byword for bigotry, now interview the likes of the

self-styled family values campaigner Lynette Burrows or the Muslim Council of Britain leader Sir Iqbal Sacranie over anti-gay remarks each of them made on the radio.

This is how London, indeed Britain, looks today ? homophobia far from

eradicated at street level, but deemed unacceptable in polite, established society. Hughes clearly judged that, for all the advances in this new, gay-friendly Brokeback Mountain Britain, it was still too risky for him to tell the whole truth about himself. It is a great sadness that he sought out the anonymity of the Man Talk chat line, rather than openly forming a relationship. Perhaps he thought Britain was not ready for a gay leader. Now it?s up to the Lib Dems to give Britain a chance to test itself ? and find out.

The other 2012 race

Time is running out for London's plans to stage a major cultural festival for the Olympics - but we can learn from Germany's World Cup effort

Published in early editions of the Evening Standard 26 January 2006

Probably the last people we want to take lessons from are the Germans, least of all when it comes to football. Along with Argentina, Germany has been our nemesis ? bringing cruel defeat, usually on penalties, time after time.

Still, we may have to park that prejudice for a few weeks this summer when our old rival hosts the World Cup. As 2012 approaches, one group of Londoners should be watching the tournament especially closely ? to pick up some useful tips.

Of course, Sebastian Coe and his Olympic staff will want to see how well the Germans stage a massive sporting event. But they should pay close attention to another aspect of Germany ?06 ? and for that they don?t have to wait till the summer.

For what both the World Cup and the Olympics have in common these days is an obligation to reach out to those with no interest in sport. Major international competitions like these must now come with a cultural festival attached.

That means Coe?s job is to ensure not only that the 110m hurdles and men?s solo canoeing go to plan in 2012, but that there?s also plenty of live music, theatre and dance. And it?s not just a fortnight of arts events that?s required. The rules say that the moment Beijing passes on the Olympic torch in 2008, the London cultural festivities must begin.

That?s just two years away ? and yet preparations have barely started. The post of Culture, Ceremonies and Education Director is still vacant, though the London team are hoping to make an appointment ?in the next four weeks or so.? Theatre director Jude Kelly headed up the culture wing of the London bid, but her time is now consumed with running the South Bank. Some of London?s biggest arts figures ? the likes of Tony Hall of the Royal Opera House and Nick Hytner of the National Theatre ? were on a bid committee, but that body has had only one, poorly-attended meeting since London won the games in July. It now needs to be re-constituted for a new and much harder task: not proposing a cultural festival, but staging one. The plan is to have the relevant structures in place by April. For now, there is a yawning gap.

And yawning could be the operative word. The slim section in the bid document that related to culture was either vague or uninspiring. It promised a ?festival of world culture,? which one insider admits is ?just a name at the moment, with no content?; a Shakespeare festival, which sounds all right; and an idea to send a boat round the world to be called The Friend Ship.

Now I don?t want to be cynical, but that last wheeze has got dud written all over it. For one thing, it?s a lame pun that works only in English. For another, it defeats one of the purposes of the ?cultural games,? which is to engage and excite the people of the host country in the lead up to the big event. The Friend Ship will, obviously, spend most of its time at sea, far away from London. Think the idea through and it only gets worse. The ship is meant to travel the world, picking up cultural cargo to bring back to London. If that doesn?t confirm the very imperialist image of our city which 2012 is desperate to cast off, then perhaps the specific voyage planned for Beijing will. Organisers imagine sending an 18th century style tea-clipper to China ? a sure way to awaken memories of a dark episode in British imperial history, a trade dispute over tea which eventually led to the opium wars.

In other words, there is a right way to do these things and a wrong way. Which brings us to Germany. I?ve spent this week travelling across the country, and I?ve been struck by the quality of cultural activity already underway to mark the World Cup. The London organisers should hop on a plane fast ? and steal as many good ideas as they can get away with.

The centrepiece is, naturally, a football ? a huge, stunning orb, done in steel and neon that resembles both a ball and a globe. It?s been touring Germany?s cities since 2003 ? fully three years before the tournament ? bringing out long queues of punters wherever it appears. Inside are a series of hi-tech delights, screens which let you referee a virtual reality match, assemble different classic national teams, even to play the physio, massaging an injured player. So far there have been 700,000 visitors.

Come the evening and all the electronic gear is removed, transforming the orb into a 120-seat auditorium. It?s been the venue for the Cologne Opera Ensemble doing a high-art performance of terrace chants, a poet reading sonnets on the beautiful game and a celebrated choreographer, dressed in football strip, demonstrating the physical similarities between soccer and ballet. From Stuttgart to Leipzig, it?s been a huge success.

Beyond the travelling ball, there are 48 separate projects, including an oratorio ? part choral music, part football chant ? as well as a festival of short films with a soccer theme, drawing in moviemakers from Sri Lanka to Argentina. Coming in June is a theatrical improv competition, pitting national teams against each other: think of ?Whose Line is it Anyway?? as an Olympic sport.

There are lessons here for London. First, the cultural stuff should be thematically connected with the main event: in Germany the artistic output has not been random, but linked to football. For 2012 that needn?t mean operas about javelin throwing, but rather a connection with the deeper theme of the games: the diversity that makes London truly the world in one city. Second, you need a creative genius at the helm. Germany has deployed the phenomenal Austrian artist Andre [note to subs: acute accent on the e ? JF] Heller: London could do worse than to give him a call. And third, this is a sport where speed counts. London needs to get cracking right away.

Betrayal of the East End

Anger at ministers’ backtracking on plans to redevelop Bart’s and the Royal London hospitals springs from a long-standing sense of grievance

Published in the Evening Standard 19 January 2006

It reads like a cry of rage. The fury sparks off the page as you read Alastair Wilson’s open letter to the prime minister, published in the Evening Standard last night. Wilson is the consultant in charge of accident and emergency at the Royal London Hospital in Whitechapel, honoured for his role treating the victims of 7/7. But yesterday he wrote to Tony Blair not in the cool, calm language of a top clinician, but in the voice of a man pushed beyond his limits.

?Why oh why do Government have to kick the downtrodden?? he fumes. ?What did the East End do to you that they should deserve such injustice??

The source of his anger is the government’s decision to ?review? a

A statue we don’t need

As a monument to Nelson Mandela falls by the wayside, why is a memorial to the Queen Mother going through on the nod?

Published in the Evening Standard 12 January 2006

Here’s a quick quiz question. Which is the greater, more historic achievement: ending apartheid in South Africa or eight decades spent waving a hand and giving a twinkly smile? Put it another way. Who is the better role model for our children: a man who endured 27 years behind bars, fighting for his people’s freedom – or a woman who lived for a century in cosseted comfort, quartered in her dotage in four palatial homes and served by a retinue of 50? Who, in other words, deserves a statue in London: Nelson Mandela or the Queen Mother?

But don’t reach for your phones just yet. This is not Celebrity Big Brother: you can’t vote on this one. No, this decision has already been taken ? and you and I had next to no say in the matter.

The proposal, championed by the Mayor, for a sculpture of Nelson Mandela to stand on the north terrace of Trafalgar Square was finally rejected last month by John Prescott, who has the last word on all planning matters. Even though he had publicly backed the Mandela idea ? heartily applauding Ken Livingstone as he argued for it in a speech at last autumn’s Labour party conference ? three months later the Deputy Prime Minister rejected it on that spot.

He sided instead with Westminster Council, accepting the view that a statue of the leader of the anti-apartheid struggle would be ?harmful to the character and appearance? of the Square if sited there. It was more important to maintain the symmetry of the Square, apparently ? which is a bit of a puzzle when you reflect that Trafalgar Square has been famously asymmetrical for more than 150 years, with two statues on one side, and only one on the other (thanks to a fourth plinth which sat empty for a century and a half.)

So no permanent tribute to the most revered human being alive, a champion of justice whose moral authority is respected in every corner of the globe. But the former Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon, who is said to have run up eight-figure overdrafts of taxpayers’ money on racehorses, who lived in a Gosford Park fantasy world of country houses, shooting parties and footmen ? she is about to be memorialised in London statuary and you will hear barely a word against it.

While the Mandela project dragged its way through endless committees, hearings and appeals, the monument to the Queen Mother will proceed at warp speed. ?Expressions of interest? from those hoping to design a fitting memorial were sought on Monday; and they were given a deadline of just three weeks. The top designers will be shortlisted by the end of February; they have to submit their plans by June, with a winner chosen in August, ready to be unveiled by next year. By the usual marathon standards of such projects, this is a steroid-fuelled sprint.

You might envisage multiple obstacles in the way. After all, royal memorials have proved a tricky business recently ? as anyone who has visited the Diana Memorial Mudslide in Hyde Park can testify. The new Queen Mother project seeks to head off a repeat of that trouble with this discreet warning to any would-be artists: ?Ease of ongoing maintenance by The Royal Parks is a key issue, so the use of water and moving parts is to be discouraged.?

The royal family will get no nasty surprises because, handily, it is keeping this decision all to itself. Take a look at the selection committee charged with picking a winning design. Its chaired by Prince Charles, with the following members: the Keeper of the Privy Purse, Alan Reid; the Director of the Royal Collection, Sir Hugh Roberts; the Private Secretary to The Prince of Wales, Sir Michael Peat; and the Director of the Property Section of the Royal Household, Graham Sharpe.

Now, such a cosy arrangement ? four white male servants of the Windsors ? would be entirely acceptable if this group were merely picking out a new rug for one of Buckingham Palace’s private apartments. But they are, in fact, making a decision that will affect the public space we all share: the memorial is likely to be on The Mall, near the statue of the Queen Mother’s husband, George VI.

All Londoners will have to live with the choice the Prince and his courtiers make. Yet the nearest this closed circle will get to democracy is when they submit their favoured scheme to Westminster Council in June. Now, I’m not much of a betting man, but I’d stake a fair sum that Westminster will accept the royal decision without too much protest. While they gave Ken daily grief over the Mandela plan, expect them to bend the knee, tug the forelock and bow graciously to the will of the Windsors when it comes to Her Majesty, the last Empress of India.

None of this makes for a heartening start to 2006. The obvious point is that London, already stuffed to the gills with dead royals etched in marble, stone and bronze hardly needs another one. What are lacking are monuments to people of colour: there is a statue of Gandhi in Bloomsbury, Martin Luther King can be found somewhere in Westminster Abbey and Mandela is already on the South Bank. Otherwise, the most visible black face in this city is the anonymous black person in the frieze at the bottom of Nelson’s Column. Our statuary and sculpture doesn’t begin to reflect the diverse city we have become.

But that is only half of the problem. The very way this process works is lamentable. How can it be that, in the London of 2006, it is still possible for an unelected Prince to wave his regal hand and alter our shared landscape, with barely a nod to the rest of us? When we raise that statue to the Queen Mother, as the Mandela one remains unbuilt, we will be saying something profound and depressing about ourselves: that we still elevate heredity and aristocracy over democracy, that we revere monarchy more than freedom.