The PM sees votes in a culture war over trans rights, but this issue must transcend party politics | Gaby Hinsliff

Last Sunday saw one of the biggest protests outside Downing Street in years.

It wasn’t over Ukraine, or the soaring heating bills some fear will eventually push us into social unrest, or even the growing crisis in British hospitals. It was over what should have been a small, if sensitive, legislative change improving a relatively handful of lives, which has somehow been blown up into the kind of mutually destructive culture war that burns everyone it touches. And thereby hangs a tale about how not to fight the next general election, for all our sakes.

This particular protest was over the government’s long-promised ban on conversion practice, a grim form of quackery involving trying to “cure” LGBT people of their orientation or identity. Threats to dump it from the forthcoming Queen’s speech triggered such a backlash in Tory ranks that a U-turn was announced within hours – but only for lesbian, gay and bisexual people. Trans people will be excluded, at least in England, pending further examination of claims that a loosely worded ban might deter therapists from properly exploring children’s reasons for questioning their gender identity. (Scotland is expected to proceed with a full ban, and Wales is examining options for doing so.)

Such claims deserve to be taken seriously but they’re not new, having been raised by the Equality and Human Rights Commission this January and long before that by gender-critical campaigners. The British Medical Association, plus other professional bodies that regulate counseling, supports a full ban and ministers have repeatedly argued that any concerns could be resolved in the usual way – by careful wording when the bill is drafted.

Yet Downing Street still changed its mind at the 11th hour without even consulting its own equalities ministers, shattering the already fragile trust in its intentions. The result is a flagship LGBT rights policy that has offended and distressed many LGBT people – attempts to split trans rights from gay ones are widely interpreted as an attempt to divide and conquer, leaving trans people vulnerable and isolated. A backbench rebellion is now brewing among Tory MPs who are tired of never quite knowing where they stand.

Whatever happened to the new year shake-up of Downing Street that had been meant to bring order to the chaos? Even a planned summit on LGBT rights this summer – a Tory manifesto commitment designed to encourage progressive change in countries where homosexuality is still shrouded in taboos – had to be scrapped after British gay rights groups withdrew support in protest.

Many are suspicious, too, of a U-turn announced on the eve of difficult local elections. As the Conservative MP for Rutland and Melton Alicia Kearns put it: “This ban isn’t some new woke frontier for politicians to weaponise in some culture they think is vote-winning.”

The government’s LGBT business champion resigned and some predicted the prime minister’s personal envoy on LGBT rights, the former Tory MP Nick Herbert, would follow. But instead he released a thoughtful, if exasperated, statement that deserves a wider hearing, calling for a cross-party independent royal commission on trans rights issues to stop them being further weaponised for political advantage.

“Some may tell the government that this is a political opportunity for a wedge issue, but this would be deeply unwise,” he wrote, noting pointedly that opinion polling shows Britons are tired of ideological punch-ups over trans rights and want to see politicians respond with kindness and practical solutions. But Herbert was equally critical of what he called Stonewall’s penchant for “boycotts and shouty protests,” reflecting frustration among some Tories with a style of activism they think alienates potential allies. His conclusion is that a judge-led commission, free to go wherever the evidence takes it on issues such as teenagers transitioning or the inclusion of trans women in elite female sport, may now be Britain’s best hope of avoiding a viciously full-blown American- style culture war.

Ironically, that’s what many hoped Herbert himself would do when he was appointed last May. Back then, Johnson had been convinced that aggressive culture wars were turning moderate voters off. Working alongside the openly gay equalities minister Mike Freer and then No 10 aide Henry Newman to rebuild bridges with the LGBT community, Herbert came tantalizingly close to brokering a truce; behind the scenes they had powerful backing from Carrie Johnson, a longstanding advocate of LGBT rights who delivered a rare public speech last autumn declaring her husband’s commitment to the cause. But in January, the rug was pulled out from under them.

Fearing a leadership challenge after revelations of lockdown-busting parties inside Downing Street, Boris Johnson agreed to a shake-up that saw Carrie’s influence curtailed, Newman exiled, and a new team installed that is frankly uninterested in the niceties of millennial identity politics. Led by policy unit chief Andrew Griffith, chief of staff Steve Barclay and spin doctor Guto Harri, the new regime has positioned Johnson as the voice of the middle-aged bloke down the pub.

Last week, he kickstarted the local election campaign by declaring that “biological males” shouldn’t be allowed to compete in women’s sports, a helpful distraction from tax rises coming into force. If it works, expect to see the same tactic, but on steroids, in a general election. Which is why some will see Herbert’s proposed royal commission as, at best, a nice idea doomed to fail; at worst, kicking things into the long grass.

But where similar schemes have worked – as with Dame Mary Warnock’s 1980s inquiry into the then pioneering field of human fertilization and embryology, sensationally portrayed by tabloids as Frankenstein science – they have defused public anxiety about the novel and unfamiliar, opening the space for bold leaps forward.

Walking people methodically through complex ethical arguments takes time, but since scientific research on the impact of transitioning on athletes’ performance is still in its infancy, conclusive answers to some issues of trans inclusion are probably years away anyway. If Boris Johnson ignores the idea – although oddly it might suit him given the strange elusiveness of his own views on the subject – Keir Starmer should pick it up.

For whether or not he’s right about the exact mechanism, Herbert is right about the urgency of lifting this issue above toxic party politics. He’s right that nobody wins a culture war and right that “those most harmed will be trans people who already feel stigmatised… who deserve greater kindness than today’s politics will allow”.

It’s depressing to think our current political system can’t be trusted to handle this maturely. But not half as depressing as looking back in five years’ time and realizing those years were wasted, doing the same thing over and over, and being surprised each time it failed.

  • Gaby Hinsliff is a Guardian columnist

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