It was always going to be difficult for Theresa May’s government to secure a legacy beyond Brexit. With the negotiations running into difficulty, it becomes all the harder. Ministers must avoid, however, resorting to well-meant gestures which open the government to ridicule. Take, for instance, the revelation that Britain has insisted on the UN’s International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights making reference to pregnant transgendered people — although it now denies that it objected to the term ‘pregnant women’. The purpose of the relevant clause is deeply serious — to dissuade malignant regimes from subjecting pregnant women to the death penalty. Britain’s approach, by contrast, has an air of frivolity which might be expected from a student union rather than Her Majesty’s government. It demanded the clause make provision for transgender people who might become pregnant while identifying as a man: something which has apparently occurred twice in Britain.
Couching a document in the latest fashionable terms of inclusivity is unlikely to impress anyone in Riyadh, Beijing, Tehran or anywhere else where the death penalty is still used with abandon but where autocratic regimes might just be nudged by a strongly worded UN covenant into behaving a little better towards their citizens. It is hard to interpret the government’s initiative in any light other than that of domestic British politics. It is an opportunistic attempt to outdo Labour and plant a flag deep in an opposition heartland — that of the LGBT lobby.
In this it fits a pattern recognisable in several recent initiatives. The Office for National Statistics has suggested that the next census, in 2021, will exclude a question on gender altogether, so as not to make transgender people feel uncomfortable. GPs have been asked to start inquiring about patients’ sexual orientation from April 2018 so that this can ‘become part of the record’ — regardless of whether the question is relevant to their health. We have also had the race audit — in which a Labour MP, David Lammy, was commissioned to examine racial discrimination in the criminal justice system. He found no firm evidence of it, but did not say so in his report, instead concluding that Britain was guilty of ‘overt discrimination’.
A Conservative government’s approach to issues of race, gender and sexuality should be one of straightforward liberalism. It should loudly assert that all people are equal, whatever their religious or ethnic background. It should be defending the right of people to have no government interference in their private lives. At the same time, it should be defending the right to religious freedom and free speech, while showing intolerance of bullying of any kind.
The agenda being followed by this government is something quite different. Ministers are simply pandering to whichever pressure group shouts loudest. It would be absurd to have GPs demanding information about our sexual preferences, while the census fails to collect data on how many men and women there are in Britain. The latter, surely, is information fundamental to planning for future public services and predicting future population growth. The former is none of the government’s business. The only reason it has got itself into such a bizarre position is that in the first instance it listened to that branch of the LGBT lobby which sees data as a means of furthering its objectives; while in the second it listened to that section of the trans lobby which wants the concepts of ‘male’ and ‘female’ eradicated for good.
It is understandable that the Conservatives should feel the need to reach out to young voters, so drastic was their drop in the share of the under-40s vote at the last election. But trying to indulge in crass identity politics is bound to be fruitless: it is impossible to satisfy the competing demands of all minority interest groups. Feminists have been outraged at the suggestion of watering down the concept of femininity — with good reason, campaigners have pointed out the dangers of allowing anyone to define their gender at whim. If a man could decide to be a woman simply by filling in a form, he would have instant access to women’s changing rooms, women’s refuges, women’s sporting competitions and other places which many quite properly want to keep as all-female preserves.
Theresa May was sensitive to the Conservatives’ ‘nasty’ image long before David Cameron attempted to ‘detoxify’ the party through issues such as gay marriage. It was as party chairman that she made her famous conference speech in 2002 imploring members to modernise their attitudes. Yet even after gay marriage the Conservatives are still damned as the nasty party — and they will be whatever they think or do, because it serves the opposition to place them as such.
Conservatives have shed the young vote not through a failure to bend to minority and grievance politics but for a far more fundamental reason — the economy is currently working against the young. Few can afford to buy property and many struggle to find jobs which justify the debts they have built up on university education. Those are the issues which Theresa May’s government needs to address.