Tuesday, 25 February 2014

NCCL, Harman, Hewitt, PIE, and the 1970s

I hold no brief at all for Harriet Harman or Patricia Hewitt as Labour politicians. Indeed, as it happens they both featured in a list of the 15 most irritating women on the planet that I wrote nearly six years ago.

Nevertheless, in the light of the present fuss arising out of the Daily Mail's nasty smear campaign, the following needs to be said about the NCCL all those decades ago.

At the time in question (1970s), I was part of the leadership of the Campaign for Homosexual Equality (CHE), an organisation which, like PIE, was affiliated to the NCCL. I attended many NCCL conferences in those years.

For an organisation to be affiliated to the NCCL is not at all the same thing as the NCCL being affiliated to the said organisation. The NCCL was not an affiliate of PIE. PIE was an affiliate of the NCCL. It was a one-directional transaction. Much of the press coverage in the last couple of days has been quite misleading on this point.

One paid one's membership fee and received papers and publications, and the right to attend the NCCL annual conference and table resolutions. I don't recall that it gave any kind of direct line into NCCL policymaking. If you wanted to shape NCCL policy you had to make your case on a resolution at the annual conference and get it passed on a vote of those present. Even then, it was quite likely that the few overworked staff would not get round to acting on it.

Hundreds of bodies were affiliated to NCCL and it would have been unreasonable to expect the half-dozen or so office staff to "vet" every organisation applying for affiliation to check whether its policy was in line with that of the NCCL. There was never any such expectation. That just was not how the system worked.

The idea that PIE successfully "infiltrated" NCCL and used NCCL staff like P. Hewitt and H. Harman as mouthpieces for its ideas is therefore wrong. Contrary to what the Mail has tried to insinuate by selective quoting from certain documents, NCCL policy -- on, for example, the age of consent -- did not reflect PIE's aims. For a long time the NCCL argued for an age of consent of 14, much higher than what PIE was agitating for (ten, or zero, depending on whose account you read, but either way a completely unacceptable idea to everyone else).

True, nowadays an age of consent of 14 would itself be seen as unacceptable to most. But that was the NCCL's carefully argued policy at the time, nothing to do with PIE, and I remember Patricia Hewitt speaking in favour of it. I don't know if Harriet Harman ever did -- she came rather later. If the Mail and its ilk want to attack anyone on this score, it should be Hewitt rather than Harman. But Hewitt is no longer an MP so of course that wouldn't serve the Mail's purpose, which is to smear the current Labour leadership.

I'm sure that, if pressed on the PIE question at the time, NCCL people would have said, in the phrase usually attributed to Voltaire, "I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it". In other words, for NCCL it would have been essentially a question of freedom of speech, the principal aim of the organisation since its founding in the 1930s.

Since those days, freedom of speech has become much less fashionable. But fashions come and go, and one cannot reasonably judge the past according to the fashions of today.

The Mail also produced a document signed by Ms Harman in 1978 on a different topic -- the possession of child pornography. People have forgotten that at that time the mere possession of such material was not yet an offence. There was a proposal to make it one, and as I understand it the Harman paper was NCCL's attempt to influence the wording of the legislation, agreeing with the idea of making possession illegal but trying to prevent such cases as people being prosecuted for taking pictures of their own children in the bath (unsuccessfully, it would appear, since there have subsequently been such cases).

For a refreshingly fair and level-headed take on this whole story, see this piece today by the Conservative commentator Iain Dale.