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Friday, 4 May 2012

Stephen Brooke, Sexual Politics: Sexuality, Family Planning and the British Left from the 1880s to the Present Day (2011)

I read this book several months ago and in something of a rush, in order to be able to include some of its important insights into the final round of revisions to the new edition of Sex, Gender and Social Change, and have been meaning to do a somewhat more extended consideration of it ever since, a project significantly stymied by the arrival of various other commitments and deadlines demanding my time and energy.

This is certainly an extremely useful study. While some of the material in the earlier chapters was fairly familiar from previous work on the birth control and abortion law reform movements, Brooke brings some useful new analyses of the material by placing sexual politics in their long and often conflicted relationship to the more conventional political sphere (a nuanced and detailed working out of some of the issues I briefly delineated in my article in Socialist History, Vol 36, 2010, 'No Sex, Please, We're Socialists': The Labour Party prefers to close its eyes and think of the electorate') . Sexual Politics also provides a particularly valuable account of the rather less explored area of the various shifts taking place in political and social cultures around reproductive control, women, motherhood, and the family from the advent of the NHS to the C21st. Brooke makes some thought-provoking interventions into questions about periodisation and the place of continuities and co-existence of differing paradigms rather than abrupt hiatus and definite changes. The narrative also demonstrates shifts within political culture in response both to activism around sexual issues and to wider social change and new concepts of citizenship and what came to be included within the sphere of political activity.

Sexual Politics additionally constitutes a useful reminder of the tensions and conflicts and different levels of activity over these issues within the Labour Party itself. Although the title invokes 'the Left', the book focuses on the Labour Party, with a nod or two to the Communists, largely at the national level, though with an awareness of the significance of local groups and special interest campaigns. Brooke inscribes the importance of class in both the increasing acceptance of family planning as a licit concern of the left, culminating in the non-controversial permissive National Health Service Amendment (Family Planning) Act of 1967, and in the long reluctance, in spite of such pioneering socialist icons as Edward Carpenter, to consider homosexual law reform. This came about, arguably, more as one element within a smorgasbrod of liberalising reforms which the party, or at least, certain leading powerful figures (Brooke places Roy Jenkins as pivotal), saw as part of its agenda in the 1960s. Although most of these measures originated as private members' bills, governmental allocation of time for debate and help with drafting played an essential role in getting them through.

It would have been interesting (though this book already covers a great deal of territory) to have incorporated more about those causes described at the World League for Sexual Reform Congress in London in 1929 as the 'planks' in its 'platform': these included marriage reforms such as improved facilities for divorce as well as education for marriage, sex education of the young, and the abolition of censorship. Some of these aims were indeed achieved during the 'liberal moment' of the 1960s. But some were not. Sex education, for example, remains a contested and controversial issue. Some attention to these topics, the penumbra of sexual reform issues, might also have overcome the slight cynical feeling that occasionally arises that homosexuality could possibly have been included to extend the potential audience for the book by broadening its appeal beyond those concerned with reproductive politics (Brooke himself points out in the text that much of the territory of gay politics/left politics and their intersections since the 1967 Act has been ably mapped by Lucy Robinson in Gay Men and the Left). These were also issues which for which there is a narrative trajectory, rather than endless reiterations with little to show. There are indeed useful points of comparison and contrast illuminating the differing interests and agendas within Labour to be gained by taking these particular issues, and the choice undoubtedly pays off as the narrative is taken on to the initiatives of the 2000s.

(Many of the questions and points raised above are dealt with in much fuller detail and with greater nuance in the revised and expanded second edition of Sex, Gender and Social Change in Britain since 1880, now in press.)

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