Transphobia and the Break-Up of Britain

The value of dismantling the British state has always been the means it could provide for escaping its interminable oppressions. It should come as no surprise, then, that this country’s most visible victimisation of a marginalised group at present – the war on trans rights – should become so intertwined with the fight to suppress secessionist movements in the state’s peripheries.  

The UK has long been notorious internationally for ‘the very particular and peculiar Britishness of [its] anti-trans sentiment’, as Hannah Ewens puts it. With the efforts of Westminster to block the Scottish government’s Gender Recognition Reform Bill, it appears its political utility has become intrinsic to the state’s preservation of power.

A few clarifications are needed here, however. It’s important to consider that the Tories’ motivations in this instance are not primarily to roll back trans rights, nor to undermine the integrity of devolved governance. They are, of course, sincere in their hatred of each, but their instrumentalisation is in service of a wider political project. Namely, the shoring up, by any means necessary, of a supporter base that looks increasingly fragile as the disastrous results of a decade-plus of Tory rule make themselves unavoidable.

Both tendencies – the centralisation of authority, the discrimination and scapegoating of a vulnerable minority – are symptomatic of a society in decline, and with this comes a rising fundamentalism among the ruling class as they defend their grip on power. The consequences for trans people, and the triggering of a possibly-terminal constitutional crisis, are but minor collateral. As Phil Burton-Cartledge notes, the Tories are ‘only interested in trans people and opposing “women’s rights” to them in as far they are pawns in their wretched war on woke’, which is primarily in service of ‘[exploiting] divisions among [their] political opponents’.

The extension of trans rights in a devolved nation is thus a perfect ‘wedge issue’ for the Tories to make use of, ripe for exploiting existing divisions among opponents and further embedding political paralyses. By ‘[folding] transphobic culture war into the wider project of British nationalism’, as Richard Seymour describes it, the Tories can contrast the political challenges of trans activism and independence campaigning to expose the vulnerabilities and organisational weaknesses of both. This serves to disavow any potential solidarity or sense of shared cause, making the separation between them seem irreconcilable to people who may have an existing stake in one but not the other.

Trans people and their allies are exposed to the limitations of devolution’s ‘passive revolution’: the sub-national governments appear ineffective in tempering the will of Westminster, and unable to offer a tangible escape – or even useful protection – from British state-sanctioned transphobia.

Meanwhile, the movements seeking to increase the autonomy of these peripheral nations – in Scotland in this instance, but also observable in Wales – are susceptible to being left flat-footed by their longstanding reluctance to proffer any coherent political articulation in favour of maintaining a ‘broad church’ approach to recruiting supporters, despite a constitutional tussle having an immediate real-world impact for once. 

This is exacerbated by lingering, if fringe, anti-trans elements within these ‘non-political’ coalitions that comprise Welsh and Scottish independence campaigns. Welsh political establishments and organising groups in particular have been notoriously slow and meek in defending trans rights. This may explain the somewhat muted response to the Tories’ current anti-devolution machinations, despite being an explicit attack on everything all independence supporters ostensibly stand for regardless of political orientation.

Yet despite this fragility, there is still much cause for optimism, with plenty of potential for this unprecedented pressure on devolution to snowball into a motivated and organised political campaign that can also successfully dovetail with the ongoing and heartening class fightback. With transphobia now overtly tied to British state power by government decree, political battlelines can be clearly drawn if the desire is there: between bigoted, reactionary Unionism on one side, and liberatory, progressive civic nationalism on the other.

There is a genuine possibility here for LGBTQ+ activism and independence campaigning to coalesce against a Union that, as Burton-Cartledge continues, is aligned irrevocably with ‘the most backward, reactionary and dying currents in British society’. Politicised communities and networks of solidarity are not formed simply of their own volition, but in reaction to external pressures that are placed upon them. And so, when disparate movements are attacked by the same antagonist, as part of the same political project, for similar reasons, there is much scope for collectivising and fighting back in a coalition of real breadth and strength.

If trans rights and the integrity of the Celtic nations are to be placed under duress by the Tories’ exhausted fundamentalism, both political tracts can embrace the coldness of their combination in ways that are mutually beneficial. Seceding from the Union can be a means of achieving trans liberation for Scottish and Welsh citizens; the case for secession can be strengthened through trans liberation’s ‘proof of concept’ for the many freedoms that could be won in a post-British society.

‘Nationalism’s particular efficacy as a mobilizing ideology’, Tom Nairn writes, depends upon the notion that, at least in circumstances and for a period of time, what a society enjoys in common is more important than its stratification.’ [1] So while the liberatory promise of civic Celtic nationalism lacks necessary articulation of class antagonism that presages a political revolution – given that, in Nairn’s words ’nationalism is always the joint product of external pressures and an internal balance of class forces’[2] [emphasis mine] – there remains a possibility of the unifying reaction to these external pressures creating the means through which a later, ‘post-British’ social revolution could be realised.

Fortunately, despite ‘transphobic narratives [gaining] disproportionate traction in the UK’s establishment media’, the increasingly extreme action of anti-trans campaigners, and the best efforts of those who hold the most crucial political levers (and of course bearing in mind that with rising extremism unfortunately comes an inevitable spike in hate crime incidents), public support is still generally on the side of trans rights. There is thus much hope here that this is a bigotry that can be vanquished: that popular opinion will prevail over the will of the powerful few, even if it necessitates an ultimate disruption of the state in which those powers are constituted.

Likewise, this action proves once and for all that Celtic secessionism, when contrasted against the absolute entrenchment of right-wing politics in Westminster, must be posited as a progressive movement if it is to have any political utility. If ‘independence is the only way to achieve [progressive] goals in the face of a highly conservative UK government’, as Scottish queer activist Esme Houston told OpenDemocracy’s Adam Ramsay recently, so too is fighting unequivocally for progressive goals the only means of breaking up the British state.

The opportunities within this synthesis of civic nationalism and civil rights are plain to see when the oppressed are confronted by an effort to extinguish both simultaneously. This intention to suffocate trans rights with British nationalism signifies the Tories’ political exhaustion. Let this also be the means through which they can be defeated.

[1] Tom Nairn, The Break-Up of Britain (London: Verso, 1981), p. 44.

[2] Nairn, p. 41.