LONDON — THE British government is caught in the middle of a potentially damaging dispute between supporters and opponents of gay rights. The argument is threatening passage through Parliament of Prime Minister John Major's law-and-order program, the centerpiece of his ``back to basics'' political approach.
Amid scenes of violence not seen in the Parliamentary precinct for many years, hundreds of gay activists attempted on Feb. 21 to break their way into the Palace of Westminster after the House of Commons threw out a move to lower the age of consent for gay men from 21 years to 16 and opted instead for an age limit of 18.
Under existing law, homosexual activity by males under 21 is a criminal offense.
Police had to fight to hold back gay and lesbian demonstrators who tried to storm the building when they heard of the compromise decision.
Angry Conservatives vow retaliation
Sir Ian McKellan, the Shakespearean actor and the leader of the gay-rights movement in Britain, says his supporters, who include members of Parliament of the three main political parties, will continue to campaign for an age limit of 16.
Edwina Currie, the Conservative MP who introduced the measure proposing to lower the age of legal consent to 16, says she will take the matter to the European Court.
But senior Conservative members of Parliament who had voted against change are threatening to refuse to support Mr. Major's criminal justice bill at its final stage of Parliamentary review if it includes any lowering at all of the age of homosexual consent.
Other Conservative MPs were enraged by a Commons vote, also on Feb. 21, not to restore the death penalty for murder. They say they will vote against the criminal justice bill in protest.
With a Commons majority of only 18 seats, Major thus faces the possibility that the most politically important element in his law-and-order program will be overturned. Voters here are increasingly concerned about rising levels of violence and crimes against property.
If the bill were defeated, the law-and-order program would be in tatters. There is wide agreement here that Home Secretary Michael Howard, who introduced the bill in the Commons, would probably have to resign.
The combined fury of Conservative opponents of gay rights and supporters of the death penalty comes at a difficult moment for the prime minister. His personal standing in opinion polls is low, and his government is highly unpopular.
The debate on gay rights was the first the Commons had held since 1967 and prompted bitter exchanges between advocates and foes of change.
Two Cabinet ministers, who argued and later voted for an age limit of 16, were attacked for succumbing to what opponents of change claim was a well-orchestrated campaign by Britain's gay-rights movement.
Only 42 Conservative MPs voted for the option of 16. The compromise for an age limit of 18 was carried by a majority of 427 to 162 votes, and was supported by Major and Mr. Howard.
Gay-rights activists who have lobbied MPs in recent weeks, arguing for 16 as the age of consent, cannot point to any poll suggesting that there is strong support for it among voters. Most soundings of public opinion have indicated opposition to such a low age limit.
Many MPs who opposed change argued that males of 16 were too young to make firm decisions about their own sexuality.
Gay-rights campaigners point out that the legal age for sex for females is 16 and insist that all they are seeking is equality for males before the law.
But Howard told the Commons that ``reducing the age of consent from 21 to 18 strikes the right balance.''
If the government had a larger Commons majority, its own position and the future of the criminal justice bill would not be in jeopardy. There is, however, no doubting the angry mood of some prominent Conservative MPs. John Watts, chairman of the powerful Treasury select committee, describes the criminal justice bill as ``rotten at its core.''
Crime bill `fundamentally flawed'
``Parliament has failed to restore capital punishment,'' he said in a Feb. 22 interview, ``which is something that an overwhelming majority of our constituents would have wanted us to do. It has reduced the age of consent for homosexuals, which I am sure a majority of our constituents did not want us to do. So whatever other good measures might be in the bill, I think it is so fundamentally flawed that it is not something I am prepared to vote for.''
Terry Dicks, another leading Conservative MP, said: ``Most people are against reducing the age of consent and in favor of capital punishment. What we have done is the reverse.''
The Guardian newspaper appeared to sum up the awkward position of the government when it commented in an editorial that ``any attempt by the Conservatives to reassemble the collapsed parts of its `back to basics' campaign will be met with derision.''