Before the left gets too precious about David Davis' reported comments on the 'brokeback coalition', we should give our sluggish short-term memories something of a workout. Erudite and edifying though schoolyard slurs of this kind may be, they are neither new nor exclusive to the right.
Remember Harriet Harman's cheeky suggestion, in her first speech as leader of the opposition, that “while the happy couple are enjoying the thrill of the rose garden, the in-laws are saying that they are just not right for each other”? Remember all those headlines about ‘a very civil partnership’ and ‘a man-date to govern’? Playground gay jokes have been employed across the political spectrum to cast aspersions on the new government from day one.
It’s a troubling trend, and not just because of the obvious problems with equating male homosexuality, even in jest, with something the press and politicians find unnatural, suspicious and uncomfortable. The conceit is dazzling in its banality, substituting genuine political analysis for sniggering dick-jokes: it’s carry-on commentating, and it manages to belittle all parties involved whilst failing to enlighten us one iota about the reasons for the fractures already emerging in the new government.
The discomfort underlying all the ‘Eton fag’ and ‘brokeback partnership’ catcalls is multiferous, but it’s hard not to get the impression that a coalition government is somehow not daddy enough for us: that political partnerships and electoral reform are somehow not manly enough for the tough, thrusting, winner-takes-all tradition of British politics. And as any thirteen-year-old boy can tell you, anything with the slightest hint of hetero-abnormality is gay, and gay is, like, completely rubbish. Obviously.
There is substantial historical precedent for homosexual inference as a form of satire: from Tacitus to the Earl of Rochester the suggestion has implied decadence, depravity and dodgy politics. In 1791, at the height of the French revolution, an anonymous French writer circulated the scandalous "Memoirs of Antonina: Displying the Private intrigues and Uncommon Passions...of Great Persons," a burlesque intended to mock the court of Louis XVI by implying that Marie Antoinette was an Indigo-Girls-listening, sandal-wearing, alfalfa-sprout-eating lesbian, or 'tribade' in the language of the day. 'Antonina' was genuinely subversive in a way that contemporary ‘brokeback coalition’ jokes are not, because at the time popular derision of the monarchy was a serious and dangerous undertaking. Nonetheless, it has always been easier to chuckle about the gays than to actually engage with the shortfalls of any particular government.
There is much to criticise about this coalition, not least the fact that ultimately, it’s the vulnerable, the difficult and the poor whom our new leaders are busy screwing, not each other. In this context, knob jokes are both offensive and unhelpful – although the particular notion of a ‘brokeback coalition’ is more apt that David Davis or John Redwood might realise.
The film ‘Brokeback Mountain’ is not, as has been intimated, the simple tale of a cosy gay relationship, but the story of a love affair between two men from deeply conservative backgrounds, plagued by insecurity and doubt and frightened of retribution from their communities. The movie ends in violence, disappointment and betrayal. Many members of the press and political class seem to be fostering a hope that this government will end the same way – but for those of us who happen to prefer gay sex to slashing the welfare state, the prospect of another four years of schoolyard homophobia is a grim one.