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2020: when hairstyles were racist, statues needed police protection and Edinburgh University cancelled David Hume.

For most of the 20th Century being on the political left meant supporting a set of principles dating from the European Enlightenment.  Humanism, progress, freedom of speech, scientific objectivity, tolerance. In 2020 the left seemed to be choosing a different course: a regression to dogmatism and narrow-minded intolerance. We saw this most egregiously when a small group of student activists succeeded in “cancelling” David Hume, arguably the greatest philosopher of the European Enlightenment.

Hume’s name was erased from the university precincts because of a 1758 footnote which suggested that non-white races were incapable of becoming civilised. The David Hume Tower will now be called “40 George Square”.  The culture warriors initially wanted it to be renamed Julius Nyerere Tower, after the Tanzanian President, until someone pointed out that he was a homophobe as well as a dictator. Many people, myself included, pointed out that George 111, after whom George Square is named, was hardly a snowflake himself. He presided over the greatest colonial expansion of the British Empire to date, mostly in America and India.

King George also opposed the abolition of the slave trade. But by this stage the petitioners were suffering from indignation fatigue and decided call it quits, pretending the address was merely administrative. It was like cancelling the Parthenon because the Greeks held slaves and calling the Acropolis by its Athens post code.

Scotland’s leading historian, Sir Tom Devine, took the student campaigners to task for applying modern values to historical figures. But I blame Edinburgh University – of which I used to be Rector – for caving in to this brainless philistinism. They should have told the agitators that our modern notions of liberal humanism, progress and even socialism date from the philosophies of the European Enlightenment, of which David Hume was arguably the greatest exponent. 

Most of the teenage iconoclasts probably regard themselves as followers of Karl Marx , who was fully aware of his debt to the advocates of reason in human affairs, like Hume, Kant and Hegel – none of whom would stand up to the woke test of moral probity. Mind you, nor would the father of communism himself. In “On The Jewish Question” Marx wrote: “What is the worldly religion of the Jew? Huckstering. What is his worldly God? Money. Money is the jealous god of Israel in face of which no other god may exist”.  It can surely only be a matter of time before Marx himself is cancelled by the witch-finders for his ostentatious antisemitism. 

The proximate cause of last year’s “awokening” was of course Black Lives Matter. The death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police had an extraordinary resonance and led to an orgy of statue-toppling across Britain in the cause of anti-racism. The Liverpool slave-trader, Edward Colston, ended up in the drink, and Winston Churchill had to be placed in a wooden box in Parliament Square. Then, in mid lockdown, the wrath of the righteous was turned on the statue of Henry Dundas, the former Scottish Secretary, which sits on a column in Edinburgh’s St Andrews Square. 

Dundas’s crime was that he allegedly obstructed the abolition of the slave trade in the late 18th Century. But once again, an absence of historical nuance caused this campaign to backfire rather spectacularly. Not only was Dundas an abolitionist, albeit a gradualist, he also made his name as a lawyer by defending a runaway slave, Joseph Knight, in 1778, assuring his freedom. This landmark case established, for the first time, that slavery was illegal in Scotland. 

Unthinking denunciation has led to repeated historical blunders like this. Take the campaign against “Rule Britannia” at the last night of the Proms. A BBC “Songs of Praise” producer, Cat Lewis, compared this to celebrating the Holocaust. Yet Rule Britannia has nothing to do with slavery or race. It’s a Unionist anthem, written by a Scottish poet, James Thomson, in 1740 to celebrate the Glorious Revolution and the end of absolutist tyranny. The keyboard warriors on Twitter were inadvertently bigging up the Jacobite cause and the Divine Right of Kings. 

Robert Burns had a name for these sanctimonious finger pointers: the “unco guid”. Scotland’s poet of the common man was in turn accused by them of racial iniquity because he considered working on a slave plantation in the West Indies – a career move which was common amongst his contemporaries. Yet his poetic works, from A Man’s a Man to The Slave’s Lament, should demonstrate to anyone with an ounce of sense that Burns was no racist bigot, though like Hume he was a product of his times. 

This silly inquisition of historical figures became an obsession. Even Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir were sin-binned along with Einstein and Bertrand Russell. The former were nasty pederasts who had sex with students, and the latter were misogynistic philanderers. 

The most ridiculous campaign of 2020 was against the cultural appropriation of corn rows. The “Little Women” actress, Florence Pugh, made a grovelling apology for wearing braided hair when she was 17. Her crime had been stealing black hairstyles from black folks. Yet most ancient civilisations also wore braided hair, or corn rows, at some stage. Indeed, you could argue that black Americans were guilty of cultural appropriation of the Egyptians. 

Almost as daft was the Twitter campaign to boycott “Tory” Yorkshire Tea, which broke in February after the Chancellor, Rishi Sunak, said it was his favourite. One of the saddest aspects of the contemporary left is an inability to laugh at itself. Andrew Doyle’s satirical creation, “Titania McGrath” was one of the few shafts of humorous light in the gloom of 2020. Titania is a trustafarian justice warrior who identifies as a black transgender male – or is it the other way round. “The only thing that’s white about me is my skin”, says Titania, who thinks that young men should be prosecuted for rape after wet dreams. Doyle was denounced as an “alt right transphobe” for lampooning of the absurdities of Twitter politics, even though he is a gay Labour voter, who used to support Jeremy Corbyn.

Sometimes it was hard to parody the reality. In February, Labour’s Equalities Spokeswoman, Dawn Butler, announced that “children are born without a sex”.  She believes that sex is “assigned” to babies at birth, presumably by transphobic midwives, and not observed.  Biological sex is thus a matter of personal choice not scientific reality. The Scottish Government seems to agree and advises people to “self-identify” their sex in the (delayed) National Census, thus rendering the most important collection of social statistics unreliable.

Sexual liberation and the abolition of laws against homosexuality are of course among the greatest achievements of Enlightenment thinking. Trans people are direct beneficiaries of humanism, individualism and intellectual freedom – ideas promoted by David Hume. But the gender left seems to prefer magical thinking.  Ms Butler went on to say that “to talk about penises and vaginas doesn’t help because then you’re saying that a transwoman isn’t a woman”. To suggest that a transgender woman is not literally female is, in her view, “transphobic”. She went further and said that it is “hate crime”.

Many feminist writers, like JK Rowling, Julie Blindel, were vilified in 2020 simply for arguing that sex is real, and that if saying so is transphobic then so are textbooks on human reproduction.  JK Rowling was disowned by some of the Harry Potter actors who owe their celebrity to her writing.  The columnist Suzanne Moore was pitch-forked out of the Guardian for the heresy of biological thinking. The feminist writer, Beatrix Campbell, left the Green Party, along with the MSP Andy Wightman, because they couldn’t tolerate the suppression of debate about sex and gender in that supposedly progressive party. They were attacked for hate speech, transphobia and bigotry, though it hard to think of anyone less bigoted than Andy Wightman, author of “The Poor Had No Lawyers”.

Hate crime prosecution is more than an empty threat too. Under the Scottish Government’s Hate Crime Bill, saying that “humans cannot change sex: or “a woman is an adult female” could very well lead to prosecution for “stirring up hatred”, if enough people claim they feel abused or threatened by such remarks. The tax researcher, Maya Forstater, found this out the hard way when her appeal against being sacked for saying sex is real was rejected on the grounds that her words were hate speech. Thus has a supposedly left-wing leader, Nicola Sturgeon, adopted a policy that even the Scottish Police Federation say will damage freedom of speech. 

David Hume would have been appalled to discover that so-called progressives have become so tolerant of free expression. So why has the left departed from liberal values? Well, possibly because most of the great campaigns of the liberal era have been won. Abortion is legal, as is homosexuality, same sex marriage and no fault divorce. Public attitudes towards sexual minorities,  including transwomen, have changed out of all recognition. From being feared and demonised, gay and trans people are now celebrated in the media for their creativity and vision.  Similarly, no one thinks black people should be discriminated against, apart from a handful of knuckle-dragging racists. The British Social Attitudes Survey repeatedly confirms that British people are more liberal and open minded than at any time in history.

Perhaps the left is just a victim of it own success. Youthful radicals, devoid of targets, have taken to attacking statues, biology and what is called “white privilege”, the intersectional doctrine that all white people are racist even if they aren’t.  The left used to celebrate being “colour blind” to race. Martin Luther King said that people should be judged “on the content of their character rather than the colour of their skin”. Now race writers like Reni Eddo-Lodge proudly say they are “no longer talking to white people about race”, thus dismissing them because of the colour of their skin. 

Environmentalism came in from the cold many years ago and anthropogenic climate change is now a political consensus endorsed by Conservatives like Boris Johnson. Polls show that voters now see global warming as a real and present danger. Oil companies are turning into renewable energy corporations because they realise the fossil fuel economy is dying.  This consensus doesn’t leave a lot of room for environmental radicals, which is probably why Extinction Rebellion has been getting into difficulties. Disrupting the green London underground and preventing newspapers being published, just two of its campaigns in 2020, were actions so counter-productive you’d be forgiven for thinking they were the work of agent provocateurs. 

And let’s not even start on the drive to “defund the police” which has largely remained a US phenomenon, despite determined efforts to import to Britain the idea that you can have justice without law-enforcement.  Perhaps this “infantile leftism”, as Lenin called it, is just a phase, magnified by social media. Though I would challenge the claim that woke thinking is actually left wing. It has little to do with class or socialism since it allocates individuals into a moral hierarchy of competing tribal victim groups based on race or gender. 

And it doesn’t attract many votes as Labour discovered in the last general election when it suffered its worst defeat since 1935 at the hands of Boris Johnson. Wokery is very much an urban phenomenon, propagated by keyboard warriors on Twitter denouncing each other for occult heresies and wrong think. Increasingly they are just talking to themselves. Perhaps Sir Keir Starmer will halt the left’s flight from enlightenment. He’ll have to if Labour is to win power again.


About @iainmacwhirter

I'm a columnist for the Herald. Author of "Road to Referendum" and "Disunited Kingdom". Was a BBC TV and radio presenter for 25 years - "Westminster Live" and "Holyrood Live" mainly. Spent time as columnist for The Observer, Guardian, New Statesman. Former Rector of Edinburgh University. Live in Edinburgh and spend a lot of time in the French Pyrenees. Will that do?


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