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Sir Chris Bryant warns of ‘delicate’ freedoms as he discusses new book James and John

Sir Chris Bryant MP and James and John
Sir Chris Bryant MP and James and John (Image: Ander McIntyre and Bloomsbury)

The Labour MP, Sir Chris Bryant, has warned that the freedoms enjoyed in 2024 are “delicate” and “fragile” as he discussed his upcoming book.

In James and John: A True Story of Prejudice and Murder, the MP for the Rhondda delves into the archives to examine how two gay men, James Pratt and John Smith, came to be hung for sodomy and buggery when many of their contemporaries were given a reprieve.

The book, painstakingly studied and intricately detailed in its account of 1830s London, demonstrates that in Bryant’s words: “It takes a whole country to hang a man.” Expanding on this he says, “You’ve got to have crowds who want a public execution, you’ve got to have a judicial system that enables it. You’ve got to have a police force that enforces it and a parliamentary system that retains those laws.”

In other words, it’s “judicial murder.” The case for this is made stronger when Bryant documents the ‘hanging’ cabinet, when the Recorder of London, in this case a despicable man by the name of Charles Ewan Law (also an MP) presented his report to the King’s Privy Council. It was Law’s own views and decisions to omit key evidence and pleas for clemency for James and John that sealed the two men’s fates.

“He [Law] wanted a hanging,” says Bryant. “He hadn’t had a hanging as Recorder, and he wanted one. The first thing he did when he was elected as an MP earlier that year is table an amendment to try and make it easier to get convictions for homosexuality.” Bryant adds of Law, “He certainly failed in his duty to present all the proper evidence.”

“Freedom is a fragile, delicate flower”

Speaking to Attitude ahead of the book’s release (15 February) Bryant touches on the mixed emotions he felt as he wrote the book. “There’s a sense of anger in me about what happened. But also a terrible sadness because if [James and John] had been caught a year or two later, they probably wouldn’t have been hanged.” Pointing to The Reform Act of 1832, changes to Parliamentary elections, and newly created prison inspectors Bryant says “So many things were changing, but so many things had not yet changed. That’s a terribly poignant part of the story.”

James and John was a natural progression for Bryant after his previous book The Glamour Boys, which looked at a group of gay MPs in the 1930s who opposed the appeasement of Adolf Hitler. Looking into the laws around homosexuality, which dated back to the Napoleonic era and in some cases weren’t repealed until 2003, Bryant came across James and John.

Among the details to shock Bryant was that Lord John Russell, hailed by Bryant as a “liberal hero” being the architect of the Reform Act, failed to intervene to save James and John as Home Secretary. He would eventually go on to support removing the death penalty for sodomy in 1861. But what seems to have surprised Bryant more was everyone seems to have forgotten that homosexuality existed between well-reported cases in the 1720s and that of Oscar Wilde in the 19th Century.

“We have to keep reminding ourselves that it’s good that everyone should be treated equally under the law”

“It’s like homosexuality completely disappeared in between those two periods. That’s one of the things I’ve tried to do in the book is give an impression of a different period when there was a very strong moral panic going on in the country. This was partly inspired by people like William Wilberforce, who, of course, campaigned to get rid of slavery, but at the same time, part of his moral campaign was the suppression of vice. At the top of the list was sodomy.”

Throughout the book Bryant does a good job of highlighting attitudes in 1835 that persist today. A fear of men being seen as anything other than heterosexual and cisgendered, the humiliation of LGBTQ+ people, and stigma all exist today as they did then. We can argue about the extent but, as Bryant highlights, when you’ve got the President of Burundi calling for gay people to be stoned, it’s hard to argue that attitudes have completely changed.

The point is made in the book that we have not progressed as far as some might think. Just because we have gay marriage and civil partnerships doesn’t mean those are set in stone. “I think freedom is a fragile, delicate flower,” Bryant opines. “And you need to watch it all the time.”

“You watch Strictly and see what most people in the country think”

He adds, “I worry about some politicians, who I don’t think really support same-sex marriage at all, or civil partnerships and resort rather quickly to language about ‘epidemics’. Here Bryant is referencing comments by the UK government’s Minister for Women and Equalities, Kemi Badenoch, who said in December 2023 there is “an epidemic of young gay children being told that they are trans.” Bryant continues, “When it comes to culture wars, in most cases, that is either a kind of fundamentalism that I loathe or it is a cynicism which is even worse.” Bryant rejects the use of such “irresponsible language.”

With this climate of fearmongering, is Bryant concerned about developments slipping and our freedoms regressing? “I think it’s the settled opinion of the British people that people should be allowed to get married. You watch Strictly and see what most people in the country think. They’re much more liberally minded than some from the far right would suggest. So I hope we’re all right. But we have to keep reminding ourselves that it’s good that everyone should be treated equally under the law.”

James and John: A True Story of Prejudice and Murder by Sir Chris Bryant MP is available from Thursday 15 February.

The post Sir Chris Bryant warns of ‘delicate’ freedoms as he discusses new book James and John appeared first on Attitude.