The Whig theory of history holds that the journey from past to present is one from darkness to light – from despotism to democracy. It is a current in a bigger river: the idea of human progress.
Looked at from a distance, this view is correct. It is reactionary rather than conservative to hold, as Evelyn Waugh did, that the Tories had “been in power for more than eight years and hadn’t turned back the clock one minute”.
But examined up close, history suggests that progress isn’t always constant. There is as it were silt in the river which obstruct the water’s flow, and may take it into channels that lead nowhere, and peter out. We have been reminded of two examples in the past fortnight.
The first is eugenics, made briefly topical by the arrival and depature from Downing Street of Andrew Sabisky.
At one point, almost everyone who was anyone on the Left supported it: the Webbs, Harold Laski, Keynes, Beveridge, the New Statesman and The Guardian (then the Manchester Guardian).
The Left may have been prominent in its backing for eugenics, but it was not alone in so doing. Ernest Barnes, the Bishop of Birmingham during the 1920s, supported it, believing in the “sterilisation of the unfit”. Winston Churchill and Arthur Balfour attended the first International Eugenics Conference.
Marie Stopes, whose name lives on as one of biggest providers of abortion services in the country, was another backer. On her death, she left her clinics to the Eugenics Society.
The second is the story of the Paedophile Information Exchange (PIE).
It is topical today because of the report of the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse, which found that Patricia Hewitt, the former Labour Cabinet Minister, gave PIE “foolish and misguided support”.
She did so before becoming an MP as General Secretary for what was then the National Council for Civil Liberties. The Inquiry concluded that the NCCL, in which Harriet Harman as well as Hewitt was a senior figure at the time, gave “spurious legitimacy to an organisation that promoted sex with children.”
The organisation’s tendency to “push at the boundaries of what was considered appropriate” had “blinded them to the danger and led to some seriously flawed thinking”.
Before we get too partisan about child abuse, and damn David Steel for his support for a knighthood for Cyril Smith, it may be worth remembering that Margaret Thatcher signed it off after it had been approved by the Honours Committee (with “some hesitation”), and knew broadly of the allegations against him. Smith had of course not been convicted of any crime.
And talking of trends that are in the news, it is worth asking whether aspects of the campaign for trans are another example of a development welcomed at the time by some, shrugged at by most…and ultimately denounced by nearly everyone amidst frenzied denunciation of all those involved at the time.
We’re thinking of the practice of giving puberty blockers to “trans” children – one probed powerfully by Janice Turner in last weekend’s Times.
“Doubts about puberty blockers have come from senior clinicians, from LGBT campaigners worried that gender clinics are performing “gay conversion therapy” on future homosexual kids, and from feminists appalled that girls who do not conform to sexist gender stereotypes feel they cannot be girls. Already a growing number of “de-transitioners”, mainly young women, are coming forward, angry that doctors rushed them into irreversible treatment,” she wrote.
Now for clarity: we are not, repeat not, comparing the entire campaign for trans rights to eugenics or historical child abuse.
For example, there is a case for self-identification, although we suspect that Theresa May and her government, originally considering it in the aftermath of the rows over same sex marriage in David Cameron’s time, simply decided that self-identification was the coming progressive cause, and that the Conservatives should not be caught again on the wrong side of history. There is an echo here of that Whig Theory of it. The then Prime Minister certainly said that she wanted to make the process of self-identification easier.
At any rate, there was then a consultation to consider some of the issues involved, which include practices in sport, and the presence of men who have changed gender in prisons, changing rooms, womens’ toilets and so on. ConservativeHome has the very clear impression that Ministers are daunted by the range of questions that arise from them, despite denials to the contrary.
Rebecca Lowe wrote recently on this site about how bitter the debate about them has become on the Left. The consultation closed as long ago as October 2018. There has as yet been no Government response.
What is clear is that the Equality Act, which protects inter alia those who have had gender reassignment, set out rights for certain groups of people. What it didn’t do was set out coherently what should happen if those rights clash – either with each other or with other rights altogether.
If there is a lesson in all this other than that the Whig Theory of History doesn’t always apply, it is this: that politicians shouldn’t, on the one hand, complain about judges intruding into politics while, with other hand, shoving issues at the courts which they themselves are elected to resolve.