Sunday, 6 August 2017

The Blackmailer's Charter

In this recent article I wrote for the 50th anniversary of the Sexual Offences Act 1967 I mentioned the Labouchere Amendment. This was an extra clause added to the Criminal Law Amendment Act which was being debated in the Houses of Parliament for the last time on this day in 1885.

Labouchere was the name of an MP, Henry DuPre Labouchere (1831-1912) (pictured below). Historians have often been mystified as to why this Liberal MP should have introduced his amendment at such a late stage. He was known as a radical reformist and spoke and wrote often on what he saw as injustices within the traditional class system, even advocating the replacement of the House of Lords with an elected chamber. He criticised the racism that was commonplace in all classes. He called for reform of the judicial system. So why did he suddenly appear to turn against one of the most victimised and criminalised people in Victorian society by pushing for more victimisation? Labouchere never showed any interest in taking part in the many other previous debates relating to sex. It has been suggested that he was thinking of the victims of homosexual crime.
The full title of the Act being debated was “An Act to make further provision for the Protection of Women and Girls, the suppression of brothels and other purposes” As the title implies there were previous laws which dealt with similar issues. Let’s have a quick look at them.

First, what was the legal position of homosexuals in Victorian England? The Buggery Act 1553 introduced by King Henry VIII and his anti-Catholic political cronies placed the death penalty on anyone found guilty of homosexual activity. It was the sexual act that was unlawful, not homosexuality itself. It was the first time that same-sex activity became illegal and punishable by death. The law was amended by the Offences Against the Person Act 1828 which laid down that there must be proof of sexual penetration. Evidence of other activities during sex were decriminalised. A later Offences Against the Person Act introduced in 1861 removed the death penalty and substituted a minimum sentence of 2 years imprisonment with or without hard labour. Imprisonment could be for life.

During the 1880s there was some concerns over the increasing awareness of the sexual slavery of young British girls being sold abroad. The Criminal Law Amendment Act was brought in, as the full name of the Act states clearly, as a means of protecting those young children. Which begs the next question. Why did Labouchere introduce homosexual offences into an Act that was all about protecting girls?

The answer to that may come with another aspect of Henry Labouchere as a politician. He was known to be a bit of a stirer. Several times he proposed amendments to other bills going through parliament which had nothing to do with the subject being debated. Most of his amendments were so impractical to enforce, or just plain ridiculous, that they were quickly dropped. Labouchere did this with any bill he thought was against liberty. It was a delaying tactic still used today as an attempt to run out of parliamentary debating time and therefore delay the bill, or even force it to be dropped altogether. He thought the Criminal Law Amendment Act was idealistic, impractical and unnecessary. He noted that it was discriminatory against working class families because they often married their daughters young, and one of the issues being considered in the bill was underage marriage.

Always a political tactician Labouchere waited until the right moment to introduce his amendment on homosexual activity. He waited until late into the debate, late in the night of 6th August, before standing up and presenting it. The House of Commons was almost empty. Most MPs had gone home to bed. Those MPs still in the Commons probably wanted to go home was well.

The Attorney-General, Sir Henry James, simply accepted Labouchere’s Amendment on the spot. There was no debate and there was no review in committee. It was labelled Section 11 of the Criminal Law Amendment Bill and put on the list of business for the House of Commons the next day for its Third Reading. The Bill was accepted and approved by the MPs present and it became law. All that remained was the Royal Assent.

Political commentators, historians and biographers have all debated the motives of Henry Labouchere for decades. He did not have any proper explanation himself, so perhaps we’ll never really know if he was an actual homophobe or if it was just a case that one of his frequent amendments backfiring on him and becoming law. The majority of people just label him a homophobe regardless. Whatever the true motive may have been he played into the hands of the millions of homophobes who were to follow and make life hell for gay men in the UK. For that alone he deserves the animosity he receives.

To end on an ironic note. The Labouchere Amendment has been called the Blackmailer’s Charter because it enabled anyone to extort money out of gay men, threatening to report them to the police, often simply on the basis that they talked to another man. During the debates on the Criminal Law Amendment Act Labouchere voiced his opposition to it by saying it could be “described as a measure for facilitating every sort of extortion and blackmail”. If only he had left it at that and not try to derail the law by introducing his amendment. After opposing the Criminal Law Amendment Act by implying it was a “blackmailer’s charter” he was ultimately responsible for making sure it did so.

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