Cameron’s Britain: This Property-Owning Democracy is No Place for Queer Youth
By Alex Gabriel
When Margaret Thatcher died this April, “Ding-Dong! The Witch Is Dead” reached number two on the UK singles chart. Campaigns on social networks all but swept the song to the top spot, but the BBC, citing concerns of propriety, offense and taste, refused to play the song in its official countdown. Instead, a five second clip was shown in a news item.
The socialist left and liberal right, of course, bristled at this while conservatives applauded, but the real joke was on Thatcher: her Cold War rhetoric sold us the notion high capitalism enfranchised us – that purchasing power was people power, and property-owning democracy the only kind. Could there be a better rebuttal? To send a message, Britons spent tens of thousands downloading the song, embodying the commerce-as-democracy narrative, but in an instant, Britain’s state media defused their action.
Current Prime Minister David Cameron, recently praised for his Conservative-Liberal Democrat government’s signing gay marriage into law, has cultivated an image cuddlier by far than Thatcher’s. On personal approval ratings, he is easily his party’s greatest asset, and marketed himself from his leadership’s outset as “a modern, compassionate conservative,” declaring in his first conference speech that marriage means something “whether you’re a man and a woman, a woman and a woman or a man and another man.” This isn’t the Tory Party of Section 28, the law that banned “public promotion of homosexuality” – and subsequently, Conservative support among LGBTs rose from 11 percent at the 2010 election to 30 percent at the end of last year. Yet Cameron is at least a Thatcherite. Inflicting spending cuts unrivalled since World War Two, his government makes hers look virtually left wing. His early statement, “There is such a thing as society, it’s just not the same thing as the state” was pitched to distance him from her, but reified in fact her central axiom that aiding the poor or homeless lay outside government’s purview. In 2011, he even promised us the “new presumption” all public services would by default be at least part-privatised.
That the Daily Telegraph column in which he wrote this glossed private takeovers as “diversity,” liberal byword for LGBT inclusion, says much of Cameron: he’s a man for whom, like Thatcher, all logic returns to that of the market. In the ninety minutes following Barack Obama’s statement, “Same-sex couples should be able to get married,” a million dollars went to his re-election campaign, and as a media executive before his time in parliament (who, only two years prior to his leadership, voted to keep Section 28), it’s conceivable the PM’s “pro-gay” stances are more about profit than principle - I believe, though, that deep Thatcherite impulses drive them. His earliest support for civil partnerships came in the context of an argument the nation needed more marriage and less divorce; it’s no surprise he wishes to give married couples tax breaks, because for him, marital and family “commitment” means personal responsibility – an alternative, that is, to public provision. Cameron’s political rhetoric, too, blames “family breakdown” on overindulgent spending, slashing welfare to keep husbands and wives together. Behind the PM’s love of gay marriage, and marriage in general, hangs this bleak backdrop.
When he said he supported gay marriage due to, and not despite, being a Conservative, he wasn’t lying; as it did for Andrew Sullivan before him, gay marriage serves a regressive agenda for Cameron, informed by the same marketising Thatcherism he’s worked to purge from his public image. Elsewhere, that Thatcherism embattles queer Britons, and especially queer youth. What fate, in a property-owning democracy, befalls those who own least or stand themselves to be disowned?
In my final year at Oxford, a boy named Jack and I partnered intermittently. While enjoyed by both of us, it wasn’t a serious relationship, nor could it have been if we’d wanted one: Jack, who was closeted to homophobic parents, had started university in 2012, among the first British students who, thanks to Cameron’s government, paid nine thousand pounds a year instead of three. (If to U.S. readers this sounds like next to nothing, note that till 1998, all British universities were free.) Had he started his degree the same year I did, Jack’s savings would have made coming out an option; by the time we were together, he feared that if parents discovered he liked men, they’d stop bankrolling his tuition, forcing him to leave university – the only place that, having lived with depression and self-harm like one LGBT teen in every handful, he felt safe – or deal with close to £50,000 of debt.
Jack wasn’t the only one: in three years of study, I must have met half a dozen undergraduates in positions like his. One, the son of millionaires with a countship to inherit, attempted suicide and swiftly re-entered the closet after letting slip to parents he was bisexual – fearing being left penniless with no place of study, he stayed closeted (though fucked no end of college rowers) as long as I knew him; another used sex work to support herself – while she enjoyed it, others in her situation didn’t. Their options, in the absence of parental aid, were simply limited.
For Cameron and the right wing press, home is where financial help is. Who needs a welfare state, they seem to ask, when families can look out for one another? (Since 1997, as rent and house prices soared and jobs vanished – in 2011, one in five young people was unemployed – the number of 20-34 year olds living with parents has risen by almost a third.) For queer youth, home means surveillance: love and support from parents can be counted on if we seem sufficiently straight, our gender expressions are typical and our sex lives permitted; it cannot be taken for granted. I’ve known innumerable teen couples with nowhere to go for sex, or even private socialising; some have spent hundreds on hotel rooms one night at a time, others resorted to cruising grounds at risk of police harassment, arrest or worse; still others let relationships that mattered to them die. Virginia Woolf, Fabian socialist and bisexual, wrote once on the need for a room of one’s own; the struggle for queer space is an ultimately economic struggle, and one LGBT youth are losing.
In the first two years of Cameron’s government, 2,309 people each night slept rough in Britain – an increase of a third since the last count in 2010 – and from late 2009 to 2012, statutory homelessness claims (reflecting only the officially unhoused) rose by the same proportion. Queer youth are especially at risk – three months ago the Albert Kennedy Trust, working to house LGBT teens for 23 years, reported a 179 percent increase since 2010 in cases around Manchester, and according to activist Petra Davis, 25 percent of last year’s urban homeless were LGBTI. In line with successive post-Thatcherite governments’ neglect of homelessness, despite this backdrop and social housing rents in 2010 reaching 80 percent of market rates, Downing Street announced last year that housing benefit for those under 25 was in line to be scrapped. Further reforms, argue queer youth homelessness group LGBT Jigsaw, are also forcing welfare-dependent under-35s back into the closet.
Broader free market dogmatism frames all this, endangering key services: as homeless teens in dangerous conditions sell sex to survive, HIV treatment is cut (infection rates have doubled in ten years); as they deal with suicidal thoughts or trauma, queer mental health bodies are threatened; as they seek somewhere to feel less alone, LGBT youth projects face closure. Just recently, a group of England’s newly established “free schools” – outside local authority control, widely regarded as stepping stones to privatisation, and with no duty to teach sex education – introduced policies against “promoting homosexuality,” words directly lifted out of Section 28. The only cause, it seems, for which the Cameroons will curb their doctrine is Puritanism: by pledging last month to ban online porn from the nation’s homes, the PM placed at risk some queer teens’ only sexual resources and others’ sole income.
None of this makes encouraging reading. If not for endless, fawning coverage of the Same-Sex Marriage Act, which itself criminalises transitioning sans spousal approval, perhaps more people would in fact have read about it. No, Cameron is no Thatcher: he is something worse, the logical conclusion of her politics, nastier while far more skilled at seeming nice. His coalition’s Britain is a Con-Dem nation, not a permissive paradise, and his property-owning democracy no place for queer youth. Dream as we might that he’s ended bigotry, Cameron is merely privatising it.
—Edited by Katrina Casino
Follow Alex on Twitter @AlexGabriel.