Last week, BBC News reported that the government had ended its funding for several projects tackling the bullying of LGBT+ students in schools. These projects have been running since 2014, costing around £4 million, and this is the first time that funding for them has not been extended. The funding was quietly ended in March, despite the fact that it had provided very well received training to 2,250 schools.
The BBC’s report came at the same time that government announced a four-year £16.5 billion increase on defence spending.
News of this increase came just a day after it emerged that the government was planning to cut the UK’s foreign aid budget by billions in 2021, and just a few weeks after the government initially refused to extend funding for free school meals over the Christmas holidays.
It is quite easy to come to a conclusion about the government’s funding choices: they reek of populist action and low-compassion. The government’s second U-turn on free school meal funding came only after a huge public backlash against its refusal to extend spending. When it was forced to accept that public overwhelmingly supported continuing free school meal funding, the government found itself in the tricky situation of once again having to do the right thing.
But it isn’t always the case that the government is pressured by the public into ‘doing the right thing’ or, as it could more neutrally be put, implementing compassionate policies. And when it doesn’t feel that pressure, it seems that the government is more than happy to make its funding decisions based on generalised assumptions about populist thought.
It is undeniable that spending on defence tends to be a populist move. This £16.5 billion increase will undoubtedly create jobs, but it is also symbolic of the kind of post-Brexit sovereignty that Boris Johnson is likely to wish to convey. Johnson has described the spending as something that will ‘bolster’ the UK’s global influence; his words are an appeal to the nostalgia for an empire state that ruled the world militarily and distinguished itself from others through power and armed strength.
But compared to this spending, the £4 million for LGBT+ anti-bullying projects can only be described as a drop in the ocean. It seems that if £4 million pounds of funding has managed to make a positive difference to the lives of youngsters who are some of the most vulnerable to bullying, then this funding ought to be continued. It is not only a compassionate policy, but an economically sound one; a small but meaningful investment in programmes to help make life safer and fairer for LGBT+ youth can have a positive effect over time and through generations. LGBT+ people are currently more likely to experience mental health problems, often as a result of facing stigma and discrimination. If we can reduce the discrimination that LGBT+ people experience, their mental health outcomes are likely to improve. Poor mental health is associated with significant individual and societal economic costs; improving mental health outcomes for LGBT+ people can only improve society as a whole.
But while continuing this funding makes sense, LGBT+ people have never really been welcomed by populist governments around the world. In Poland, for example, dozens of small towns have started to declare themselves as ‘free’ from LGBT+ ideology. Hungary’s far-right government has recently signalled amendments to law which will further limit the rights of LGBT+ individuals. While public attitudes towards LGBT+ people in the UK are certainly far more open and accepting than in Hungary and Poland, we cannot pretend that this country is free from discrimination. We also must acknowledge that acceptance of LGBT+ people is also more likely to be a feature of the groups that didn’t vote for Johnson’s government or Brexit.
So we shouldn’t, sadly, be surprised that LGBT+ people are a lower priority for a government that is prioritising populism. And yet it seems that members of this government have been perfectly happy to use LGBT+ people as pawns in cultural and ideological wars.
We all probably remember when there were huge protests around primary schools in Birmingham against teaching about LGBT+ relationships. The protests were originally started after some parents objected to the idea of teaching ‘No Outsiders’, a programme which aimed to show children the diversity of families and individuals, in schools. Parents claimed that the children were too young to learn about LGBT+ relationships. The majority of the parents protesting were from Muslim communities; many claimed that they opposed the teaching on the grounds that it contradicted Islam.
At the time, Boris Johnson wholeheartedly backed the No Outsiders programme and the teachers teaching it. He framed LGBT+ rights as though they were a part of British values. Education secretary Gavin Williamson has also backed the teaching of the No Outsiders lessons. This is all well and good, and we should see LGBT+ rights as a fundamental part of who we are and want to be as a country.
But hijacking these rights as part of an attempt to seemingly win a culture war and place Britishness in opposition to the values of Muslims is wrong. The retraction of funding for LGBT+ projects in schools tells us that what Johnson and Williamson said about the protests in 2019 was merely that – not an unconditional championing of LGBT+ rights, but an attempt to court yet more populist fervour with words not backed up by action.
The way the government is choosing to spend should concern us all. But we should particularly be worried about gulfs between words and action – voicing compassion and acceptance is one thing, but if that is undermined by spending choices, we will start to see the return of a Britain which marginalises significant chunks of its population through embedded hostility and discrimination. No-one should be an outsider in a modern Britain – but a populist Britain will close its doors on more and more of us.