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When the going gets tough: Weaponising human rights

Tony Hockley

Tony Hockley PhD

Designation

Visiting Senior Fellow at The London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE) and Director, Policy Analysis Centre (PAC). The PAC provides analysis and advisory services across multiple sectors. It has built a strong reputation in the rigorous use of evidence and the development of innovative approaches to any policy or governance challenge. A former Special Advisor to the Major Government, Tony Hockley leads on public policy and behavioural projects, and is a regular contributor to media discussions of public policy www.policy-centre.com.

The path of progress in a democracy is rarely smooth, but the direction of travel is usually clear. The UK Government’s current weaponisation of transgender rights means that the Conservative Party in England has chosen again to step briefly aside from Britain’s path of social progress. It has created another Section 28 with which to be beaten. Regardless of this political tactic to generate a “culture war” the onward march of social change to a more inclusive and liberal society is unstoppable.

All major political parties in England have been committed to banning LGBTQ+ “conversion therapy” since 2018. It is a clear and very serious abuse of human rights. A ban was finally included in the Queen’s Speech of legislative measures in May 2021 and draft legislation published. A year later, the ban was caught up in a government decision to weaponise transgender inclusion as a political tool, and the Government announced that transgender people would be excluded from the ban.

Boris Johnson decided to package all transgender issues into a single blunt instrument: Answering a question on conversion therapy he argued, for example, that: “biological males should not be competing in female sporting events.” This weaponising of a vulnerable minority to achieve a Daily Mail “blast of common sense” will have lasting effects on the Conservatives’ reputation as a libertarian party of social reformers. Conservative MP, Alicia Kearns has argued that the decision conflicted with: “core Conservatives values. To protect the vulnerable from those who seek to harm them, and to ensure people have the freedom to live their lives as they wish.”

The “nasty party”

It will dismay many who chose to associate with the Party once it redeemed much of its reputation as the “nasty party” since the division of the Thatcher years. In the end, however, short-term political tactics will be trumped by Britain’s unstoppable social progress.

There will be many Conservatives inside and outside Parliament who will be deeply distressed by this regression. As a former conservative Special Adviser (SpAd), but never a party member, I have no choice but to share some of their pain. That pain is now very real as the Conservative Party has chosen once again to identify itself as the party standing out against social progress and individual liberty within its manufactured “culture war.”

I was tempted to take the SpAd job in the 1990s because I respected John Major and his new style of conservatism. I had previously worked for the Social Democratic Party and had helped establish the Social Market Foundation led by the late Lord Kilmarnock (a leading campaigner on HIV/AIDS).

In March 1991 my notes for the SDP Leader’s (David Owen) response in Parliament to Norman Lamont’s budget, were headlined: “this is the first social market budget.” Owen said: “The social priorities spelled out in this Budget are totally new for this Government.” Taking the SpAd role under John Major seemed to me a very natural progression given that my interest had been more in policy reform than in party politics.

Major’s subsequent descent into a paternalistic “back to basics” campaign, however, was another depressing step aside from the path of becoming a more progressive and inclusive party. It backfired spectacularly of course. Five years later Theresa May spoke truth to power when she said the Conservatives were widely seen as “the nasty party.” The party had to become relevant again in a changing Britain.

Cameron’s Compassionate Conservatism

A return to a more inclusive approach to politics felt a long time coming. In 2005, David Cameron’s bid for the Conservative leadership calling on the Tories to make a fundamental change of culture, to become a party “comfortable with modern Britain” and believing absolutely in “compassionate conservatism.” The seal on this fundamental change came in 2010 when the Conservatives published their first “Equality Manifesto”. Cameron has reflected on the legislation for same-sex marriage as one of his “proudest achievements”. It will now be for a future Prime Minister to take similar pride in banning conversion therapy.

Cameron also pressed the case that Conservative culture, not just Conservative policy had to shift: “When the going gets tough and the press attacks you after a couple of years and say this isn’t distinctive enough, who will dig into their core and say, “well that’s what I believe’?”

Weaponising human rights David Cameron compassionate conservatism
David Cameron passed the Equal Marriage Act in 2013.

Johnson’s defence of biological sex

In Spring 2022 Boris Johnson failed this test.

When the going got tough, when “Partygate” and other self-inflicted wounds hit ratings Downing Street looked for a new electoral weapon. They settled on transgender rights as their weapon of choice. It could batter Labour with some simple mantras: A defence of “biological sex” could become the new symbol of conservatism, in the same way that Section 28 and opposition to gay marriage had been before, as rallying calls to the core vote.

Like many, I admit that I believed that Boris Johnson’s record as Mayor of London suggested that he could be a compassionate conservative, whatever awful lines he had spun as a writer. I also argued that he might indeed be the right person to “get Brexit done”, finally delivering on the outcome of the UK’s biggest ever vote.

In 2019 many people like me brushed aside the revelation that the Conservatives had been polling “culture war” issues as a possible electoral weapon. This was surely more Cummings than Johnson?

But that polling has now been put into play. What was once “abhorrent” to the Prime Minister now seems a price worth paying for short-term popularity.

The nasty party is back. It may well get nastier as leadership candidates double down in their very own “back to basics” campaign.

The inevitable result is that the Conservatives will learn the hard way (again) that British public attitudes will continue to become more progressive and inclusive.

Safe to be me?

Downing Street coldly calculated that “the majority of people won’t care” when the Government’s global equality conference (a manifesto promise) was cancelled.

The unity of the response to the Government’s weaponisation of transgender rights was extraordinary. The LGBTQ+ community pulled together in outrage. The exclusion of transgender people from the proposed ban on “conversion therapy” was also condemned by the British Medical Association (BMA), British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy (BACP), British Psychological Society and the former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams. With the professional associations united in favour of a ban the effect was that any legitimate counsellor would already be barred from practising conversion therapy, leaving only charlatans to do this in the absence of a law to stop them.

The damage done to conservatism may last as long as the damage done by Section 28. More importantly, the likely collateral damage of this weaponisation is that people in England will now feel less safe to be themselves than they did a few weeks earlier; they will continue to be subjected to the horror of conversion therapy; and their tormentors will now feel they have the state on their side.

This retrenchment into an identity based on cultural conservatism is ironic at a time when Russia is waging war to return Ukraine to its autocratic (and homophobic) fold. Conservative Peer Danny Finkelstein wrote recently that: “It is Putin’s argument that our tolerance and openness make us weak and vulnerable. We must robustly respond that we are proud of our openness and modernity and his failure to embrace that will ultimately be his downfall.” Sadly, the response has been far from robust, and will give more succour to Putin in his twisted belief that he is on the right side of a “culture war.”

Change will happen

Governments have an important role to play in supporting incremental change for social good, the normative signals they send to society are important.

Governments can also be left trailing behind and render themselves obsolete. Majority public endorsement of gay marriage, for example, did not come in a seismic shift, or with the legislation, but progressively over two decades. Each step along the way helped build confidence that society would not collapse as the social norms (and legislation) progressed. Individual steps also appear to have positive spillover effects on inclusion more generally; evidence suggests, for example, that there has been a positive relationship between attitudes to same-sex marriage and acceptance of transgender people.

There has also been a very clear incremental change in attitudes to immigration, which have improved dramatically over a 40 year period. There was a huge disruption in this trend after EU enlargement, but the previously positive trend was restored post-Brexit. Legislation plays an important role in supporting this incremental growth of a more tolerant and inclusive society. These trends should give confidence that the new direction of the Conservative Party into a “culture war” seems another sad disruption, but the trend towards tolerance and inclusion will continue.

Whatever happens in the short-term, change will happen.

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