In this recent article I wrote for the 50th anniversary of the Sexual Offences Act 1967 I mentioned the Labouchere Amendment. This was an extra clause added to the Criminal Law Amendment Act which was being debated in the Houses of Parliament for the last time on this day in 1885.
Labouchere was the name of
an MP, Henry DuPre Labouchere (1831-1912) (pictured below). Historians have
often been mystified as to why this Liberal MP should have introduced his
amendment at such a late stage. He was known as a radical reformist and spoke
and wrote often on what he saw as injustices within the traditional class
system, even advocating the replacement of the House of Lords with an elected
chamber. He criticised the racism that was commonplace in all classes. He
called for reform of the judicial system. So why did he suddenly appear to turn
against one of the most victimised and criminalised people in Victorian society
by pushing for more victimisation? Labouchere never showed any interest in
taking part in the many other previous debates relating to sex. It has been
suggested that he was thinking of the victims of homosexual crime.
The full title of the Act
being debated was “An Act to make further provision for the Protection of Women
and Girls, the suppression of brothels and other purposes” As the title implies
there were previous laws which dealt with similar issues. Let’s have a quick
look at them.
First, what was the legal
position of homosexuals in Victorian England? The Buggery Act 1553 introduced
by King Henry VIII and his anti-Catholic political cronies placed the death
penalty on anyone found guilty of homosexual activity. It was the sexual act
that was unlawful, not homosexuality itself. It was the first time that
same-sex activity became illegal and punishable by death. The law was amended
by the Offences Against the Person Act 1828 which laid down that there must be
proof of sexual penetration. Evidence of other activities during sex were
decriminalised. A later Offences Against the Person Act introduced in 1861
removed the death penalty and substituted a minimum sentence of 2 years
imprisonment with or without hard labour. Imprisonment could be for life.
During the 1880s there was
some concerns over the increasing awareness of the sexual slavery of young
British girls being sold abroad. The Criminal Law Amendment Act was brought in,
as the full name of the Act states clearly, as a means of protecting those
young children. Which begs the next question. Why did Labouchere introduce
homosexual offences into an Act that was all about protecting girls?
The answer to that may
come with another aspect of Henry Labouchere as a politician. He was known to
be a bit of a stirer. Several times he proposed amendments to other bills going
through parliament which had nothing to do with the subject being debated. Most
of his amendments were so impractical to enforce, or just plain ridiculous,
that they were quickly dropped. Labouchere did this with any bill he thought
was against liberty. It was a delaying tactic still used today as an attempt to
run out of parliamentary debating time and therefore delay the bill, or even
force it to be dropped altogether. He thought the Criminal Law Amendment Act
was idealistic, impractical and unnecessary. He noted that it was
discriminatory against working class families because they often married their
daughters young, and one of the issues being considered in the bill was
Always a political
tactician Labouchere waited until the right moment to introduce his amendment
on homosexual activity. He waited until late into the debate, late in the night
of 6th August, before standing up and presenting it. The House of Commons was
almost empty. Most MPs had gone home to bed. Those MPs still in the Commons
probably wanted to go home was well.
The Attorney-General, Sir
Henry James, simply accepted Labouchere’s Amendment on the spot. There was no
debate and there was no review in committee. It was labelled Section 11 of the
Criminal Law Amendment Bill and put on the list of business for the House of
Commons the next day for its Third Reading. The Bill was accepted and approved
by the MPs present and it became law. All that remained was the Royal Assent.
Political commentators, historians
and biographers have all debated the motives of Henry Labouchere for decades.
He did not have any proper explanation himself, so perhaps we’ll never really
know if he was an actual homophobe or if it was just a case that one of his
frequent amendments backfiring on him and becoming law. The majority of people
just label him a homophobe regardless. Whatever the true motive may have been
he played into the hands of the millions of homophobes who were to follow and
make life hell for gay men in the UK. For that alone he deserves the animosity
To end on an ironic note.
The Labouchere Amendment has been called the Blackmailer’s Charter because it
enabled anyone to extort money out of gay men, threatening to report them to
the police, often simply on the basis that they talked to another man. During
the debates on the Criminal Law Amendment Act Labouchere voiced his opposition
to it by saying it could be “described as a measure for facilitating every sort
of extortion and blackmail”. If only he had left it at that and not try to
derail the law by introducing his amendment. After opposing the Criminal Law
Amendment Act by implying it was a “blackmailer’s charter” he was ultimately
responsible for making sure it did so.