“Dodge, duck, dip, dive, and dodge”. Johnson’s Vince Vaughn advice to the Cabinet about how to tackle trans.

29 Mar

When those two great publications The Daily Telegraph and Pink News  both agree something is significant, you naturally take note. The Spring Statement may have overshadowed last Wednesday’s PMQs, but one answer from the session has been touted as representing Julius Boris Caesar wading into the murky Rubicon of the UK’s ongoing gender wars.

Angela Richardson asked Johnson about the Cass Review into the children’s gender identity services at the Portman and Tavistock Clinic, requesting he meet with her to discuss helping young people “who are experiencing gender distress”.

The Prime Minister responded that whilst “we must recognise when people want to make a transition in their lives that they should be treated with the maximum possible generosity and respect”, and added that “when it comes to distinguishing between man and woman, the basic facts of biology remain overwhelmingly important”.

A few years ago, such a statement stressing the importance of both basic tolerance and basic biology would have been uncontentious. Yet the debate over transgenderism, self-identification, and its attendant implications for women’s rights has become so polarised that the Prime Minister was pillared by Stonewall and various trans activists.

But allegations of bigotry are hard to square with the words “maximum possible generosity and respect”, or the fact that – notorious 1998 comments about “tank-topped bumboys” asides – Johnson has been consistently progressive on LGBT+ issues.

He was one of the first Conservative politicians to back gay marriage, banned advertising for gay conversion therapy on the Tube as London Mayor, and nodded along vigorously as his wife listed Conservative successes in this area at last October’s Conservative Party Conference. He is hardly Section 28 in human form – an act that he broke the whip to repeal.

Instead, according to those who know his thinking on this personally, Johnson has a long-standing and nuanced position on the trans debate. Commentators who have treated Johnson’s PMQ’s comments as his first testing of the gender wars waters have missed that he used a similar formulation in an interview with GB News last year.

Asked if only women had cervixes – an issue his Opposition equivalent had struggled with – the Prime Minister’s response was hardly dripping in prejudice.  “Biology is very important,” he noted, “but we’ve got a system now in our country, for many, many years in which people… can change gender.” Moreover, “[we] help them to do that, and what I absolutely passionately believe – and I’ve thought this for a long time – is everybody should be treated with dignity and respect.”

It is an approach that he apparently replicates in Cabinet. He tells ministers to do two things. First, to copy Vince Vaughn in Dodgeball and to “dodge, duck, dip, dive, and dodge” the trans issue, to prevent opening a toxic culture war. He follows that with a simple exhortation: to be kind.

The desire for kindness motivates many Tories across this debate. Speaking to MPs on both sides, all are quick to stress that their motivation for their stance comes from a place of basic compassion. Whether they are championing gender self-identification or arguing to protect female-only spaces like refuges, all maintain their central objective is to make life easier for some of society’s most vulnerable.

There is widespread support across the party for taking practical measures to aid the average trans person in Britain. On average, as one MP told me, it takes three years for someone considering transitioning to get medical help and access to counselling. Speeding up that process would do much to make a lot of very unhappy people a little happier. These are measures that are supported, and separately suggested to me, by MPs publicly on different sides of the gender self-identification debate.

So if there is a large amount of consensus on these issues amongst Tories, why is the assumption still that it must be a divisive issue? Partially, it is because recent governments have made an active effort to push these issues forwards.

Consultations on reforming the law on gender self-identification were first launched by Theresa May’s government. Although Liz Truss decided against the need for legislation in that area, banning gay conversion therapy was a manifesto commitment in 2019, championed in the Commons by Alicia Kearns, and is likely to be put to a vote this coming year.

Simultaneously, questions of the implications of transgenderism for women’s rights have become regular headlines. A decade ago, stories about someone with a penis winning a female swimming race or of someone self-identifying as a woman committing a rape in a hospital would have seemed almost impossible.

That these are both from the last two weeks shows how trans issues have become part of the national conversation. A considerable number of elected officials privately, and a growing number publicly, are concerned by this, and worry that well-meaning efforts to help trans people may come at the cost of hard-won female rights.

Nevertheless, disputes also arise from participants in this debate talking at cross-purposes. A failure of communication is to blame if MPs from different sides can privately agree over the importance of improving healthcare access for trans people and keeping transwomen out of female-only sports, yet publicly appear poles apart.

Undoubtedly, culture warriors have an interest in riling things up for their fifteen minutes of fame. But the experience of Surrey’s Police and Crime Commissioner Lisa Townsend also indicates how conversations can be blunted through a fundamental failure to understand what the other side wants.

Townsend shared a Tweet of J. K. Rowling’s last year which suggested biologically male rapists were not female. Three men, including local MP Crispin Blunt, complained. Although Surrey’s Conservatives gave Townsend their overwhelming support, she was understandably aggrieved. Blunt had acted from a position of wanting to ensure trans people did not feel victimised – but Townsend has suggested his failure to mention women when reporting her showed that he did not understand that her actions came from a genuine desire to protect women’s’ rights, not blind prejudice.

That is the central issue. Those wishing to protect rights won by women over the last century confront those fighting to extend trans rights in this one. But there is hope that this can be done without public acrimony.

Polling suggests the Prime Minister’s attitude is very similar to that of the general public – supportive, but conscious of issues surrounding biology in particular circumstances, whether the velodrome or female prisons. With a consensus over the importance of practical improvements to help trans people, and as Labour’s frontbench still struggle to define what a woman is or whether they can have a penis, the government – and the Conservative party as a whole – have an excellent opportunity to lead the way.

The blue-on-blue row between Blunt and Townsend over trans – and big questions about free speech and public service.

20 Jan

Yesterday, readers of this site may have spotted an interesting article in UnHerd, titled “Inside the Tory trans civil war”. It documents a dispute between Lisa Townsend, the Police and Crime Commissioner for Surrey (and a columnist for ConservativeHome) and Crispin Blunt, the Conservative MP, both of whom, it could be said, represent opposite sides of the trans debate. 

Townsend believes that gender and sex shouldn’t be conflated, and that self-identification creates risks in women’s spaces. Blunt, as Bartosch puts it, “believes that it is discriminatory to exclude those who are male but identify as trans from women’s services and spaces.” As well as being Chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on LGBT+ rights, he is the MP for Reigate, Surrey (in other words, he and Townsend share a patch).

Their disagreement on trans issues came to a head when Townsend retweeted JK Rowling (see below) with a supportive comment. Blunt phoned Townsend to complain – as he had done previously when she had taken part in an interview criticising Stonewall – to make his feelings known.

But this time, after she yet again did not heed his advice, he wrote a complaint letter to the Chair of the Surrey Police and Crime Panel.

Here is an extract from it:

“The PCC’s messaging propagates dangerous myths that trans women represent a physical threat to cisgender women and, in its refusal to recognise individual’s gender identities, fundamentally undermines the dignity of trans people.”

I’ve caught up with Blunt and Townsend since UnHerd’s piece was published, to explore the matter even further. Here’s what they said:

Blunt’s account

When I speak to Blunt, a few things transpire. The first is that he seems genuinely regretful about his disagreement with Townsend. “Personally, I’m wretched about it because she used to work for me”, he says. He doesn’t like the implication that he was “bullying her”, and told her “I’m very sorry about what I’m going to have to do” (write the complaint).

Blunt clearly found Townsend’s tweet offensive, but another reason he complained surrounds the remit of a Police and Crime Commissioner. Blunt thinks Townsend is “perfectly entitled” to her views.

But, in her role, “she’s given a position where there are responsibilities to the public for policing in Surrey…we don’t want trans people feeling they’re not getting a proper service from the police” because of a PCC’s views. He thinks Police and Crime Commissioners cannot be vocal on the trans debate in the same way that MPs are, since they have parliamentary privilege.

He ultimately thinks that Townsend “is in breach of her personal obligations under public sector equality duty”, and that the matters she had been opinionated on are “dealt with in the Equality Act, where you’re able to make reasonable judgements about when you can exclude transwomen, for example, from women-only spaces like refugee spaces and prisons.”

Blunt says he wants to “lower the temperature” of the debate, and that he isn’t pushing for attention on the matter.

Townsend’s account

In much the same way that Blunt feels the this row has been foisted upon him, Townsend got into the trans debate by circumstance. In her campaign to be PCC, she said the “single biggest issue in the inbox” was concerns about conflation of sex and gender, self-identification and the Gender Recognition Act, among other issues, and their implications.

Townsend said there was a “concerted” effort among “well organised” campaigners – and otherwise – to bring these issues to PCCs’ attention and find out their views on the protection of women’s spaces. However, her four male competitors did not respond. She agreed with campaigners that “this is really concerning” and – part coincidence or not – soon won.

Townsend, about whom the Police and Crime panel has received 40 complaints since she did an interview criticising Stonewall, said she told Blunt (when he phoned about the tweet): “I am fed up of men telling me not to talk about this, and I am representing my constituents” – adding that this includes Blunt’s constituents, who write to her also about their worries. She says she was taken back by Blunt’s “arrogance and entitlement” when he rang, as she is an “elected politician” with a “duty to talk about these things.”

I ask if part of the reason for the disagreement is that she and Blunt both represent Surrey. They are two people with very different views in one area. She can see this point, but tends to think the explanation might be more that “having been a young woman that worked for him many years ago, I don’t know whether he finds it easier to call me up and tell me to do stop doing stuff or give me orders”.

What does one make of all this? Surely one takeaway is that the culture war cannot be considered a “left” or “right” issue; highly contentious ideological battles are taking place within the Conservative Party, with no signs of going away and massive implications for our society.

But here are, perhaps, two questions to take away:

  • How opinionated are PCCs allowed to be?
  • Is the wording of the Equality Act clear enough?

Alec Cadzow: Global Britain must be prepared to intervene in the Middle East

15 Jan

Alec Cadzow is Researcher to ex-FCDO Middle East & North Africa Minister Dr Andrew Murrison MP. He previously worked for a consultancy in Jordan and specialised in Middle Eastern history at St Andrews University before that.

Parliament has returned from recess (third time lucky), now a fully sovereign entity and ready to forge a new future as a “Global Britain” – a subject which was aptly debated on Monday.

A catchy slogan, but what does it mean? Remainers have often assumed Brexit would usher in a foreign policy of not-so-splendid isolationism, at least in practice.

Conservatives must ensure the contrary, and while Monday’s debate was understandably trade-centric, a mixture of realpolitik and principle will demand that Britain does not neglect the Middle East – which has been conspicuously absent from our foreign policy discourse.

In terms of realpolitik, we have seen how 21st century military actions (or lack thereof) can have blowback on the UK’s influence.

This is particularly the case in Syria, where a pass has been granted to malign powers in our absence.

The failed 2013 vote to approve military action in the wake of Assad’s chemical weapons attack was largely down to mistrust on Middle Eastern intervention caused by the Iraq war, as Philip Hammond then Defence Secretary noted.

This event caused Obama to hesitate before outsourcing the dismantling of Assad’s chemical weapons stockpile to Russia, despite such an attack infamously representing a “red line”. Obama (and the imminently incumbent Biden) was haunted by Iraq – having been elected on a pledge to bring troops home from “endless wars.”

Now, a looming pyrrhic military victory for Assad will bring a pax Russica (with the Iranian theocrats and neo-Ottoman Turks fighting for scraps). Putin sees himself as the Tsar-like protector of the Orthodox Christians and he used the war to eliminate the domestic blight of Chechen Islamists – doing so by opening up the Caucuses (a textbook authoritarian move which both Assad and Saddam employed).

So, Britain, as a result of its inertia – itself largely attributable to a hangover from Iraq – now finds itself without leverage (except for within the superficial – in this case – diplomatic channels of the UN) which has only empowered our enemies.

Indeed, such avoidance has not been atypical, as Tom Tugendhat MP chastised Britain’s abstention from an important UN vote on Iran – itself a symptom of our uneasy relationship with the EU. We can now diverge.

Realpolitik dictates that we must always be asking “if not us, then who?” As well as Russia, Iran and Turkey, there’s the threat from illiberal China extending its Middle Eastern nexus through Belt and Road. This is a power whose facilitators include the EU, and who many Conservatives – including my MP – want to restrain. Unshackled from the EU, one way to ensure we don’t facilitate Chinese hegemony is through not abstaining from the Middle East.

It’s also pragmatic to pay attention to the Middle East because of our security interconnectedness.

Destabilisation abroad, the proliferation of refugees, and extremism at home are interrelated. The statistic that more British Muslims fought for Da’esh than were in the British Army’s ranks at the peak of the former’s power hints at our problems with integrating – particularly Muslim – immigrants.

The 2015 vote to approve military action in Syria came directly after the Paris attacks, as we belatedly realised that non-intervention had empowered terrorists who brought the fight to us.

France understands these consequences, which is why they lead in the Sahel. Current Defence Secretary Ben Wallace MP says he sees them too. However, if it really matters, we can do more than to deploy 250 reconnaissance troops to the UN’s Mali peacekeeping mission (MINUSMA).

There are also principles – intangible values and a complex, interwoven history – which interlock Conservatives with the Middle East.

Edmund Burke, the oft-quoted “father of modern conservatism”, was a popular figure among key Iranian reformers during the 1905 Constitutional Revolution, out of which constitutional limits were applied to the despotic Qajar monarchy. Reformers preferred the stability of gradual change – aspiring to the inherent conservatism which had created British political systems and values – rather than the destructive nature of a French-style overhaul of the Ancien Régime.

At a time when American democracy looks fragile – something which has been made fun of by antithetical regional and global leaders – Britain’s stable constitutional monarchy can provide a blueprint to reformers, many of whom live in absolute monarchies.

We are, however, compelled to remember Britain’s legacy from another perspective.

We often failed to live up to our political principles through our actions. In the case of Iran, two years after the Revolution, the Anglo-Russia Pact divided the country into spheres of influence, granting Russia the revolutionary north where political gains were quickly reversed. We would later contrive a new dynasty – the Pahlavi – and engineer two coups to keep it in power.

Another case is the Levant. The multiple promises we made to Arabs, our French allies, and Zionists during World War One were mutually exclusive and we were unable to appease every party during the Paris peace process. Having lived in Jordan – where it’s estimated 60 per cent of the population is Palestinian – I experienced first-hand some of the animosity held towards Britain borne out of the Sykes-Picot Agreement and Balfour Declaration which reneged on promises to create an autonomous Greater Syria governed by an Arab monarch. Our actions famously tormented T.E. Lawrence “of Arabia” in his post-war years too.

This is not to say policy makers should be drawn to the region out of imperial guilt. Instead, Global Britain provides an opportunity to align our values with our actions, and due to our history with the Middle East, where better to demonstrate this?

Some might argue a manifestation of this policy means we must cut ties with Saudi Arabia, after human rights abuses at home and abroad. Others reply that they provide us with valuable intelligence, and fill Treasury coffers through defence spending. Nuance would be leveraging the latter to positively affect the former, an argument Crispin Blunt MP has convincingly made.

It’s clear that we are obliged by too many pragmatic factors and historical-ideological principles to retreat to isolationism regarding the Middle East. Backbenchers and policy-makers alike ought to realise this as the new era of a Global Britain begins.

Radical: While political leaders hide from confrontation, activists are winning the war on self-identification

18 Aug

Victoria Hewson is a solicitor and co-founder of Radical, a campaign for truth and freedom in the gender recognition debate. She and Rebecca Lowe, her co-founder, alternate authorship of this column on trans, sex and gender issues.

Regardless of commitments about a summer announcement, Parliament went into recess without any further clarity from Liz Truss on the Government’s plans for reform of the Gender Recognition Act. Nonetheless, there has been no let up in the debate.

It had been expected that the changes to the law that the May government had consulted on – which would have allowed people to change their legal sex without a medical diagnosis, or evidence of having lived for some time as a member of the opposite sex – would be abandoned by the current Westminster government.

In Scotland, reforms of the law to this effect in are still expected to proceed, after having been put on hold during the Covid crisis. But the signs had been pretty clear for months that Westminster had decided against so-called “self-ID” for England and Wales.

In the weeks before recess, however, trans rights activists became ever more vocal in their efforts to mobilise support for self-ID. Publications such as Pink News worked hard, misusing survey data (and misrepresenting the current law), to try to create the impression of a country in which the vast majority of people favoured self-ID, and with it the ability for male-bodied transwomen to use women-only facilities. As ever, mainstream-media reporting too often went along with this false narrative.

Perhaps the influence of these activist groups is one reason for the Government’s delay in confirming its position formally, as promised. After all, government departments and quangos, from the Cabinet Office to the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC), have signed up to receive guidance and training from Stonewall, through its Diversity Champions programme – and Stonewall is a highly political organisation, which has been lobbying the Government particularly strongly on trans issues.

Transactivist talking points have also been adopted by representatives within the Conservative Party. Many common examples of transactivist misinformation can be found in this piece by Crispin Blunt and Sue Pascoe, for instance – ironically, in a section devoted to “myth-busting”. So it would not be surprising if the Minister for Equalities has faced the pressure of opposition from within the party over her rethink on pushing forward with self-ID.

The EHRC itself joined the fray last week. Not, however, as might have been hoped, to clarify and improve its guidance on the existing laws protecting women that have been the subject of widespread misunderstanding (as seen in the Blunt and Pascoe piece referred to above). But, rather, to publish another tendentious survey, and remonstrate with its respondents who didn’t support transwomen’s access to women-only spaces and services.

Whilst she acknowledged that a great majority of British people broadly support trans people’s rights to live free of discrimination, and do not consider themselves to be transphobic, Rebecca Hilsenrath, EHRC’s chief executive, also noted that “people were found to be less supportive of trans people in specific situations”. The specific situations in question included women’s refuges and facilities such as public toilets.

Yet far from acknowledging that there are good reasons, and legal support, for such views, Hilsenrath seems to consider that the people holding them need to be helped to change their minds, by bringing about a better “level of understanding on the key facts surrounding the debate” by “both sides improving the level of discourse”.

This seems, again, rather ironic considering the poor guidance the EHRC has published on the legal facts of the matter. Indeed, although Hisenrath called for a constructive, tolerant, and fact-based dialogue on law and policy, it seems very clear what the EHRC considers to be the “right” outcome of any dialogue.

In a recent thoughtful piece for The Spectator, James Kirkup called for the Government to take the sting out of the issue by first publishing a “drily technical” announcement that: self-id would be dropped, tweaks made to existing processes regarding legal sex changes, to make them faster and cheaper; and, proper clarity provided in guidance on single-sex provisions. Then the “wider issues” of “reconciling conflicting rights and addressing the woefully poor evidence-base on trans issues, should be kicked even further into the long grass, with a proper fact-finding ‘further investigation’ that must report before any major change can come”.

Now, apart from the fact that what Kirkup considers would be an undramatic, “technical” announcement is, in effect, exactly what the trans lobby have been campaigning against – and publicly positing as a “rolling back” of trans rights – this calm approach seems sensible.

However, it comes with risks. Conservative governments have not traditionally been good at making conservative appointments, and trans lobbyists and activists have excelled at capturing public bodies. There is surely a serious risk, therefore, that any investigative commission, instead of fearlessly finding and reporting on the truth in medical and legal matters, would be susceptible to the same forces that have caused scientific papers to be withdrawn, and legal “guidance” to distort the law.

Certainly, however, there is no reason for Boris Johnson or Liz Truss, or Keir Starmer for that matter, to get personally involved in the unedifying social-media gender wars. But, it is also the case that they should not allow themselves to get caught up in the “both sides are equal” fallacy that the EHRC and others have been perpetuating.

Legal rights associated with sex have become a political matter, whether we like it or not, and a Conservative government should not hide from making necessary political decisions to acknowledge the reality of sex, and the legal and policy considerations that flow from that. In real life, public bodies continue to adopt policies that are in conflict with current law. Yet these decisions seem to undergo little or no consultation or scrutiny – until, as seen with the spate of legal action against guidance to schools, brave individuals stand up and challenge them.

NHS Lanarkshire recently announced an HR protocol , which effectively makes staff changing rooms mixed sex, included people who dress as the opposite gender for “erotic pleasure” under the umbrella of “trans”, and by claims that staff could be discriminating against trans colleagues by “not thinking” of them as the gender they present.  A Labour MSP who tried to hold NHS Lanarkshire to account over this, and who questioned how a medical organisation could propagate the idea of a baby having its gender “assigned at birth”, was met with calls that she should be disciplined by her party.

These are the consequences of political leaders leaving the field. Hiding behind a commission of experts, therefore, in order to avoid offending the groups of highly engaged and influential activists who have occupied that field, would itself be a political decision, and one that seems unlikely to improve the quality of the debate.