Sam Hall: Extinction Rebellion is completely wrong in its approach to climate change

15 Sep

Sam Hall is the Director of the Conservative Environment Network

As a Conservative environmentalist, I believe passionately in the need for stronger action on climate change. I initially regarded Extinction Rebellion as wrong, but well-meaning. I’ve now come to the conclusion they are not only wrong, but actively harmful to the cause they claim to champion.

During their first action in 2019, I was sympathetic to the urgency with which XR demanded action on climate change, and the importance they attached to the issue. I shared, to some extent, their frustration that it wasn’t given the prominence in political debates that its seriousness merits. And I admired their skill in triggering a national conversation on climate change.

However I now believe Extinction Rebellion have gone badly off course with their use of polarising tactics, and that their approach to fighting climate change is completely wrong.

It has become apparent, for example, that they predominantly direct their protests against people and organisations on the right of British politics. Boris Johnson, the Centre for Policy Studies, and the Telegraph are some of their recent targets. But to address climate change effectively over multiple political cycles, we need the support of all political traditions – particularly Conservatives.

We need messages and messengers that will appeal to those groups among whom support for climate policies is lowest, not attacks on the political leaders and institutions they trust. We need to celebrate when once-sceptical Conservatives put forward good climate policies, not criticise their lack of purity.

Another problem is their uninspiring message of despair. Remember XR founder Roger Hallam’s claim that climate change will see billions of deaths, or children at school today will not survive to adulthood?

Of course, unmitigated climate change is incredibly dangerous, but fighting it requires us to be hopeful. We must believe that, if we act, we can succeed in stopping the most severe impacts. We shouldn’t dwell on apocalypse, but rather focus on solutions that create jobs and bring new industries to Britain, while making our towns and cities more prosperous, greener, and healthier places to live.

We also have to bring people with us. Yet by letting an all-powerful assembly, made up of a tiny unelected minority, decide our pathway to net zero, XR is attempting to short-circuit the democratic process.

We do need comprehensive public engagement on climate change, and there is certainly a useful role for assemblies in developing policy. But decisions should be taken by elected politicians that the voters can hold accountable and kick out of office if they choose.

Vital public consent for climate action would quickly be shredded by the pace of change they are demanding. Net zero by 2025 would be eye-wateringly expensive, and cause huge economic dislocation. Instead, we need a transition that is as quick as possible, but which gives people time to adjust, and companies the opportunity to invest for net zero as part of the normal business cycle.

Disagreeing with this 2025 target doesn’t mean you aren’t worried about climate change. Far from it. Environmental ambition should not – although frequently is – measured by the earliness of a target date or the scale of government spending. Truly ambitious policies must also be feasible, costed, and command the support of the public.

Nor is it about being ‘anti-science’. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change found that the world must reach net zero emissions by 2050 in order to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees. The UK’s independent Committee on Climate Change agrees that a 2050 net zero target meets our obligations under the Paris Agreement.

While I would be delighted if technological innovation meant we could reach net zero before 2050, it is the case that our 2050 net zero target has a much sounder basis in science than XR’s 2025 deadline.

Nor should we excuse their extreme actions as creating political space for moderate proposals on tackling climate change. For one thing, that is not what most XR campaigners are aiming to achieve. They do not accept compromise.

More broadly, the media and parliamentary debate around Extinction Rebellion is increasingly focused on policing and human rights issues. Note that the statement on XR in Parliament last week was given by the policing minister, not the climate change minister.

Even the climate discussion they provoke is unhelpful. In the media, sceptics of climate science who opportunistically elide XR with mainstream environmentalism, are pitched against left-wing climate activists. XR’s demands and tactics are inimical to a reasoned, evidence-based debate on climate.

But enough negativity. Here is my alternative approach. We need a credible, deliverable and affordable plan to reach net zero by 2050. One that creates millions of well-paid green jobs across the country, that revitalises our towns and cities with the clean industries of the future, and that harnesses the genius of our scientists and the creativity of our entrepreneurs. One that gives consumers freedom to choose between attractive and compelling solutions, and where private-sector competition and government support make them affordable for all.

We need to create the frameworks for businesses to invest in clean technologies, including an appropriate balance of fiscal incentives, regulation, and market signals. And the government needs to make it easier for people to make greener choices in their daily lives, to gain skills to work in clean industries, and to participate in community efforts to improve their local environment.

We have so much more to do to get on track to, and reach, net zero. We need major programmes to upgrade homes, restore nature, and build out renewable energy. We need to deploy new technologies such as green hydrogen, carbon capture storage, and heat pumps, and bring down their costs. In sectors like aviation and shipping, we need to develop and commercialise technologies that are still in their research phase. And we need to do all of this while bringing the public with us and keeping the UK economy competitive.

We have a great prize within our grasp – a clean, reindustrialised Britain, and nature restored to our beautiful landscapes – but we should be clear that achieving it will be hard work.

XR is making that vision even harder to achieve by alienating the public. I fear they are coarsening and toxifying our public discourse on climate change, and fuelling the extremes. For the sake of the climate, I hope they change course.

Iain Dale: Why have Buckland and Braverman signed up to breaking international law?

11 Sep

Iain Dale presents the evening show on LBC Radio and the For the Many podcast with Jacqui Smith.

Few people believe in Brexit more than I do, but I also believe in the rule of law. Quite how a democratic government can brazenly admit that it intends to break the law, albeit in a “strictly limited and specific” way, is quite beyond me.

The Supreme Court must be licking its lips in anticipation. Perhaps that’s part of the reason the new Bill is being introduced. I’d like to think that no one in Downing Street would wish to deliberately foment yet another clash between the Executive and the Judiciary, but anything is possible.

Rather than introduce this squalid Bill, it would have been far better to say that in the event that the EU doesn’t meet its pledge in the Political Declaration – to come to a Free Trade Agreement – then the Withdrawal Agreement ceases to apply.

At least this would have had some logic to it, even if it would still be incendiary. Countries often withdraw from Treaties – the EU did this themselves with Switzerland not too long ago, when they object to how the Swiss had voted to limit EU migration into the country.

But to introduce this new Bill without even using the mechanisms for discussion set out in the Withdrawal Agreement is an audacious move to say the least. Those, like John Major, who predict that this will affect trust in Britain into the future and make trade agreements less likely, certainly have a point. It’s hard to argue about the logic of that position.

It may be that I’m wrong. It may be that these hardball tactics with the EU will result in them rushing to an agreement. I hope they do, but I have more doubts about that than I did a week ago. Michel Barnier was on the ropes, but this move will have given him a renewed spring in his step.

What puzzles me is how Suella Braverman and Robert Buckland signed off on this. Perhaps we will find out in the Sunday Times, where I hope Tim Shipman has one of his long reads about how this came about. Because I, for one, am totally perplexed and somewhat horrified.

– – – – – – – – – –

I just knew it. On Wednesday, when the Prime Minister announced the new Coronavirus restrictions, I predicted to a colleague that one of the big beast political journos would ask a question purely designed to get themselves a headline, and sure enough the task fell to Robert Peston to ask the Prime Minister if he was effectively cancelling Christmas.

I expected it to be a headline in The Sun yesterday but even The Times sunk to the depths too. This is what political reporting has come to. Slow handclap.

– – – – – – – – –  –

One thing the Coronavirus crisis has made us all realise is that we are no longer a United Kingdom. The other constituent parts of the country seem to have revelled in doing things differently to the Westminster government.

In some cases, this has been entirely justified, but much of the time it has been gratuitous. Given that all four nations make their policies from the same data, sometimes one is left scratching one’s barnet at the different decision that are arrived at.

No wonder many people think there’s a lack of clear messaging from government. You’d think the four health ministers could have a Zoom call and agree a way forward, wouldn’t you? And if they can’t then explain why one part of the country is acting differently to another. Perish the thought.

– – – – – – – – –  –

Today is the nineteenth anniversary of the event which helped shaped the world we live in now. It was the day when Islamist terrorists seized control of a series of plans on the eastern seaboard of the United States, and caused the death of more than 3,000 people.

The date is stained into history as 9-11. Next year’s 20th anniversary will be a more significant one in many ways, as America and the world continue to try to come to terms with what happened, and the consequences we are still living through now.

It’s not an exaggeration to claim that most of the terror attacks we have experienced in this country, and many around the world, would not have happened without 9-11. It’s a sobering thought

Iain Dale: Why have Buckland and Braverman signed up to breaking international law?

11 Sep

Iain Dale presents the evening show on LBC Radio and the For the Many podcast with Jacqui Smith.

Few people believe in Brexit more than I do, but I also believe in the rule of law. Quite how a democratic government can brazenly admit that it intends to break the law, albeit in a “strictly limited and specific” way, is quite beyond me.

The Supreme Court must be licking its lips in anticipation. Perhaps that’s part of the reason the new Bill is being introduced. I’d like to think that no one in Downing Street would wish to deliberately foment yet another clash between the Executive and the Judiciary, but anything is possible.

Rather than introduce this squalid Bill, it would have been far better to say that in the event that the EU doesn’t meet its pledge in the Political Declaration – to come to a Free Trade Agreement – then the Withdrawal Agreement ceases to apply.

At least this would have had some logic to it, even if it would still be incendiary. Countries often withdraw from Treaties – the EU did this themselves with Switzerland not too long ago, when they object to how the Swiss had voted to limit EU migration into the country.

But to introduce this new Bill without even using the mechanisms for discussion set out in the Withdrawal Agreement is an audacious move to say the least. Those, like John Major, who predict that this will affect trust in Britain into the future and make trade agreements less likely, certainly have a point. It’s hard to argue about the logic of that position.

It may be that I’m wrong. It may be that these hardball tactics with the EU will result in them rushing to an agreement. I hope they do, but I have more doubts about that than I did a week ago. Michel Barnier was on the ropes, but this move will have given him a renewed spring in his step.

What puzzles me is how Suella Braverman and Robert Buckland signed off on this. Perhaps we will find out in the Sunday Times, where I hope Tim Shipman has one of his long reads about how this came about. Because I, for one, am totally perplexed and somewhat horrified.

– – – – – – – – – –

I just knew it. On Wednesday, when the Prime Minister announced the new Coronavirus restrictions, I predicted to a colleague that one of the big beast political journos would ask a question purely designed to get themselves a headline, and sure enough the task fell to Robert Peston to ask the Prime Minister if he was effectively cancelling Christmas.

I expected it to be a headline in The Sun yesterday but even The Times sunk to the depths too. This is what political reporting has come to. Slow handclap.

– – – – – – – – –  –

One thing the Coronavirus crisis has made us all realise is that we are no longer a United Kingdom. The other constituent parts of the country seem to have revelled in doing things differently to the Westminster government.

In some cases, this has been entirely justified, but much of the time it has been gratuitous. Given that all four nations make their policies from the same data, sometimes one is left scratching one’s barnet at the different decision that are arrived at.

No wonder many people think there’s a lack of clear messaging from government. You’d think the four health ministers could have a Zoom call and agree a way forward, wouldn’t you? And if they can’t then explain why one part of the country is acting differently to another. Perish the thought.

– – – – – – – – –  –

Today is the nineteenth anniversary of the event which helped shaped the world we live in now. It was the day when Islamist terrorists seized control of a series of plans on the eastern seaboard of the United States, and caused the death of more than 3,000 people.

The date is stained into history as 9-11. Next year’s 20th anniversary will be a more significant one in many ways, as America and the world continue to try to come to terms with what happened, and the consequences we are still living through now.

It’s not an exaggeration to claim that most of the terror attacks we have experienced in this country, and many around the world, would not have happened without 9-11. It’s a sobering thought

Conservatives can’t be neutral about culture

7 Sep

MPs are to be made to take unconscious bias training.  A former Prime Minister of Australia is targeted because he is a social conservative.  The British Library links changes to the way it will work to George Floyd’s murder in America.   Extinction Rebellion clip the wings of a free press.  Senior civil servants declare publicly for Black Lives Matter.

Boris Johnson’s Conservatives have a majority of 80.  But the Left’s long march through the institutions seems, if anything, to speed up.

And the Government either won’t do anything about it or doesn’t want to – or both.  What’s the point of a Tory Government, a stonking majority and Brexit itself if nothing changes?

That’s the case for the prosection from some on the Right.  Should Johnson and his Government be found guilty?

The first thing a fair-minded jury would do is mull the charge sheet above.  It would see at once that the incidents and developments above vary in important ways.  For example, the Executive does not control the Legislature.  So whether to conduct bias training or otherwise is a matter for MPs, not Ministers.

The second course it would take is to try to work out what government should and shouldn’t do.  To take another example, Ministerial control of police operations would be alien to the British model of policing by consent, and to a free society.

Third, it would ask those at the top of the Government what they have to say for themselves.  The answers ConservativeHome gets when it puts that question, off the record, is a mix of the following.

Downing Street has “limited bandwidth” – i.e: fewer people than it needs.  Changing the culture of government is like turning round a supertanker, but it can be done.  Look at the change of tone from the BBC’s new Director-General.  And there are victories as well as defeats: the corporation backed down over Last Night of the Proms and the Government didn’t over Abbott’s appointment.

But that’s not all that some of our sources will say when they’re being candid.  They say that the Prime Minister moves slowly not just for reasons of political calculation, but because he’s internally conflicted.  His upbringing, attitudes and reflexes are liberal as well as conservative.  So he moves cautiously – being slower out of traps to champion the singing of Rule Britannia, as it happens, than did Keir Starmer.

You, ladies and gentlemen of the conservative jury, will reach your own verdict – or, if you’re sensible, conclude that putting the Government on a trial after it has had less than a year in office is premature.  Nonetheless, here’s our provisional take.

Johnson is denounced by much of the Remain-flavoured Left as a British Trumpian Bannonite – a misreading which helps to explain why he keeps on winning.  He is right not to declare a culture war from Downing Street.  The British people aren’t in our view enthusiasts for wars of any kind.

But if you think about it for a moment, you’ll see that one of the reasons he doesn’t need to declare such a war is that is already being fought.  The noisiest and nastiest parts of it tend to be where race, sex and religion are contested.

Those in the front line aren’t necessarily conservatives, let alone Conservatives.  They include J.K.Rowling as well as Katherine Birbalsingh (who’s being interviewed live by Mark Wallace this week ; Germaine Greer as well as Nigel Biggar.

That they and others are in the hottest parts of the action may explain why, to large parts of the conservative movement, the real heroes of our time are private citizens rather than public ones.  Consider the case of Jordan Peterson.

Some will say that the Conservative Party, and the centre-right more broadly, is divided about this cultural struggle, citing such telltale signs as Matt Hancock deliberately declaring “Black Lives Matter” at a Government Coronavirus press conference, or Grant Shapps declaring that he’d check Abbott’s record before going for a drink with him.

We think this is an over-complication.  Sure, conservatives won’t always agree about culture any more than they will about economics.  That’s why, inter alia, the flavour of David Cameron’s Downing Street was different from that of Johnson’s.  Near the top, there were fewer northern accents, more women, and fewer “weirdos and misfits”.

But we suspect that if Tory MPs were surveyed, the following attitudes would be found.  Support for equality of opportunity, or as close as one can get to it, rather than equality of outcome.  Much less backing for abortion on demand than on the Labour benches.  Much more for the free market being a friend of the environment, not an enemy.  Caution on reforming the Gender Recognition Act.   Agreement that real diversity must include a diversity of viewpoints.  Disagreement that poor working-class white people have a race privilege.  Poll them and prove us wrong.

In other words, Conservative MPs are more likely to share the patriotic instincts of most voters than Labour ones.  If you doubt it, ask yourself why Starmer is so anxious to present as Labour a patriotic party; why he was quicker than Johnson in coming out for Rule Britannia, and whywe read – his team want to present him as a very British hero who led in prosecuting an Islamist bomb plot. That’s solid ground for the Prime Minister to have beneath him

So while these are early days, we say that just because a Tory Government can’t – and shouldn’t – do everything, there’s no reason why it shouldn’t do something.  For example, there is a Minister for the Civil Service.  He is no less senior a figure than the Prime Minister himself.

So it’s up to Johnson to ensure that senior civil servants don’t promote, in practice if not in theory, causes that are outside any reasonable reading of its code – such as Black Lives Matter which, on any impartial reading, is tainted by anti-white dogma.  (Which doesn’t for a moment preclude following-up on Theresa May’s observation that “if you’re black, you’re treated more harshly by the criminal justice system than if you’re white”.)

Cultural change isn’t driven by governments, and thank goodness for that.  Over time, those that have transformed human lives most are the products of human invention (railways; the pill; vaccines) or conviction (the Abrahamic religions; the Enlightenment; secular humanism – or, talking of black lives mattering, America’s civil war.

But though the role of government should be limited, it is real, and modern Britain will always be more than just a market with a flag on top.  Governments propose laws, present manifestos, fund public services, make arguments – just as Johnson’s pre-election one did for delivering Brexit. And, talking of Extinction Rebellion, set the framework for policing policy.

We’d like to see the Prime Minister speak more swiftly when what Neil O’Brien calls the New Puritans – i.e: the legions of the woke – try to silence their opponents.  And ensure that the Government keeps them out of what government does.  Were Cummings and co to reduce its size and scope, that task would become just a bit easier.

Iain Dale: Good luck to Robbie Gibb’s prospective challenger to the BBC and Sky. And to News UK if it has a go, too.

4 Sep

Iain Dale presents the evening show on LBC Radio and the For the Many podcast with Jacqui Smith.

On Wednesday, the German government declared that the Russian opposition leader, Alexei Navalny, had indeed be poisoned, and that the nerve agent used was Novichok.

Predictably the Kremlin denied any involvement whatsoever, thereby taking the West for fools yet again. Novichok appears to have become the poison of choice for the Russian Government’s Federal Security Service (FSB). For an apparently developed country to sanction the use of chemical weapons against its own citizens is both unconscionable, and tells us a lot about the ruthlessness of Valdimir Putin.

It is inconceivable that he doesn’t know it is going on, whether or not he gives the direct orders or not. After Salisbury, he could have read the riot act to his former colleagues in the FSB and said: ‘Never again’. He chose not to – and the poisoning of his main political opponent is the result.

So what should the response be? When he was Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson did brilliantly to persuade 20 countries to expel more than 130 Russian diplomats. That was fine, but it didn’t go far enough. All western countries should now impose the most severe Magnitsky sanctions possible against all senior members of the FSB and every single member of the Russian cabinet, including Putin himself.

Germany will be key here. Angela Merkel has enjoyed a better relationship with Putin than most western leaders, and Russia and Germany enjoy economic ties which Britain and Russia do not have.

For Germany to take serious measures against the Kremlin may be the jolt that Putin needs if he is to re-evaluate his ‘poison policy’. Or he may respond by threatening to switch off the supply of gas to Western Europe. If you appease people like Putin, they just laugh at you. The time for serious action is now.

– – – – – – – – – –

I’ve enjoyed reading Philip Collins in The Times over the last twelve years. Sadly he’s been let go as a weekly columnist, but by most standards he’s had a good innings.

He fired off a parting shot email which was particularly ill-judged and ungracious. Rather than thank The Times for giving him the space to air his views over twelve years, he complained that he’d been let go in a thirty second conversation.

Galling, yes, but it’s always better to leave with your head held high, even if you think your benefactors have made a huge mistake. Bitterness is never a good look.

All columnists, and radio presenters for that matter, know that as each hour passes, their day of departure looms ever nearer. I’ve been on LBC for eleven years now. I hope when my time comes I conduct myself with due decorum, but also  hope that day is a long way off!

– – – – – – – – – –

It is rumoured that two more news channels may appear on our screens before too long. There’s little doubt that there is growing dissatisfaction with the news coverage provided by Sky and the BBC, but there is a big question-mark over whether the news viewing market is big enough to sustain new entrants. And would a news channel with a centre-right slant be able to garner enough of an audience to make it commercially viable?

GB News (let’s hope that if it gets on air it has a snappier name) is led by Robbie Gibb and an ex-head of Sky Australia. News UK is also rumoured to be planning something similar.

Both are at pains to say their vision does not involve becoming a UK version of Fox News. Would conventional advertisers be flocking to advertise on a right of centre TV channel? They advertise in right of centre newspapers, so there is no reason why not, I suppose, but I suspect they will take some convincing.

Whoever the financial backers of these channels may be will need to have some very deep pockets indeed to get them through the initial few years. Running costs will go into the tens of millions of pounds. I wish both enterprises luck, because competition is always good, and new entrants to a market can help shake the existing channels out of their rank complacency.

I remember that when Stephan Shakespeare, Tim Montgomerie, Donal Blaney and I started 18 Doughty Street TV in 2006 how difficult it was to build an audience. In those days few people watched video, live or not, on their laptops. Smartphones hadn’t then been invented. In retrospect, we were ten years ahead of our time. Such a channel would do really well nowadays, I suspect.

Televised press briefings are an ill-conceived American transplant that Britain should reject

29 Aug

Yesterday’s Times reported that Sky News and BBC News, the country’s two major 24-hour news channels, have refused to commit to broadcasting the Government’s new, televised press briefings every day.

The broadcasters are apparently sensitive of appearing to be giving excessive airtime to what amounts to a massive spinning exercise, and therefore say they will only commit to showing the footage ‘on merit’.

Really the only thing surprising about this is that someone in Downing Street might have thought it wouldn’t be the case. It would be extremely obliging of the main channels to cede so much broadcast real estate so cheaply.

But even with this sensible attitude in place, it seems inevitable that daily televised press conferences will have the same baleful impact on British politics as their US inspiration has had across the water. In lean times it gives Government spinners something else to bend the business of governing out of shape around, and when a crisis hits it risks devolving into a poisonous stand-off, with reporters competing to ‘look tough for the cameras’.

Even without the unpromising example of America, the auguries for this initiative aren’t good. Months of daily Covid-19 press briefings have provided ample demonstration of how these set pieces distort ministers’ priorities – recall the desperate scramble to appear to hit Matt Hancock’s ‘100,000 tests a day’ target.

But with the Prime Minister apparently determined to press ahead with this, are we doomed to see it become a permanent feature of British politics? It certainly could. As Daniel Finkelstein writes: “Once you’ve opened the door to the cameras, which press secretary is going to be the one who shuts it?”

The pressure in favour of the cameras is certainly strong. It is very unfashionable these days to suggest that the business of an institution like the lobby is better conducted behind closed doors. It’s much the same with Parliament: it isn’t obvious that televising the Chamber has improved the quality of what goes on inside it, but Heaven help the hero who tries to turn those cameras off again.

And for all their apparent even handedness now, in the end we can expect the broadcasters to throw their weight any change which increases their importance and gives them more material, as they have with that other unhappy American transplant, televised election debates.

But the example of debates also shows us how tricky it can be to import such rituals from one system to another. Whilst the format has lurched on through every general election since 2010, the reality of British multi-party politics has meant that there was no smooth standardisation of the three-leaders, three-debate format of that first contest. David Cameron, Theresa May, and even Boris Johnson have managed to fight effective rearguard actions against the format.

So the day may yet come when a future press secretary closes the door on the press briefings once again. As it should be.

James Somerville-Meikle: The SNP’s overhaul of hate crime legislation is a threat to freedom of expression in Scotland

7 Aug

James Somerville-Meikle is Head of Public Affairs at the Catholic Union of Great Britain.

What do Catholic Bishops and the National Secular Society have in common?

Despite their different world views, they have found common ground in opposing the SNP’s overhaul of hate crime legislation – which both groups fear will damage freedom of expression in Scotland.

The Scottish Government’s Hate Crime and Public Order (Scotland) Bill was introduced earlier this year with the aim of helping to “build community cohesion”. It has proved more effective than Scottish Ministers could ever have imagined. Most of civil society in Scotland is now united in opposition to the Bill.

A recent consultation by Holyrood’s Justice Committee revealed the full extent of this opposition – which goes well beyond the usual nationalist critics. The Society of Scottish Newspapers, the Law Society of Scotland, and the Scottish Police Federation, have all publicly called for a rethink from the Scottish Government.

A new campaign group – Free to Disagree – has started to oppose the Bill, led by former SNP Deputy Leader Jim Sillars, the National Secular Society, and the Christian Institute. To have brought together such a diverse range of opponents is a pretty impressive achievement by the SNP’s Justice Secretary, Humza Yousaf.

But it’s the criticism from the Scottish Catholic Bishops which is perhaps the most striking.

In their submission to the Justice Committee, the Bishops warn that “a new offence of possessing inflammatory material could even render material such as the Bible and the Catechism of the Catholic Church… inflammatory.”

Let’s be clear what this means – the Catholic Church, which counts around 700,000 followers in Scotland, is worried that legislation currently being considered by the Scottish Parliament could make expressing their beliefs a criminal offence.

The Bishops acknowledge their concerns are based on a “low threshold” interpretation of the proposed new offence. But the fact that such concerns exist at all is extraordinary.

Catholic Bishops in Scotland choose their battles carefully – conscious of a public sphere that does not take kindly to lectures from Bishops. The strength of their public comments shows just how much concern there is about the Bill. It’s also perhaps a sign they think this is one area where they might be able to force a change of approach from the Scottish Government.

The Bill would also introduce a new offence of “stirring up hatred” against certain groups, even if a person making the remarks had not intended any offence.

Currently in Scotland, the offence of “stirring up hatred” only applies in respect of race, but this would be expanded under the Bill to include “age, disability, religion, sexual orientation, transgender identity, and variation in sex characteristics.”

This huge expansion of the law is not combined with any definition of what “stirring up hatred” means. The Bill’s Explanatory Notes say that an offence could be committed through “behaviour of any kind”, which “may consist of a single act or a course of conduct.” In other words, pretty much anything could constitute an offence.

Crucially, criminal behaviour under the new law would be based on offence caused, rather than intended – a significant difference to England and Wales where intent is required for a person to be criminalised for behaviour which someone finds insulting. As a result, it risks creating a situation in which offending becomes an offence.

It’s little wonder that police officers, lawyers, and journalists are deeply worried about the proposals. The Bill paints broad brush strokes and leaves others to work out the picture. The task of interpreting a law where offences are not wholly within your control but based on how others perceive your words and actions, is fraught with perils.

Catholic Bishops fear this could lead to a “deluge of vexatious claims”. The Scottish Police Federation warns it could mean officers “determining free speech”, leading to a breakdown in relations with the public. And the Law Society of Scotland raised concerns that “certain behaviour, views expressed or even an actor’s performance, which might well be deemed insulting or offensive, could result in a criminal conviction under the terms of the bill as currently drafted.” Not exactly the cohesive society envisaged by the Scottish Government.

At the heart of this debate is a fundamental question about what a cohesive and tolerant society looks like. Does tolerance require conformity and removing any possible source of offence? Or does it mean accepting and respecting difference of opinion within certain red lines?

To use No 10’s language – it’s a question of whether we level up or level down when it comes to freedom of expression. In the case of the SNP’s proposals, it looks like a race to the bottom.

This is not an enviable position. As Stephen Evans from the National Secular Society points out:

“Freedom to say only what others find acceptable is no freedom at all.”

There is still time for the Scottish Government to reconsider its approach. Most of the groups opposed to the Bill, including the Catholic Bishops, agree that stirring up hatred is wrong, and would welcome an update to hate crime legislation. But the current approach is not working and Scottish Ministers must realise that.

Creating a catch-all offence, and passing the buck to the police and courts, is not the way forward. It’s sloppy law-making, and risks threatening the vibrancy and diversity of life in Scotland.

The publication of the Bill has shown that people with completely different views are capable of respecting one another, and even working together for a common cause.

What unites religious and secular voices is a belief in freedom of expression. This must be upheld, or we will all suffer as a result.

Radical: an open letter to Liz Truss. We urge you to see through your commitment to protect single sex spaces.

21 Jul

Dear Liz,

As you know, we’ve been thinking hard about sex and gender issues. We launched our Radical campaign last November, with the aim of searching out the truth, from a position committed to freedom, tolerance, and equal respect.

As planned, we’ve engaged with people from across the political spectrum, and learned lots from researchers, activists, practitioners, and more. We’re writing to you now to share our latest thoughts, ahead of your expected announcement on the outcome of the consultation on reforms to the Gender Recognition Act.

Our initial instincts haven’t changed much, although our concern has grown, greatly, the more we’ve learned. Our view remains that people who choose to act in ways stereotypically associated with membership of the opposite biological sex should be treated just as respectfully as anyone else, all other things being equal.

But also, that this doesn’t equate to believing that the law should mandate that biological men must be treated as women, and vice versa, solely on their demand – via ‘self-ID’. That would not only risk a downgrading of the value of truth in our society, it would have serious detrimental consequences for the policy prescriptions that seek to ensure equal opportunity, and the social-science research and records that inform these policies. It would also constitute a safety risk to girls and women, by effectively outlawing single-sex spaces and services.

Our view also remains that, if adults wish to seek medical intervention to make their bodies resemble those of members of the opposite sex, they should be free to do so. But, that in the case of children, such interventions are always wrong: over the past year, we’ve grown even more committed to fighting against these interventions, which equate to child abuse.

We’ve been grateful to write for ConservativeHome, once a fortnight, about why we hold these views — sharing what we’ve learned with the conservative community. We were aware that many people on the centre-right weren’t engaged with these matters, and we’ve sought to change that.

On that topic, as you’ll know, there’s been a recent flurry of polling and campaigning on sex and gender matters. We believe that the results of recent polls – and how they’ve been reported – serve to illustrate public confusion about relevant current laws, and the reforms that’ve been proposed.

This confusion is persistently manifested in mainstream-media reportage, in policy documents published by state bodies, and in statements by high-profile commentators and politicians. This confusion, as we’ve written here many times, has been propagated by a set of powerful activists, who’ve seized on the uncertainty they’ve sown, to advance their political cause.

Pink News – the chosen media outlet of many of these activists – recently published, with great fanfare, the finding that most women in Britain support the right of transpeople to self-identify. This, they proclaimed, means that the law must be changed to remove the current procedural requirements for obtaining a Gender Recognition Certificate (the document that legally changes a person’s sex).

However, what Pink News has actually done, is to highlight – inadvertently, no doubt – the reason why maintaining these controls on changing legal sex is so important. And also, how the retention of these controls is not only expected by the public, but that these controls are not generally seen as illiberal, or as ‘denying the existence’ of transpeople.

More detailed polling, subsequently released by YouGov, does indeed show high levels of support for people being able to self-identify their gender. But it also shows much lower levels of support for the idea of transwomen using women-only facilities, and serious disagreement — from almost all sections of society — with the idea that the legal ‘gender’-change process should be ‘made easier’.

It also shows widespread opposition to people who’ve not had gender-reassignment surgery using facilities reserved for the opposite sex. This is a crushing blow to those claiming that self-identified gender identity should solely determine one’s entitlements regarding single-sex services. It reflects the traditional understanding that ‘sex’ relates to membership of the biological sets of male or female, and that ‘gender’ relates to stereotypical societal understandings of masculinity and femininity.

As you know, we’re fully committed to free expression, and we’ve stressed many times that we’ll die on the hill for people to be allowed to dress and act however they like. But that doesn’t mean that men – adult human males – should be housed in women’s refuges or prison wings.

Now, you’ll be aware of current siren calls for ‘compromise’, rippling through Conservative Party circles. Common to these is the claim that a Gender Recognition Certificate (GRC) is ‘just a piece of paper’ – and, that, if a GRC makes a vulnerable transperson feel more secure and validated, then what’s the harm in making GRCs available, on demand?

Well, those making such calls simply cannot be aware of the realities of the current relevant laws – and the repercussions such a change would have. It would not only make it much harder to exclude men from women-only spaces, it would also destabilise all manner of legal structures, from equal pay to sex discrimination law to criminal law.

Sadly, the truth is that, as a society, we’ve moved beyond the opportunity of dealing with these matters at the level of individual choice and decency. We urgently need laws that clearly prevent men seeking residency in women’s refuges and prisons; that prevent men rendering women’s sport null; and, yes, that even help to prevent men using women’s toilets.

This is an extremely depressing, yet fully accurate conclusion. And, yes, the current laws are imperfect. In an ideal world, they would be torn up and rewritten, but – unless you have the time to do that (!) – then we are where we are, and the inevitable negative effects of changing these laws must be accepted.

So we urge you to resist the calls for so-called ‘compromise’, and to see through your commitment to protecting single-sex spaces, and to maintaining checks and balances in the gender-recognition process.

Neither of those commitments can be honoured by allowing self-ID. But that doesn’t mean there’s nothing you can do to help support transpeople, and those suffering from gender dysphoria. Aside from small, genuine, unharmful direct compromises — such as removing the fee from seeking a GRC — foremost in these positive actions should be to improve resources for young people.

It must be ensured that children and teenagers get the proper support they need — and they must be protected from being instrumentalised and abused by political activists and politicised medical professionals.

Beyond that, we believe your priority should be to meet the urgent need for the review and clarification of formal guidance around relevant law. On all the YouGov questions, between 21 and 30 per cent of people answered ‘don’t know’. This is unsurprising, given the arcane nature of much of the debate, and — as previously emphasised — the confusing and often seriously manipulated advice that government departments and local authorities have been publishing and endorsing.

With very best wishes,

Rebecca Lowe and Victoria Hewson

The arts bailout: a reminder not to underestimate Dowden

6 Jul

In recent weeks, it’s fair to say that Oliver Dowden, the Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, hasn’t been particularly popular with the arts sector. After the industry was badly affected by the Coronavirus crisis and the mass closures of theatres, cinemas and the rest, many accused him of not doing enough.

Indeed, when he announced a five-stage roadmap to help businesses recover, people took this as evidence of a man who’s all talk and no action. “If you and your government have no desire to invest in and save theatre, then you should at least announce that decision as soon as possible”, posted one individual on Twitter, very much encompassing the general attitude.

With that being said, yesterday the culture secretary forced everyone to reconsider their perceptions of him after he managed to negotiate £1.57 million in funding for the industry. As The Times put it: “The phrase ‘from zero to hero’ may be overused, but what better words describe Oliver Dowden today?” It was an achievement that will not only transform the future of the arts sector, but that of Dowden within the political sphere, who is experiencing his first real arrival on the public stage – the same way Rishi Sunak did when appointed Chancellor.

Dowden’s announcement speaks, first, of his ability as a PR man. Despite the fact that Sunak is announcing a series of measures on Wednesday – including stamp duty scrapped for first-time buyers and an investment in green jobs – the culture secretary managed to get his own statement a centre stage slot over the weekend.

The announcement is not only impressive in its pledges – which includes £120 million capital infrastructure and for heritage construction projects in England, among others – but the list of illustrious names who’ve added their support to it, such as Andrew Lloyd Webber, Sir Simon Rattle and Alex Beard, the Chief Executive of the Royal Opera House.

There’s also the fact, of course, that Dowden negotiated such an enormous bailout in the first place. It indicates that he has great influence in Downing Street, which he’s been developing for years, having started out as a specialist adviser and as David Cameron’s deputy chief of staff. Now the political networking is paying off.

Although the package is not perfect – there have been complaints about whether it can support smaller venues and freelancers – it has received an overwhelmingly positive response. It is a real vindication that we have been listened to“, Kwame Kwei-Armah, artistic director of the Young Vic, told Times Radio; Sir Nicholas Hytner, once Artistic Director of the National Theatre, said it was a better plan than anyone expected.

Throughout the Coronavirus crisis, Dowden has pledged to sort out an investment for the arts – even if no one believed him – so the fact that he has not so much succeeded, but exceeded all expectations, bodes well for his future in the party – though not perhaps for the BBC, which he has previously argued needs an ideological shake-up. And, as Sunday’s news shows, Dowden is a man who means business. 

Angela Richardson: Recovery cannot come a moment too soon for the performing arts

3 Jul

Angela Richardson is the Conservative MP for Guilford.

The performing arts has had the most profound impact on my life. Music dominated the landscape of my early years with a piano beautifully played by my mother, cornet and trumpet by my father and the sound of his lovely tenor voice.

We gathered, often with extended family around the piano to sing and I would have my afternoon nap as a toddler on a pile of cushions with classical music on the record player. My siblings would cringe as they heard me trying to learn how to sing harmony with the headphones on, the relevant melody silenced, but hours in childhood were devoted to learning how to express everything I could hear, even if it took time to make the mechanical side of producing it work.

There were many reasons to start attending my local Baptist Church in West Auckland, New Zealand as a twelve year old, including social ones. But in my most straightforward of ways, I went up to the pianist after the first service and started singing while he played, was given a microphone the following week and spent the rest of my teenage years up the front, with the band, as well as rehearsing several times a week. My dearest friendships were formed through music.

My parents were not devotees of the performing arts. It was an anathema to them and I had to audition for school plays without their permission, being cast at thirteen in productions that were the preserve of the senior students.

The frustration of being handed a choice between studying music and drama at fifteen was unbearable. My parents strongly lobbied for music and I acquiesced, though luckily enough for me, my state school offered Dance in sixth form and I countered with studying that for a year at sixteen. I’m sure many families have been through this tussle with their teenagers.

Through working life and early parenthood, opportunities to perform were few and far between. Life is about seasons and this period was particularly dry on the musical and theatre front until I moved with my husband and children to the small and lovely village of Ewhurst in Surrey, which is blessed to have the most astonishingly wonderful Ewhurst Players. Multiple NODA award-winning productions and a genuine centre of our village life.

It’s easy to lose your confidence when you have been at home looking after small children with a significant narrowing of horizons and I give huge credit to the Ewhurst Players with helping me rediscover mine and ultimately stand for public office.

In 2012, I plucked up the courage to audition for their Diamond Jubilee Review and they welcomed me with open arms. The bug hit hard and I auditioned and was successfully cast in almost every production over the next six years and turned my hand to directing a pantomime for five to nine year olds and a short adult play, having a go at ever including vocal coaching an adult pantomime and prompting from the wings.

This new family was full of the most wonderful characters, bringing joy, laughter and moments of profound understanding of the human condition to our audiences drawn from near and far.

It’s this most important facet of connection between us all that has been sorely missed over these many weeks of lockdown. While many innovative and dynamic production companies in Guildford have moved elements of performance online, the understandable frustration of being one of the last cultural gems to come out of lockdown is taking an enormous toll on the industry, professional and amateur.

So, too, is the genuine financial concern of these companies and their players. We have the brilliant Yvonne Arnaud Theatre, Guildford Shakespeare Company, The Guildford Fringe, The Electric Theatre and the renowned Guildford School of Acting to name but a few.

The heroic endeavours of the Treasury to mitigate the economic impact of Coronavirus have been rightly hailed as extraordinary. The DCMS Secretary of State, Oliver Dowden, has signalled a roadmap for the recovery of the performing arts and pockets of funding have been received through generous grant schemes.

But I fundamentally agree that solid detail which I know is being worked on a speed needs to come sooner rather than later. Recovery cannot come a moment too soon.

I try to take the personal out of the political and look at the overall cost/benefit analysis to society and the unintended consequences in all we do. I do have a personal stake in this, but I know and I am sure that many will agree with me, that their lives are richer for the Christmas pantomimes they have attended, their own chance to shine in their primary school nativity play or the musical festivals or rock concerts that mark a summer on the cusp of adulthood, never forgotten.

Nor will many forget the first time they ever saw ballet, opera, Shakespeare or attended a Proms Concert and sang Land of Hope and Glory at the top of their lungs while conducting the orchestra with a Union Jack in hand.

Our rich cultural heritage and ground-breaking performances are as much of the beating heart of this country as is our economic prosperity. It is part of our global soft power and the sooner we can have both running successfully in tandem, the sooner we will thrive once again.