Barry Sheerman's "small English rant"

Why does a Labour MP think it is in the interests of his constituents to attack eastern Europeans?

We've all been there: late for a train, starving, and so you're forced to buy some over-priced slop from a sandwich chain on the station forecourt. You're in a hurry, and so is the hard-pressed, minimum-waged shop assistant.

In the muddle that follows, they mess up your order. Annoying, yes – but for Huddersfield's Labour MP, Barry Sheerman, this was a chance to take aim at foreigners. On 23 April, he tweeted:

"Just had worst coffee and bacon bap in London at Victoria Station. Why can't Camden Food Co employ English staff?"

When asked by one of his Twitter followers if he was being xenophobic about the "eastern European" woman who served him, Mr Sheerman – who once explained his opposition to a ban on fox-hunting “because I don't like the persecution of minorities” – replied:

"We are all allowed a small English rant on St George's day aren't we?"

Followed by:

"I am not a xenophobe. I am an MP and I represent the good folk of Huddersfield not Gdansk!"

Mr Sheerman later told the Huddersfield Examiner that unemployed people in his constituency should have "first crack" at jobs "rather than someone who has arrived from eastern Europe yesterday" and that "high levels" of immigration also "put pressure on housing, hospitals and our schools".

Yet if Mr Sheerman really was motivated by concern for his hard-working Huddersfield constituents, perhaps he can explain why it was in their interests to:

 

  • Grandstand on “foreign” competition for jobs when we are in the middle of a crisis caused by the banks and made worse by the coalition's failed economic policies?
  • Spend 13 years supporting a New Labour government committed to a “flexible” labour market with some of the harshest anti-union laws in Europe, under which inequality of income rose, and where some argue that the free movement of labour was used as a “21st-century incomes policy”?
  • Vote for an Iraq war that precipitated a major refugee crisis?
  • Vote for anti-terrorism measures that have treated British Muslims as a problem community and a potential “enemy within”?
  • Acquiesce to the removal of compulsory language GCSEs, making it harder for British workers to compete in the international jobs market and increasing the hostility mono-lingual English speakers feel when they hear foreign languages spoken in public?
  • Choose St George's Day to have an “English rant” when some of his Labour colleagues are trying to “de-toxify” English nationalism, and when Kirklees, the borough in which his constituency is located, is only just free of BNP candidates for the first time in 12 years?

Mr Sheerman is absolutely right that we should be able to talk about difficult issues without fear of “pernicious political correctness”. Perhaps he can start with the above. I'm sure his constituents – including the ones for whom English is not a first language, or whose families originate overseas – would love to know.

A bacon sandwich. Ethnic origin of the pig could not be confirmed at time of going to press. (Getty Images.)

Daniel Trilling is the Editor of New Humanist magazine. He was formerly an Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

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So many teenage girls don’t want to identify as girls any more. And who can blame them?

Among internet-literate teenagers, gender has become the primary way to challenge the mores of older generations.

On the bus back from the cinema, a conversation drifted over from the back row. A mother questioning, curious, her speech accented; her teenage daughter, with perfect RP, fielding her inquiries with the exasperated patience that flourishes between the ages of 13 and 21.

“No, Mum, you’re a cis woman because you’re the gender you were born as.”

“OK. And what about Lily?”

Lily – or, perhaps, Daisy or Rose – was a school friend who was now using the pronoun “they”. The heavy overtone of the daughter’s forbearance was that these were matters her mother could not understand.

Among internet-literate teenagers, gender has become the primary way to challenge the mores of older generations. I know four journalists – London-based, middle class – whose children have announced that they do not consider themselves to be girls. It seems too many to be a coincidence. And if pained teenagers are now explaining gender fluidity to their mums on the 108 from Millennium Leisure Park West, you know the idea has truly gone mainstream.

We should welcome young people challenging gender, an arbitrary system that has acquired the status of immutable human nature. Name almost anything now associated with women – high heels, long hair, the colour pink – and you can find a time or place when it was considered masculine. And just as feminists once fought for “Ms” alongside “Miss” and “Mrs”, people should be allowed to take gender out of their honorific altogether and go by “Mx”. Getting used to “they” as a singular pronoun is harder but not impossible. Language evolves.

However, there is more to the current Gender Revolution than upending our assumptions about the “correct” names or pronouns or hobbies or appearance for men and women. In the past few years, the word “transsexual” has dropped out of favour – it is considered impolite to reference sex – in favour of “transgender”. But this obscures the idea that to cross definitively from one gender to another requires surgery and a lifetime of synthetic hormones. For trans men, it’s top surgery – breast removal – and, more rarely, a phalloplasty to make a penis, plus testosterone (“T”), which lowers the voice, hardens fat to muscle and unleashes any latent male-pattern baldness. For trans women, oestrogen (HRT, used off-label) can be supplemented with breast implants and a procedure to skin the penis and invert it, creating a neovagina and clitoris.

These surgeries are non-trivial – I have a friend undergoing the latter this summer and she will be housebound for two weeks afterwards, with a 12-week recovery period. Infection is always a risk. For her, it’s a life-saving intervention: she says she simply would not want to live in a male body.

But 80 per cent of gender-nonconforming children do not grow up to be transsexual; many emerge as happy gay men or lesbians content to live in their birth sex. A strange taboo has sprung up about mentioning this, as if the way that some people do not turn out to be trans invalidates the experiences of those who do. It should not.

But separating dissatisfaction with the social constraints of gender from body dysmorphia is vital. Because we have smudged together the categories of “transsexual” and “transgender”, is every youngster who questions their gender – and, frankly, every youngster should, because gender is restrictive bollocks – getting the message that they must bind their breasts or tuck their penis? I wince when I read oh-so-liberal parents explaining that they knew their toddler son was a girl when he wore pink and played with Barbies. Is there really anything so wrong with being a boy who wants to dress up as Elsa from Frozen? Or a girl who would rather be outside getting muddy than wear skirts and be “ladylike”? Toys and children’s clothes are becoming more gendered: when I was young, we played with Lego – not “Lego” and “Lego for Girls”. As we have shrunk the boxes, is it any wonder that more and more children want to escape from them?

In the year to March 2015, the Tavistock in London – the only specialist gender clinic in the country for under-16s – saw 697 children. This year, it saw 1,419. The largest surge has been among girls aged 14 and over and it is this group I feel most personal affinity for, because, if I were growing up today, I would be among them. A few years ago, I found a textbook from my junior school, with three sentences that floored me: “My name is Helen. I am nine years old. I am skinny.” And the truth was, I was skinny. I had a bowl haircut and wore culottes. Then puberty hit and I piled on a few stone in a year. Taut pink skin turned to lumpen fat and mottled flesh. And everyone had an opinion about it. I was trapped inside a body that didn’t feel like mine any more.

Many of my school friends felt the same way. Some tried to escape through vomiting or starving. Others were part of that charmed cohort who became lissom, beautiful, golden; their parents felt a different sort of ­worry and they were treated to sermons about getting into strange men’s cars.

I won my body back by defacing it; at least, that’s how my parents saw it. An earring, then two. And another. Then piercings that no one could see: nursing each one like a wound or a child. Salvation through pain: a metal bar through cartilage that couldn’t be slept on for a month. A tattoo that hurt like hell. Pink hair, ebbing to orange in a shower that looked like Carrie. And finally – finally – a body that felt like me.

I tell my story not to belittle anyone else’s, or to imply that they have chosen the wrong path. If you cannot live in your body, then change it – and the world must help you to do that. But if you feel crushed by society’s expectations, it might be that there’s nothing wrong with you. There’s something wrong with the world.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 26 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit odd squad