How Much Can Good People Do to Stop Bad Government?

(Photo: Matt Dunham / AP)

Clara Barnhurst

It’s Trump’s visit to my home this week and I’ve been heartened to see so much civil opposition. More turned up on a work day to protest his presence in London than he had on a weekend for his inauguration — its heartening. Folks I work with were in London and Blenheim. Even Scottish prime minister Nicola Sturgeon managed to find pride march to lead when the autocrat showed up in Scotland. It’s a remarkable show of solidarity against tyranny.

Trouble is, government keeps working on how they might undermine people’s basic rights. The potential for things to turn ugly in the UK is very high, and the process we’re watching with horror in America is also happening here. We don’t see it as well because it’s happening in a particularly British way: quietly, gradually. In due course. I’ve no doubt that both the UK and America are full of good people, but they’re not stopping bad government.

Fintan O’Toole wrote in The Irish Times last month that America, Europe and the UK are all trialling fascism. His focus was on America with only a cursory comment about Brexit and the rigging of that referendum. Make no mistake that it was rigged. Even if there was no evidence of interference (there is), the rules of the referendum biased it from the word go by banning European residents that ordinarily have the right to vote from participating.

Setting the validity of the referendum aside, it’s since been used as an excuse to see what government can undermine. It began with a suggestion that the UK leave the European Convention on Human Rights. The suggestion lead Theresa May to quickly backtrack: the trial didn’t go well. Good people stopped bad government and these days, conservative members are quick to remind people that we are proud signatories of the ECHR. They haven’t stopped trying to leave it. They just picked a weaker bit of legislation to focus on. One that came about because of the ECHR that people are more divided about: the Gender Recognition Act.

The Gender Recognition Act is a rather dull bit of legislation that outlines the process one becomes recognised as a gender in the UK. Obtaining a gender recognition certificate is a bit of bureaucracy that enables a person to change the markers on their birth certificate and also confers certain protections, most notably sealing official documents bearing a person’s old name (if any) and gender marker. It only applies to transgender and gender non conforming people and everyone, even transgender folks, want it updated. A ripe target.

The GRA sat quietly in a corner, mostly ignored, for the thirteen years of its existence since its passing in 2004. Nobody liked it, but it created a system of practice when dealing with transitioning persons. Government complies with the GRA in most cases as a matter of course rather than asking for the certificate to do it, which can lead to some frustratingly hilarious results: several transitioning friends have phoned up a benefit office to discover all their records had slipped into the ether. Neat, but unhelpful as they’re establishing themselves in their new identities.


By focusing on legislation that nobody likes, the government managed to create a toxic environment for GNC and transgender folks while painting themselves as do gooders. Hate groups organised, leafletted schools, wrote letters to parliament, and rekindled the so-called debate over whether transgender people even exist. The GRA doesn’t address whether transgender people exist, but any excuse. The battle lines were drawn, and the government is a neutral party accepting letters as the climate for transgender people becomes steadily more dangerous.

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The toxicity that rose out of the conversation over the GRA culminated with a TERF group being allowed to lead Pride in London last weekend. They got to canvass the crowd with hate leaflets and openly attack a vital slice of the LGBTQ+ movement as the vanguard of that movement. The organisers eventually condemned the group, but it’s difficult to give their words much credence when they allowed the whole thing to happen.

This is a typically British tactic: say nothing. Make the move, disengage, watch from a distance. Let others do the arguing. Return when the dust settles, but still say nothing. Adopt what is best aligned with your purpose from what’s left, knowing full well you set the whole thing in motion to start with. No need to dirty your hands when the rabble will do it for you.

The Tories are many things, but they are not foolish. They see that there are a lot of good people that might force them to stop doing bad things. They understand what happens when someone shows their colours too soon: Trump, and our reaction to him, illustrates the mistake all too well. They all want the same thing and they are using the same tactics. The British are just being a lot more, well, British about it.


In fairness, the GRA does need updating if it’s to properly comply with the ECHR, particularly in the wake of the European Court’s rulings since 2004 on the matters of gender. That’s what makes the whole thing so frightening: this is a necessary revision that has been turned into a trial run of fascism. Thankfully, the British sense of civility has prevented things from moving as quickly as they have in America. I remain quietly optimistic that the GRA will be treated properly, but I can see the wheels spinning.

Maybe I’m just paranoid, but I have no reason to trust what I see. It follows O’Toole’s pattern too well: rig a vote, try an idea. Empower a hateful core of people and consolidate. We’re not putting babies in cages. Yet. We’re just letting hate groups lead major human rights marches in the capital. Can good people put a stop to it? I hope so.

The British way is one of evolution rather than revolution. However fascism manifests here, it will be quiet. Understated. Even cordial. How that evolution is slowed or stopped will come down to how vigilant the good folks are. The UK is full of brilliantly thoughtful, caring, sensitive people. It will take a lot to strip them of their sense of decency, but it will happen eventually if this isn’t stopped.


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