Abolish age of consent

Abolish the second chamber

Once again, the House of Lords has staged a reactionary revolt. And yet again it was over gay rights that they made their Custer-like stand. A cross-party coalition of peers voted by 222 to 146 against - for the second time - the government’s Sexual Offences (Amendment) Bill. This piece of legislation seeks to lower the age of consent for gay men from 18 to 16 years-old, as it is for heterosexuals.

Naturally, this was a purely symbolic displays of power by the Lords. Since the bill has already passed through the House of Commons, with the backing of all three main party leaders, it is certain to be re-introduced next year under the terms of the Parliament Act and hence carried despite the peers’ opposition. This will only be the sixth time this legal-constitutional procedure has been used since 1988. However, all this of course is purely academic. By the time this stage comes around, the voting rights of the hereditary peers, barring some extraordinary political development, will themselves have been voted away - using the self-same Parliament Act if necessary. The Lords’ rebellion has played into Blair’s hand.

But for nine hours last Tuesday the lords and ladies had their day - the last roar of the dinosaur. Leading the revolting pack was, as always, Baroness Young of Falmouth. No one can deny that Baroness Young’s politics has remained consistent. Just take a look at her CV. Former leader of the Lords, ex-Tory deputy chairperson, a director of NatWest and Marks and Spencers, and the first ever female chair of the Association of Tory Peers - an organisation that staunchly upholds the hereditary principle and a belief in the virtues of male primogeniture.

Interestingly, during last week’s debate the good Baroness attempted a little piece of constitutional jiggery-pokery to justify the “unusual” behaviour of their lordships. It is very rare indeed for the Lords to try to kill off a bill at its second reading, a tactic that has been used only twice since the 1949 Parliament Act. But Young argued that the bill itself was very unusual, as lowering the age of consent did not form part of Labour’s general election manifesto and was therefore not subject to the Salisbury Convention, under which the Lords agree not to vote down bills deemed to have been sanctioned by the electorate. It is also worth noting that on the this issue of gay rights - like the death penalty or abortion - MPs and peers have a free vote since it is “a matter of conscience”.

Baroness Young and her cohorts are fighting tooth and nail against the opening up the permissive and libertine floodgates. “Young boys”, as she and her supporters call 16 to 17 year-olds, have to be “protected” from older “predatory adults” (what about ‘young girls’?). Baroness Young thundered: “Sixteen-year-olds, still children much of the time, need protection, especially at a time when permissive social morals are dramatically undermining marriage and the family.” She added: “I do not think there is a moral equivalence between heterosexuals and homosexuals.”               

For the fearful peers Jack Straw’s bill represents the “thin edge of the wedge”, as Baroness Young put it in less than original language. First you lower the age of consent to 16, then what? Then there are demands to lower the age of consent still further - just look at Peter Tatchell/Outrage’s call for it to be lowered to 14. Then gay marriage will follow. Then fostering rights for gay couples. Then Western civilisation - and Judeo-Christianity - collapses.

The worst nightmares of the followers of Baroness Young must appear to be coming true. Last week Jack Straw signalled the possibility of a change in the law to allow transsexuals to marry. This was followed by an announcement that Margaret Hodge, the employment minister, will change the Sex Discrimination Act to extend protection to transsexuals.

A working group will look at the issue of transsexuals’ birth certificates. At the moment, a person’s gender is legally defined by their birth certificate. Even if a man ‘becomes’ a woman that person is legally classified as a male - and hence cannot marry a man. But the law currently also means that a former male who has become a woman can marry another woman in a de facto same-sex marriage. A situation rich in absurdity - and prone to misery and suffering. An obvious solution - to allow state-sanctioned, same-sex marriage - is so far a non-starter for mainstream bourgeois opinion. New Labour seems wary of going just a bit too far for fear of upsetting and agitating that swathe of opinion represented by Baroness Young.

Communists on the other hand have no such hesitation. The CPGB’s draft programme calls for the right to gay and lesbian marriage. But it does not end there. We call for the abolition of the age of consent, not its equalisation. This should form an essential part of any communist programme or platform, yet hardly a single voice on the ‘sensible’ British left can be heard making it. Individuals are not ‘equal’ in terms of their psycho-emotional sexual development. Consenting sexual activity should not be criminalised or policed by the state.

Disgracefully, this means that the few voices heard calling for abolition are normally found on the ‘libertarian’ wing of the bourgeoisie. The generally conservative writer and humourist, AN Wilson, is one such prominent advocate. Summing up nicely the mind-set of Young and co, Wilson writes:

“Once you abandon the old idea that sex is wicked … unless performed by monogamous married couples, it becomes logically very difficult to distinguish between one form of the activity and another. We all know that some children have sexual experiences and it is hysterical nonsense to say that this will always ‘scar them for life’. Some 11-year old fumblings would be far less likely to scar you for life than an unwise love affair aged 45 … In those confused cases of consensual sex between those under or over an age limit, no useful purpose is served by bringing in the police and the newspapers” (The Independent on Sunday April 18).

In contrast to this progressive position expressed by an enlightened bourgeois, the neo-Blairite line adopted by the Socialist Party in England and Wales, the Socialist Workers Party, etc, holds that there is nothing odd or reactionary about ‘age of consent’ laws.

Similarly, with the House of Lords itself, the left has been quite prepared to leave it to New Labour. Such organisations, while occasionally paying lip service to the question, seem to believe that issues of democracy and the constitution are not really the concern of the working class.

Tragically this means that the field has been abandoned to Blair’s constitutional revolution from above. He aims to abolish the ‘hereditaries’ only as a first move. It is more than possible that some form of elected second chamber will be introduced. This is all part of his plans to redraw the political landscape through proportional representation, state funding of political parties, devolution for Scotland and Wales - all under a rejuvenated, ‘modernised’ monarchy.

The question of how we are ruled cannot be left to Blair. We must fight to make it the priority of workers, as they strive to become a class for themselves - a ruling class. The second chamber and the monarchy must be swept away.

Eddie Ford