A series of polls, first in Scotland where controversy initially arose, and subsequently across the whole of Great Britain, have made it clear that public opinion on Section 28 of the Local Government Act, on the age of consent for homosexual sex, and more generally on attitudes to homosexuality, are by no means as simple or as clear cut as some of those on either side of the argument would like to believe. On the one hand, there is a clear majority of the public opposed both to repealing Section 28 and to lowering the age of consent to 16; but, on the other hand, many of these opponents are happy to admit the legitimacy of homosexual relationships between adults.
Section 28 of the Local Government Act was passed by the Thatcher Government in 1988, following fears that homosexual campaigners were proselytising in some schools run by left-wing councils. It forbids local authorities from "promoting" homosexuality, and "the promotion of homosexuality in schools as a pretended family relationship"; but opponents have claimed that not only is it discriminatory, but it inhibits proper sex education in schools and may prevent teachers from stopping bullying of homosexual children. (Nevertheless, no school has ever been prosecuted under the section). Labour was committed to repealing section 28 before the last election, and has now begun proceedings both in the Scottish Parliament and at Westminster to repeal the section. (Defeat in the Lords has temporarily stopped the process at Westminster, but the government has pledged to re-introduce the measure.) Legislation is also in train to reduce the homosexual age of consent to 16, the same as the heterosexual age of consent.
A MORI poll for the Daily Mail in the last week of January and a Gallup poll for the Daily Telegraph in the first week of February found 54% and 51% respectively opposing repeal of section 28; the MORI poll also found 66% opposed to lowering the age of consent. But there is a very strong age dimension to attitudes - in the MORI poll, only 40% of 18-34 year olds, but 52% of 35-54 year olds and 70% of those aged 55 and over, supported keeping section 28.
The latest poll, by NOP, is reported in the Daily Mail to have found 65% against repeal and 35% in favour on Tuesday 8 and Wednesday 9 February, after the House of Lords vote that defeated the government's proposal. This may represent a swing against repeal since the MORI and Gallup polls, but as the question wording was not reported, and as the reported percentages make no allowance for don't knows (highly unlikely that there none), other factors may explain the change in the figures.
But what is also clear is that Britain is far more liberal than any of these figures might suggest, so long as homosexual relationships are confined to consenting adults. More than half in the Gallup poll thought that both kinds of relationship (homosexual and heterosexual) are of equal value. Only 26% were prepared to state that homosexual behaviour is "morally wrong" - and they were equally divided on whether or not it should be tolerated anyway. MORI found the public equally divided on the idea that "the Government should do more to ensure that gay relationships are accepted", and even on whether gay couples should be allowed to get married.
As well as supporting Section 28 and opposing a lowered age of consent, the majority of the public oppose gay couples being allowed to adopt children. Plainly, the sticking point for many of the public is the involvement of children and young people, not the question of homosexuality as such. It is not quite as simple as either the bishops or the gay rights campaigners would like to believe.