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  1. The Staggers
11 May 2023

The treatment of Joanna Cherry shows Scotland’s culture of liberal intolerance

The barring of the SNP politician from the Edinburgh Fringe is yet another blow to free speech and open debate.

By Chris Deerin

Like all the finest comedians, Jerry Sadowitz has impeccable timing. As the debate around free speech and no-platforming rages, the uncompromising, boundary-ignoring comic has announced that he will play this year’s Edinburgh Fringe.

Sadowitz, you may remember, had last year’s show at the Pleasance Theatre cancelled after complaints about its confrontational, penis-displaying content. Undeterred, he plans to bring the same performance to a three-night run at the Queen’s Hall this autumn. If he at times presents a challenge to free-speech advocates, he is an important and valuable one – tell him what he isn’t allowed to do and he’ll do precisely that. Sadowitz forces us to think about where and how the line should be drawn.

It’s Joanna Cherry, the high-profile feminist, gay rights campaigner and SNP MP, who has (so far) been cancelled at this year’s Fringe. Cherry was invited to take part in a discussion at the Stand Comedy Club. The invitation was then withdrawn due to staff at the venue refusing to work at the event because they disagreed with her views on gender reform and self-ID. The former frontbencher, who is also a KC, is taking legal action over what she says is unlawful discrimination, giving the Stand’s owners a week to apologise and reinstate the show.

Cherry has become something of a poster woman for free speech and associated rights – on Tuesday afternoon she was on her feet in the Commons challenging the Met’s decision to arrest Republican campaigners on the day of King Charles’s coronation. Before that, though, she took part in an event held by my think tank Reform Scotland to discuss the rising trend of no-platforming, the intolerance of opposing views, and growing confusion around civil liberties. She said that since first voicing her opposition to trans self-ID in 2019, she can no longer attend Pride parades. “I’ve been out since the Eighties and I can’t go to Pride now because I fear for my personal safety from trans rights activists and their supporters. A lot of lesbians feel like that,” she told us. Her refusal to be cowed on the issue had, she admitted, ruined any chance she might have had of becoming SNP leader.

Cherry’s courage and persistence is impressive, and she has become a hero to those who have stood up to the Scottish government’s Gender Recognition Reform (Scotland) Bill. She was withering about many of her fellow politicians, whom she accused of showing “collective cowardice” on the issue, as well as an “alarming collective ignorance of equality law and human rights law”.

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She rhymed off a depressingly long list of women who have had their professional lives disrupted or ruined due to their views. “I come across many women in the course of my work who find themselves not just being no-platformed but losing their jobs or their means to a livelihood,” she said. Jenny Lindsay, a “skint” gender-critical poet and writer, spoke eloquently and powerfully about how she has been deprived of a living by influential opponents in the Scottish arts community.

The debate over what we are entitled to say and do – and sometimes think – has fuelled the UK’s poisonous, social media-driven culture war in recent years. It has extended far beyond gender reform, of course, to that protest against the coronation, or against repeated police heavy-handedness, or the shouting down of those who hold certain religious and social views, and much else besides.

Kate Forbes, the SNP leadership contender who was caught up in a furore over her conservative views on equal marriage and abortion, told our event that some of her early supporters withdrew their backing because they “were fearful of being hounded themselves in the way that I was being hounded”. Good law-making demands disagreement, she added. “You stifle debate and you end up with bad law. The culture of fear is stymieing good discussions. It will inevitably stymie art, comedy, journalism – all the occupations that rely on that freedom to foster good ideas.”

[See also: The humbling of the SNP]

Forbes believes the public has had enough of attempts to censor views that don’t align with those of progressive activists. “[The activists’ approach] is not about debating and disputing somebody’s views,” she said. “It’s about using tactics like boycott, like isolation, like sacking somebody, like employing accusations that are not founded in reality to ensure that somebody doesn’t have a voice. The public are fed up being scared and intimidated from saying that which is widely accepted as fact and they’re fed up of being scared and intimidated by seeing what public figures are subject to. There’s a backlash to the backlash from the majority in Scotland.” Most of the concerned women she’d spoken to “started with a desire to see trans rights furthered”.

These debates are not going to go away – and they will hit England with the same violent force if Keir Starmer becomes prime minister and seeks to reform gender laws in the south. Humza Yousaf, the new First Minister, is taking the UK government to court over its decision to block Holyrood’s Gender Reform Bill, ensuring the matter has a long way to run north of the border too.  

It’s hard to see who wins from all this. Certainly not trans people, who have a fair case that existing laws are too restrictive and should be liberalised. Not the women who have warned about the impact on their rights and female-only safe spaces if Holyrood’s legislation is allowed to pass in its current form. And not the politicians who find themselves loathed and pilloried by one side or the other, or a general public that is left unclear about which rights and behaviours are legally acceptable and which are not. The debate around gender reform has become a divisive, angry mess.

The political leadership on the issue has been lamentably lacking. Kate Harris, the director of the LGB Alliance and a former Stonewall stalwart, called for a public inquiry into how gender policy has ended up where it has. Cherry suggested a citizen’s assembly would be a good way to break the impasse, as it did in Ireland on abortion law – this strikes me as a sensible idea, where a cross-section of the public would hear from all sides of the debate then make recommendations for a course of action. Although it may be too late for that.

Forbes was critical of how Nicola Sturgeon handled this sensitive issue, arguing that “there was a way forward but it had to start with a willingness to listen to the other side… the treatment of those that expressed concerns was completely unacceptable and that meant there was no hope of building a bridge. If each side others the other side as unacceptable, beyond the pale, you’re never ever going to reach a consensus.”

Finding the best consensus we can is the point of politics and national leadership. If we won’t listen to each other, or allow people even to meet or make their point out loud, we’ll get nowhere. As Forbes put it, “You cannot dispute and debate that which you will not hear.” And as Adam Tomkins, a former Conservative MSP and a law professor at the University of Glasgow, said, “The answer to speech which you find offensive, hurtful or upsetting is not to censor it, the answer is to speak back. The counter-argument can only be put after the argument has been heard.”

[See also: Does Labour have a future in Scotland?]

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