They were attacked as warmongers, threatened with deselection and despised by Neville Chamberlain, who branded them “the Glamour Boys”. Yet a new book has claimed that a group of gay MPs were among the first to warn Britain about the danger Hitler posed. Four of them later died in action.
The extraordinary untold story of gay and bisexual British politicians and their bravery in the second world war has been unearthed by Chris Bryant, Labour MP for Rhondda.
Without these parliamentary rebels sounding the alarm as early as 1932 and speaking and voting against Chamberlain’s policy of appeasement, Bryant argues, Britain “would never have gone to war with Hitler, Churchill would never have become prime minister and Nazism would never have been defeated”.
Using previously unseen documents, including diaries, private letters, photo albums and material found in the National Archives, Tate galleries and Eton College library, Bryant spent five years piecing together the stories of men whose sexuality and heroism has been excised from history until now.
From Jack Macnamara, the young Conservative MP for Chelmsford, and Ronnie Cartland, the younger brother of the novelist Barbara, to Victor Cazalet, a first world war hero, and Robert Bernays, a Liberal member of the national government, Bryant charts their alarm at Hitler’s territorial ambitions, prompted by their frequent trips to Berlin, then considered the most sexually liberated place in the world.
“Everyone was fascinated by Germany,” Bryant told the Observer. “There was the feeling that the country had been treated terribly by the Versailles treaty and it was time that Germany should be allowed to get up off his knees.
“So in this Weimar Republic, you had a phenomenal flourishing of bars and restaurants – which is what gave us Cabaret the movie – and lots of men went there two or three times a year.”
But the treatment of Jews and the assassination of homosexuals in Hitler’s purge of political opponents in the Night of the Long Knives in 1934 propelled the so-called Glamour Boys to vehemently oppose what they witnessed taking place. Swimming against the tide in their political and personal lives, the men risked exposure and imprisonment when they enlisted and became ardent campaigners for rearmament.
“We like to think we know the story of how Britain went to war in 1939, but this part of the story has never been told,” says Bryant. “And this hidden history matters because, for centuries, homosexual men have been portrayed as hedonistic, effeminate, limp-wristed, couldn’t catch a ball and that sort of thing. It was assumed they would be physically and morally weak.
“But [for these men] their sexuality was an essential aspect of their bravery, and they showed the courage of their convictions by enlisting.”
Homosexuality in Britain remained illegal until 1967, and the men lived their lives in practised subterfuge: ruffling bedsheets in a second bedroom to pretend their lover had slept there, changing pronouns from him to her and he to she to talk about their partners. Some married, as in the case of Bernays, whose two sons Bryant tracked down for what became a crucial trove of material.
“By definition, gay men’s private lives from the 1930s weren’t much documented – families conveniently left them out or got rid of their diaries and so on. Jack Macnamara’s brother, for instance, who was a famous RAF man in his own right, refused to inherit from Jack when he died [as an officer in Italy in 1944] because Jack was gay.”
Macnamara was MP for Chelmsford from 1935 until he died, and his personal assistant was the Soviet spy Guy Burgess. “Burgess told people that he went on sex trips with [Macnamara] in Nazi Germany. Now who’s not going to be intrigued by that sentence?”
Bryant, an author of six political histories, thought he might have to tell the story as a novel, but was amazed at how much he discovered through persistent digging. The former priest says his interest was piqued by the 23 shields in the House of Commons commemorating MPs killed in action. At least four of them, Bryant could confidently identify as “queer” in the modern sense.
“I’ve been very careful in the book not to overstate what I can prove or go beyond what I can state with certainty,” says Bryant. “But my working assumption has been that they had more sex than we know about. He hopes The Glamour Boys, published next month by Bloomsbury, will have an impact on the national curriculum and of what is and isn’t taught in school history lessons.
“Churchill gets all the credit all the time because that’s what he wrote. He was opposed to the policy of appeasement, and all the rest of it, but what nobody, I guess, would know is that half the time when Churchill and [Anthony] Eden were plotting with the rebels, roughly half the men in the room were ‘queer’. At the time, we had the most strict laws we’ve ever had on homosexuality, and dozens and dozens of people were being arrested all the time and going to prison. These men had their phones tapped, they risked exposure, but they were made of stern stuff.”
By the end of the decade, Berlin’s sexual liberation seemed all but over as gay men were sent to concentration camps. “Progress is never won permanently,” warns Bryant. “It is not linear and I hope people realise that parliamentary rebels are our most precious jewels.”