'The Glamour Boys’: a group of gay MPs derided by Chamberlain who sounded an early warning about Hitler
Diplomat and Labour MP Harold Nicolson, 1933: married to Vita Sackville-West, both had homosexual affairs; he was one among a number of politicians from the era that were forced to live a double-life | PA Images
Chris Bryant captures the atmosphere of the interwar years in his well-written and deeply researched book that shines a new light on our history
A little over 25 years ago the SAS celebrated its 50th anniversary at the Guildhall in London. Many generations of soldiers were present. Among them was the slightly stooped figure of Brigadier Mike Calvert. He had been court-martialed and cashiered in the 1950s, essentially for homosexuality.
Did anybody care about that? Not a bit of it. Calvert was an outstanding soldier and a brilliant leader. He was simply recognised as a great man.
This incident was called to mind when I read Chris Bryant’s brilliant new book, The Glamour Boys. The title refers to the soubriquet given to a group of MPs that gathered around Anthony Eden and Winston Churchill in the pre-war years. Many were homosexual, and the name was an attempt to cast a slur on the whole crowd. As ever with these things, it didn’t work.
Bryant’s thesis in this well-written and deeply researched book is that the experience of being homosexual in the interwar years demanded a level of determination, even courage, that translated into a willingness to oppose appeasement at a time when that was acutely unpopular.
When Eden resigned, Bryant tells us that at least a third of his immediate band of supporters were homosexual. This was both a strength and a weakness. Chamberlain’s creatures, Ball and Margesson, seemed willing to use any calumny or innuendo to damage or destroy them, with the active connivance of the newspapers and broadcasters.
Today it may be hard to imagine how terrifying this must have been. But Bryant lays the ground with an extraordinary account of the lives of several young men whose homosexuality seemed just under the surface, implicitly recognised by those close to them while much of the rest of society averted its gaze.
He cleverly captures the atmosphere and language of the times, including using the words of the era (“queer” rather than “gay”, for example.) At one point he tells how Earl Beauchamp was exiled under threat of prosecution for his overly public homosexual activities, and Nancy Astor’s son, Bobbie Gould Shaw, facing a similar dilemma, decided to face the music – and prison. The frisson of fear that must have generated can only be imagined.
Nevertheless there was an undoubted ambivalence in attitudes. One of the story’s heroes, Jack Macnamara, seeks the male camaraderie of the London Irish Rifles Territorial Regiment, where “several of the senior officers were gay and it never seemed to bother anyone, not least because they were often the bravest of the lot”.
They were more aware than most of the Nazis’ treatment of Jews and homosexuals
Which brings us to the central point of the story. The coterie of mostly young homosexual MPs gave critical mass to the supporters of Eden and Churchill, opposing appeasement, supporting rearmament, and highlighting the dangers of the dictatorships, at a time when almost nobody in Britain wanted to think about another war, let alone prepare for one.
Apart from their courage they were also more aware than most of the Nazis’ treatment of Jews and homosexuals, when Chamberlain’s government was actively suppressing such news.
There are many leading players in this story, many (but not all) heroes. My favourite was Ronnie Cartland. Moral courage and physical courage are two different things and having one does not always mean that you will have the other. Cartland had both. He fiercely defended Eden from the Tory establishment calumnies and attacked appeasement.
Later, despite being pegged as the backbencher with the brightest future ministerial career, he burnt his prospects fighting his own government. Eventually he died fiercely defending the retreating British Army at Dunkirk from the rampaging German Panzers.
Out of the threads of such stories Bryant weaves a convincing tapestry depicting the role played by the “Glamour Boys” in preparing Britain for the greatest and most morally important conflict of its entire history. In doing so he illuminates a new and intriguing perspective on our history. If you are interested in the mid-20th century politics of the UK, this is a must-read.
David Davis is Conservative MP for Haltemprice and Howden
The Glamour Boys is published by Bloomsbury