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Jacob Rees-Mogg, radical feminist?

3 April 2018

9:26 AM

3 April 2018

9:26 AM

OK the headline isn’t serious, but it got your attention. It also highlights a serious point about the politics of transgender rights which might have been missed over the Easter weekend. The Mail on Sunday this week carried an interview with Jacob Rees-Mogg. The paper didn’t make much of it, but it contained quite an important line:

He is uneasy about some aspects of the transgender rights debate.

‘If you have people who have no intention of changing sex but think it would be fun to go into the women’s changing room, we cannot ignore that.’

In other words, JRM is worried about self-identification, which the Government is – nominally – committed to exploring in a consultation. In a sense, there’s nothing striking about that: I know lots of MPs, Tory and Labour, who have such worries, though few dare say so right now.  My suspicion is that the real, but often hidden, scale of parliamentary unease will mean that a government that lacks a majority and is hardly short of complex and risky political battles to fight will not rush into its gender law consultation. As any good whip would say, why pick a fight you don’t need to start and which you might well lose?

But what is striking about Rees Mogg’s position is what it says about the political coalitions that are forming on the gender debate. JRM is a dust-dry Tory and committed Catholic, and a reliable spokesman on many issues for a significant number of traditional-minded Tory MPs and members. (See ConHome for how much card-carrying Tories love him). Yet his unease on the potential abuse of gender laws by ill-intentioned men is shared by others from many other points on the political spectrum. Many of the most vocal questioners of transgender orthodoxy are feminists (radical and otherwise) and quite a few (but not all) of them are very much on the Left.

Indeed, some of the most prominent feminist voices here — Linda Bellos, Kiri Tunks, Lucy Massoud — are on the Left of even today’s Labour Party; the latter two are trade unionists whose names appear regularly in the Morning Star. Indeed, A Woman’s Place UK, one of the grassroots movements that organises debates for people with concerns about proposed changes in gender laws, counts many senior trade unionists among its organisers.

My point is that the list of people who question the direction of travel (and lopsided debate) on gender issues is a long and varied one. It includes traditional social conservatives and socialist feminists and people in the middle-ground in between. And Mumsnet, of course, where the unlikely alliances forged by the gender debate are frequently observed with happy surprise: welcome to The Spectator, MNetters.

In short, concern about questions of gender, sex and law aren’t a Right-wing thing or a Left-wing thing. This issue redraws many of the traditional dividing lines of our politics.

Why? There’s an essay or maybe even a book in that answer, which would talk about identity politics (See Gideon Rachman’s excellent FT piece on this) and shifting generational attitudes (here’s a gross oversimplification to discuss: teens and 20-somethings who’ve grown up in a hyper-individualised culture and economy with services and entertainment on-demand at the click of a button naturally consider identity to be just another product to tailor to their whims). But I have neither capacity nor willingness to write that answer now.

Instead, I’ll just say that the fact that people from pretty much every point of the political spectrum are raising questions is proof of a simple truth not often enough acknowledged in the gender debate: this stuff is complicated. And complicated issues need careful thought, proper debate and, more often than not, complicated solutions. Beware of anyone who offers simple answers here.

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