If you identify as a white, middle-class, straight liberal male, it has often been possible over the last few decades to regard the consequences of British politics, particularly the negative consequences, as something “out there”. You might cluck and tut about the treatment of the mining industry, or the privatisation of the railways, or the toughening of the benefits system, or the introduction of Section 28, but from a sympathetic distance as it doesn’t necessarily affect you. Or feels like it doesn’t.
If, on the other hand, you identify as a woman of transgender history, have an understanding of how society has seen and treated gender variant people, and find yourself on the receiving end of the consequences of political decisions, you may feel rather differently and more directly affected. I, of course, have been in both situations. I can recognize in retrospect that my denial of self until relatively recently was partly shaped by my perception of how people like me were regarded and treated, so it felt safer to delude myself that I was not that sort of person. But there was also a comfort, however uneasy I felt with myself, about taking refuge in the privilege which flows from being regarded as a conventional white male from a decent Home Counties background, don’t you know? I had to decide to risk walking away from that comfort, and then do it. And in all the ways that count, things feel much better now, but I can still see that safe haven of the majority in the distance, and although elements of my privileged life remain in place (economic privilege, for example), other elements are now forever denied to me. And I can see the fragility of concept and argument on which much privilege is based.
The experience does, therefore, have a tendency to shake up your politics. I have always been left-ish, a Guardian reader since college days, but not what you call an activist. However I have never quite understood that often observed tendency to become less radical as you get older. It seems to me that the more you know about the world, the more injustice you are likely to come across and if anything, you get more angry. I’m with Tony Benn on that one, who famously said he was retiring from the House of Commons to become more involved with politics.
This is not, however, to big myself up as some political powerhouse. I’m not – not least because I realize that in some ways my political knowledge and philosophy has formed in a soft-edged, slightly muddled way. The other thing that happens as you get older is you realize how much you don’t know. Come on, admit it to yourself … that way lies wisdom, of a sort. Certainly though, owning up to my transness, being prepared to explore it and look it in the eye a bit more, meeting other trans and genderqueer people, hearing a lot of different stories first-hand rather than through the media .. that has helped me to realize a bit more how things operate. Trying to take control of the medical elements of my transition, after being the recipient of some particularly grim NHS treatment when younger (and feeling powerless at the time to resist the abuse I was put through) has made me realize that even though the last Government improved things for trans people, they did so in a flawed and limited way, as I wrote for the Guardian last spring.
It has been very interesting – let’s leave it at that nice, neutral word – to experience first-hand how the political and medical establshment treats a relatively small minority group. That’s not to say that there isn’t a lot of good practice out there. In fact it’s a very mixed bag but things have been slowly getting better, although it remains to be seen what impact the proposed radical reorganization of the NHS will have on medical support for trans people. However even the liberal end of the political establishment tend to approach minorities from a paternalistic, top-down way, focussing on our difference, rather than our commonality with the majority.
There have been positive signs. In the current UK Government, some Lib-Dem ministers are looking at building on, and improving the way that minorities are supported and enabled, which at one level feels like a good thing. But this has to be set against the sense that we seem to be on the verge of a huge unpicking and rolling-back of the post-war social consensus, a set of changes that, if implemented, will make Margaret Thatcher seem warm, cuddly and inclusive by comparison.
I’m amazed at the number of people who don’t see this, as the Government’s intention seem to me so naked, but of course they have also used the smokescreen of making the deficit about Labour financial incompetence in all their utterances, glossing over how bankers and mortgage lenders the world over were behaving like the most desperate of Atlantic City gamblers. The Labour Government were far from blame-free but the size of the deficit is due to the funds required to stabilize our financial systems, rather than profligate public spending.
However, one can argue this until the cows come home. My anxiety is not about the name-calling, but rather how it is being used to depict the current Government as “trapped” by its financial circumstances, and therefore being forced into action that, in point of fact, the Conservatives wanted to take anyway. They are simply aided by the combination of the smokescreen they have created by “blaming” Labour, combined with the support of the Liberal Democrats, who we used to see as warm and fuzzy. Guess what, some of them aren’t!
We have been sold the Coalition “no choice” line so effectively in the early stages of this Government, while the consequences of their actions are not yet evident, that they have been sneaking through the most colossal set of regressive policies ever contemplated by the post-war Government. In addition though, they are not particularly well thought-through. Let’s take the recent Bonfire of the Quangos. Whatever you might think of particular organisations who have been either wound up or had funding severely cut, does it seem credible that after less than six months in office, the Government could have formed such a comprehensive view of non-governmental organisations that it could take an axe to so many of them, so quickly? Ironically, as they cut public sector jobs they point to jobs created earlier in the year as evidence that the private sector will fill the employment gap created – but they have not been in office long enough to have engineered such benefits, so economic improvements seem likely to be as a result of the previous Government’s policies, which are now held up to such ridicule. I can remember Vince Cable’s insightful dissection of the behaviour of the bankers while in opposition, and speculating wildly, hopefully, what might happen were he ever to find himself actually in Government. Well, we bloody well know now what would happen, and it isn’t what we expected …
At least voices are raised in doubt about the likely social impact of a huge raft of policies – most recently concerns about the impact of housing policy raised by the Chartered Institute of Housing, the Archbishop of Canterbury, and others. As someone working in a university I am rather stunned at the naked philistinism of removing teaching funding for everything except STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering and maths). Never in living memory has a Government brandished its limited worldview and narrow, nakedly capitalistic values so openly.
I am not an expert political commentator – not even an inexpert one really. But being involved, however modestly, in efforts to improve things for LGBT folk, I realize that part of the reason this Government is acting so freely is that the value of the ballot box has been diminished, in part by the kind of debates that are allowed and those that aren’t, in a media landscape increasingly dominated by Murdochian self-interest and a relationship between the establishment and media and business barons that is too, too close. This closeness allows certain language or concepts to be ruled out of debate, or ridiculed, so we can’t even begin to have certain types of public discussion. This is, by some margin, the least representative Government we have had for many years, but it acts as if it has been given the most phenomenal mandate, rather than no mandate at all.
The political system and the media need to be reformed, urgently. As does political funding, particularly in relation to media spend in election campaigns. I mentioned that some liberal commentators don’t see trans people as real people. Well, some people in Government don’t see most citizens as real people – just problems to be solved by back of the envelope thinking, shoved through on the nod. If the Coalition survives, we may all be in deep trouble before long.