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Three-hour tailbacks at petrol stations; the Army on stand-by to drive tankers; an energy crisis; inflation casting its bleak shadow once more; the NHS still reeling from Covid and at breaking point. A gruelling convergence of social pressures, if ever there was one. So why, at Labour’s conference in Brighton, are the party’s most senior figures embroiled in controversy over trans rights?
The fuse was lit on Sunday when the BBC’s Andrew Marr asked Sir Keir Starmer whether Rosie Duffield, the Labour MP for Canterbury — who has felt unable to come to the conference — was right to say that “only women have a cervix”. Pressed on the matter, the Labour leader replied: “It is something that shouldn’t be said. It is not right.”
On LBC yesterday, shadow chancellor Rachel Reeves — normally the most eloquent of politicians — squirmed and spluttered her way through questions on the same subject from Nick Ferrari. “Look ... uh ... uh ... uh ... is it transphobic? ... uh ... look ... I don’t even know how to start answering these questions. I just don’t find them helpful … Why are we having to discuss parts of women’s anatomy on radio?”
On the BBC’s Politics Live, Emily Thornberry was more forthright. “There are men who have cervixes, there are men who are trans,” declared the shadow international trade secretary — and to claim otherwise was, she said, “factually inaccurate”. Meanwhile, the issue had become explicitly party political, as Sajid Javid, the Health Secretary, tweeted in response to Sir Keir’s original remarks: “Total denial of scientific fact. And he wants to run the NHS.” How has it come to this? There are, I think, three main reasons. First, the grip of social media on political discourse — the “Twitterfication” of democratic discussion — has drained public debate of nuance and subtlety.
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Meaningful political exchange is, to coin a phrase, non-binary: it explores complex questions and is unafraid of complex answers. But the tyranny of the hashtag has undermined that foundation stone of liberal democracy.
In response to the proposition #TransWomenAreWomen, one is permitted to answer only “yes” or “no” — in the full knowledge, that, if one is compelled to say “no” (because you think the matter is too multi-faceted to be reduced to an ideological purity test) you are liable to accused of “transphobia”.
Second, the trans debate stands proxy for a much broader argument about the nature of truth and reality. For decades, this argument was confined to academia — notably, the philosophy of post-modernist scholars who insisted that objective truth is a fantasy and that what we call “reality” is a social construct reflecting power relations.
So far, so abstract. But as the late Milton Friedman observed, “the ideas that are lying around” — often for many years — can suddenly enter the political mainstream in turbulent times. This is precisely what has happened in the era of digital revolution and identity politics. Increasingly, it has become normal to demand the right not only to define yourself (a reasonable expectation) but to insist that everyone else instantly conforms to your morphing perception of the truth (much less reasonable).
Deeply uncomfortable as it is for progressives to admit it, there is a direct line that connects the idea that a person is whatever gender they “feel” themselves to be and the claim of Donald Trump’s allies that they have “alternative facts”. If truth is infinitely malleable — if I am whatever I say I am, if “truth” is purely personal — then the basis of the scientific revolution collapses. Not surprisingly, there are some of us who are uneasy about this.
Third, and most importantly, an increasing number of women have had enough: inclusion is a noble ideal, but not if it means that women must be described euphemistically as “people who menstruate”, or “people who have a cervix”, and mothers referred to as “birthing parents”.
To counter Starmer: it must at least be sayable in the public space that only women have cervixes.
This is Duffield’s real point: how can it possibly be acceptable to stop referring to 51 per cent of the population by their biological sex? When, and by whom, was it agreed that this linguistic erasure of more than half the population was something that could proceed on the nod?
In fact, the politics of all this are huge. It is not a good idea for any party seeking office to risk alienating more than half of the electorate. No wonder the Labour leader and his colleagues look so uneasy.
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