The criminalisation of homosexuality: a malign legacy of empire

pride-828056_640Last week the Indian Supreme Court agreed to reconsider an earlier ruling which recriminalized gay sex in India. Homosexuality was decriminalised in India in 2009 when a lower court ruled that Section 377 of the Indian penal code which penalises gay sex as an ‘unnatural offence’ punishable by up to ten years in prison, was unconstitutional. The judgement was widely seen as a significant step towards equality in India. However, in December 2013, the country re-enacted section 377 when the Supreme Court ruled that it was up to Parliament, not the courts, to rule on such issues. The judgement was widely condemned by human rights activists in India and around the world. Only days after the re-introduction of the ban, the UN Secretary General, Ban Ki-moon, took the opportunity of a speech in India, to declare that he was ‘proud to stand for the equality of all people including those who are lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender’ and that ‘criminalizing consensual, adult same-sex relationships violate basic rights to privacy and to freedom from discrimination.’ However, the conservative-dominated Indian parliament has been reluctant to consider the issue, and the Supreme Court’s decision this week to revisit it’s earlier ruling as ‘a matter of constitutional importance’ is perhaps the best opportunity to restore the rights of same-sex couples in India.

The legal battle over India’s gay sex laws highlights a significant, but often forgotten, legacy of British imperial rule, which continues to have an impact around the globe. Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code is a legacy of British colonial rule. The criminalisation of homosexuality was introduced into India by the British in 1860 and spread quickly throughout the Empire. While there is evidence that same-sex relationships were widely accepted in pre-colonial Africa and Asia, the criminalisation of homosexuality reflected a particularly European morality based on Christian traditions which viewed same-sex relationships as unnatural. The spread of these values throughout the Empire often went hand-in-hand with attempts to spread the gospel of Christianity. (Incidentally, the promotion of heteronormative behaviour in the colonies is also widely credited with giving the world a term for the missionary position, although the origins of this are not entirely clear.)

Decolonisation predated the decriminalisation of homosexuality in the UK with the result that when Britain left the Empire in addition to railways and modern drainage it also left behind a framework for the legal repression on homosexuality. Scholars have long asserted that the criminalisation of homosexuality was a malign legacy of British colonial rule. For example, in research reported in The Washington Post, Enze Han and Joseph O’Mahoney found that laws criminalising homosexuality are much more prevalent in former British colonies:

We investigated whether and why there is a variation in laws regulating and punishing homosexual conduct around the world. Looking at a variety of data on 185 countries, we found that former British colonies were much more likely to have laws that criminalise homosexual conduct than former colonies of other European powers, or than other states in general. For example, 57 per cent of states with such a law have a British colonial origin. Almost 70 per cent of states with a British colonial origin continue to criminalise homosexual conduct.

Ironically, apologists for Empire often point to repressive policies in the former colonies as evidence of the kind of thing that happened when the benign hand of British rule was lifted. At the same time, as Han and O’Mahoney point out, those regimes which have sought to recriminalize it, often claim that tolerance of homosexuality is an attempt to impose ‘Western’ values on the developed world, or little more than a form to neo-colonialism. Neither of these are correct. Clearly, homosexuality is no more peculiarly western than are teeth and toenails. While the passage of laws to criminalise homosexuality in many cases clearly does have its roots in colonial rule. It could be argued that many years after independence, former colonial powers can hardly be held responsible for the re-criminalisation of homosexuality in a number of their former colonies. However, it is important to remember that the legacy of empire was not conducive to equal rights in many forms and the laws which are now being re-enacted have their origins in British colonial rule.

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What does the British public really think about the Empire?

Empire 2In the midst of the furore surrounding the statue of the British imperialist, Cecil Rhodes, at Oriel College, Oxford, YouGov ran a poll on attitudes towards the British empire. To the apparent dismay of many in the media, the poll revealed considerable support for the Empire. The results of this poll are perhaps not surprising as previous polls on the subject have revealed even higher levels of support for the Empire. However, the results were also somewhat more nuanced than the headline figures suggest.

The poll which received the most publicity asked whether people thought the British Empire was ‘a good thing’, ‘a bad thing’ or neither. Asking whether the British Empire is ‘a good thing’ is not, of course, a very good question. The British Empire was wide, diverse and long lasting. Asking people if it was a good thing, is rather like asking people if they think fire is a good thing, it can be incredibly beneficial and also horribly destructive, and ultimately your view probably depends on whether you’re sitting beside it or in it! Nevertheless, the Empire remains an important experience for Britain and those nations which were part of it, and as the Rhodes statue episode illustrates, is still the source of considerable public and political debate within the UK.

The poll certainly confirmed that a large proportion of the public have a positive view of Britain’s imperial past. More than twice as many of those polled (43%) thought that the British Empire was ‘a good thing’ than those who thought it was ‘a bad thing’ (19%). A similar proportion (44%) thought that Britain’s history of colonialism is something to be proud of, compared to (21%) who thought it was something to regret. However, a significant proportion of respondents were somewhat ambivalent, which perhaps reflects the problem with the question, with 25% agreeing that it was neither good or bad  and 23% stating that is was neither a source of pride or regret. 13% of respondents to both questions said they didn’t know.

EmpireWhile the poll clearly showed strong support for the Empire, if we break down the results there were some interesting variations. Conservative, Liberal Democrat and UKIP supporters were all more likely to agree that the British Empire was a good thing, with UKIP supporters, perhaps not surprisingly, the most supportive. Labour supporters were the only group more likely to think the Empire was a bad thing (30%) compared to 28% who thought it was good, and a source of regret (34%) rather than pride (31%). A greater proportion of men (51%) thought it was a good thing compared to women (35%), while those in the older age categories were more likely to have a positive attitude towards empire than younger respondents. Those in the 18-24 age group were evenly divided with the same proportion (32%) agreeing it was good as bad. In contrast 48% of those aged 60 and over thought it was a good thing. There was also one interesting regional variation. A majority of people in all regions, between 41% and 45%, felt that the Empire was a good thing, with the exception of Scotland, where more people thought it was a bad thing (34%) than thought it was good (30%), and a source of regret (36%) rather than pride (34%).

Perhaps the most interesting question, and one which received less media coverage related to how Britain talks and thinks about its past. This was a much more complex question and the responses, perhaps not surprisingly, revealed considerably more uncertainty. A slightly larger proportion (29%), agreed with the statement that ‘Britain tends to view our history of colonisation too positively – there was much cruelty, killing, injustice and racism that we try not to talk about’, while 28% agreed ‘Britain tends to view our history of colonisation too negatively – we talk too much about the cruelty and racism of Empire, and ignore the good that it did.’ A similar proportion, 27%, thought that ‘Britain tends to get the balance between the good and bad sides of our colonial history about right.’ This rather convoluted question, nevertheless reflects the complexities of Britain’s imperial past, and also the ambivalence which can result when people are presented with a more complex picture.

This is not the first time that YouGov has polled on this question. In a similar poll in 2014 although the wording was slightly different (respondents were asked to distinguish between pride and shame) a much larger proportion (59%) agreed that the Empire was something to be proud of, compared to 19% who agreed that it was more something to be ashamed of. In 2014, they also asked whether people felt that the countries which were colonised by Britain are now better off or worse off as a result of being colonised, with 49% thinking they were better off compared to only 15% who thought they were worse off. Perhaps most remarkably, 34% of those polled in 2014 said they would like it if Britain still had an empire.

The apparent drop in support for the Empire between the two polls perhaps reflects the circumstances in which the polls were undertaken. The 2014 poll was taken at the time of the Glasgow Commonwealth Games and also included a question regarding which countries people especially wanted to do well at the games. This may well have helped to generate a more positive image of Empire in the public mind and of its impact on world today. The holding of the games in Glasgow may also explain the absence of the kind of regional variation in support for Empire seen in the more recent poll. In contrast the most recent poll was taken in the context of a fractious debate about the statue of Cecil Rhodes. While the poll still revealed considerable support for Empire it also perhaps reflected a wider appreciation that the legacy of Empire is more mixed.

The marked differences in response, and also the large proportion of non-committal responses, also suggest that the Empire is not a salient issue for the public. That is, it is not something on which the majority of people have a clear and fixed view. Given the distance in time since the end of Empire, not to mention its peak, this is perhaps not surprising. It also perhaps serves to reinforce the argument that there is a need for more education about Britain’s imperial past. A wider understanding of the impact of the British Empire both on the world, and on Britain today, may not lead to greater consensus on the issue but it might serve to move it beyond simplistic chauvinistic debates regarding the sources of national pride.

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The not-so-invisible man

An excellent essay by Andy Beckett on the role of the Cabinet Secretary, Jeremey Heywood, in The Guardian‘s excellent long read series. No blog just read the article, ‘The most potent, permanent and elusive figure in British politics’.

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Select committee divisions on airstrikes in Syria

The lengthy House of Commons debate and subsequent vote on air strikes in Syria revealed significant divisions both between and within parties. There were two votes in the House of Commons last night the first, on a cross-party amendment which sought to block airstrikes, was defeated by 390 votes to 211. This was followed by a vote on the government’s motion asking for support for airstrikes which the government won by 397 votes to 223. The motion can be read in full here. It concluded that the House,

…accordingly supports Her Majesty’s Government in taking military action, specifically airstrikes, exclusively against ISIL in Syria; and offers its wholehearted support to Her Majesty’s Armed Forces.

Considerable attention will today focus on which MPs voted for and against the motion to undertake airstrikes and in particular on divisions within the parties. Seven Conservative MPs voted against airstrikes and a further seven abstained. Six Liberal Democrats voted for, while two voted against. As was widely predicted, the Labour Party, whose MPs were given a free vote, was most divided on the issue, with 153 Labour MPs voting with their leader against airstrikes, while 66 voted in favour. Five Labour MPs abstained. All SNP MPs voted against airstrikes.

Leaving aside the obvious splits within the parties, it is interesting to see how the votes divided in the various parliamentary committees which are likely to be most closely involved in scrutinising the conduct and consequences of Britain’s involvement in the conflict against ISIS. This reveals some significant divisions and not only on party lines. These were most notable in the Foreign Affairs Committee, from which four MPs voted for airstrikes and four against, while the remaining three including the Conservative MP, Adam Holloway, were either absent or abstained. The divisions in the Defence Committee were also notable, with the Conservative Chair (and former member of the Intelligence and Security Committee), Dr Julian Lewis, voting against the government. The Defence, Home Affairs and the Intelligence and Security Committee, all included Labour MPs who voted both for and against the motion.

Foreign Affairs Committee


Crispin Blunt – Chair (Con)

Daniel Kawczynski (Con)

Andrew Rosindell (Con)

Nadhim Zahawi (Con)


John Baron (Con)

Stephen Gethins (SNP)

Mark Hendrick (Lab)

Yasmin Qureshi (Lab)


Adam Holloway (Con)


Anne Clwyd (Lab)

Mike Gapes (Lab)

Defence Committee


Richard Benyon (Con)

James Gray (Con)

Johnny Mercer (Con)

Bob Stewart (Con)

Ruth Smeeth (Lab)

John Spellar (Lab)

Phil Wilson (Lab)

Jim Shannon (DUP)


Dr Julian Lewis – Chair (Con)

Madeleine Moon (Lab)

Douglas Chapman (SNP)

Home Affairs Committee


Keith Vaz – Chair (Lab)

Victoria Atkins (Con)

James Berry (Con)

David Burrowes (Con)

Nusrat Ghani (Con)

Ranil Jayawardena (Con)

Tim Loughton (Con)

Chuka Umunna (Lab)


Naz Shah (Lab)

David Winnick (Lab)

Intelligence and Security Committee


Dominic Grieve – Chair (Con)

Alan Duncan (Con)

Keith Simpson (Con)

George Howarth (Lab)

Gisela Stuart (Lab)


Fiona Mactaggart (Lab)

Angus Robertson (SNP)

The ISC is a joint committee of both Houses. There was a House of Lords debate on Syria yesterday but no vote. The two ISC members in the House of Lords, Lords Janvrin and Lothian, did not participate.

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List of Parliamentary Private Secretaries: a reply from No.10

10DSTwo weeks ago I wrote a post about my frustration at being unable to find a list of Parliamentary Private Secretaries. The coalition government had published a list in 2010 but this has never been updated. On the suggestion of the House of Commons Library, who were also unable to find a list, I contacted Downing Street. The reply is opposite and the full Government PPS list is below:


  • The Prime Minister: GAVIN WILLIAMSON
  • First Secretary of State and Chancellor of the Exchequer – George Osborne – CHRIS SKIDMORE
  • Home Secretary – Theresa May – MICHAEL ELLIS
  • Foreign Secretary – Philip Hammond – CHRIS PINCHER
  • Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice – Michael Gove – ROBERT JENRICK
  • Secretary of State for Defence – Michael Fallon – GRAHAM EVANS
  • Secretary of State for Work and Pensions – Iain Duncan Smith – DAVID RUTLEY
  • Secretary of State for Health – Jeremy Hunt – STEVE BRINE
  • Leader of the Commons and Lord President of the Council – Chris Grayling – MIKE FREER
  • Secretary of State for International Development – Justine Greening – ANDREW BINGHAM
  • Secretary of State for Education and Minister for Women & Equalities – Nicky Morgan – ROBIN WALKER.
  • Leader of the House of Lords and Lord Privy Seal – Baroness Stowell – KWASI KWARTENG
  • Secretary of State for Transport – Patrick McLoughlin – STUART ANDREW
  • Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills – Sajid Javid – JOHN GLEN
  • Secretary of State for Northern Ireland – Theresa Villiers – REBECCA HARRIS
  • Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs – Liz Truss – MARK SPENCER
  • Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government – Greg Clark – HENRY SMITH
  • Secretary of State for Wales – Stephen Crabb – DAVID MORRIS
  • Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster – Oliver Letwin – ALOK SHARMA
  • Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport – John Whittingdale – HEATHER WHEELER
  • Secretary of State for Scotland – David Mundell – IAIN STEWART
  • Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change – Amber Rudd – PAUL MAYNARD

Ministers attending Cabinet:

  • Chief Secretary to the Treasury – Greg Hands – JAKE BERRY
  • DWP: Minister of State – Priti Patel – ALEC SHELBROOKE
  • BIS: Minister of State – Anna Soubry – MARK PAWSEY
  • CO: Minister of State and Paymaster General – Matthew Hancock – GARETH JOHNSON
  • Minister without Portfolio – Robert Halfon – ANDREW STEPHENSON
  • Attorney General – Jeremy Wright – REHMAN CHISHTI

Ministers of State:

  • Financial Secretary to the Treasury – David Gauke – CONOR BURNS
  • Home Office: Minister of State – James Brokenshire – CRAIG WHITTAKER
  • Home Office/MOJ: Ministers of State – John Hayes and Mike Penning – CHRIS WHITE
  • FCO: Minister of State – David Lidington – JAMES MORRIS
  • FCO: Minister of State – Hugo Swire – PAULINE LATHAM
  • MOD: Ministers of State – Philip Dunne and Penny Mordaunt – OLIVER COLVILE
  • Health: Minister of State – Alistair Burt – KAREN LUMLEY
  • DfID: Ministers of State – Desmond Swayne and Grant Shapps – CHARLOTTE LESLIE
  • DfE: Ministers of State – Nick Gibb and Edward Timpson – STEPHEN METCALFE
  • BIS: Ministers of State – Nick Boles and Jo Johnson – ANNE MARIE MORRIS
  • BIS/DCMS & DECC: Ministers of State – Ed Vaizey and Andrea Leadsom – SHERYLL MURRAY
  • DEFRA: Minister of State – George Eustice – MATTHEW OFFORD
  • DCLG: Ministers of State – Mark Francois and Brandon Lewis – ANDREW GRIFFITHS

The Payroll Vote 

What does this mean for the payroll vote? There are 41 PPSs which is an average of around one PPS for every two Ministers. There are a total of 91 Ministers and Whips in the House of Commons which means that the payroll vote comprises 132 MPs or 40% of Conservative MPs.

Interestingly, it is not clear if this list has been made public anywhere else. I didn’t submit my request through the website or indeed as an FOI request, although it was treated as one. The relevant page on the website has not been updated. The reply from Downing Street was admirably quick but with the exception of this post, it is far from clear to me that this information is any easier to find now than it was two weeks ago.

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