Scotland's cancel culture is silencing dissenting voices and views – John McLellan

If “cancel culture” was a term in years gone by, it would have referred to the willingness of public transport operators to withdraw services without notice as the easiest option to deal with problems, with poor travellers left standing in the cold.
Edinburgh SNP MP Joanna Cherry has faced a campaign of vilification (Picture: Andrew Milligan/PA Wire)Edinburgh SNP MP Joanna Cherry has faced a campaign of vilification (Picture: Andrew Milligan/PA Wire)
Edinburgh SNP MP Joanna Cherry has faced a campaign of vilification (Picture: Andrew Milligan/PA Wire)

While the soon-to-be-nationalised ScotRail has been accused of over-enthusiasm for not running services as a means to deal with staff shortages, at least the temporary timetables are being scrapped this weekend and perhaps commuters can expect a return to some normality in the next few weeks.

As for “cancel culture” in the modern sense of closing down debate and a ferocious intolerance of differing points of view, if only it was a matter of designating a day for a return to some semblance of balance.

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Of course, an aggressive rejection of alternative outlooks is nothing new but, perhaps fuelled by the poisonous extremes of social media, intolerance is everywhere and intensifying, and calls for balance are themselves regarded as a denial of decency, the middle ground as defeat in pursuit of absolutism.

Edinburgh’s controversial Slavery and Colonialism Legacy Review is a perfect example, with its chair Sir Geoffrey Palmer accusing respected academics Jonathan Hearn and Sir Tom Devine of being part of a “racist gang” because they take issue with his group’s conclusion that the enslavement of half-a-million Africans “was a consequence” of Home Secretary Sir Henry Dundas’s actions at the end of the 18th century, when abolition was delayed until 1807.

Trying to sum up a lifetime’s actions of as complex an individual as Dundas in a sound-bite for a statue plaque was always likely to fail the test of close examination by experts, but it seems there would be no other conclusion than Dundas was a thoroughly bad man. However, for those experts to be defamed as racists for expressing an honestly held opinion that the facts do not support a simplistic assertion is very dangerous territory.

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But it has taken a new twist because their counter-analysis of Dundas’s record ─ pointing to his key role in having slavery ruled illegal in Scotland at the Court of Session in 1777, and his 1792 Commons statement in which he said “the slave trade ought to be abolished” ─ has been questioned by Edinburgh Council’s political leaders, not for its content but its presumed intent.

In an amendment at this week’s full council meeting, SNP leader Adam McVey and his deputy, Labour’s Cammy Day, asked if in entering the debate Professor Hearn and Sir Tom had considered “whether their comments are based on opinion or established facts and also whether the way they express those viewpoints actively contributes to an antiracist culture in Edinburgh”.

It takes some gall for such amateurs to suggest Scotland’s pre-eminent historian hasn’t based his views on facts, but the clear inference is that even if accurate information is uncovered which debunks a particular conclusion, they should be kept under wraps if they undermine a wider goal.

Until Sir Geoffrey’s outburst on social media, there has never been any suggestion that Sir Tom’s extensive examination of Scotland’s links to slavery has had any racist undercurrent, but here are Edinburgh’s civic leaders effectively arguing that he, or any other historian, should keep quiet if what they find does not fit with a pre-determined narrative.

Thursday’s debate sunk to even lower levels when Conservative Councillor Nick Cook, who is of mixed-race origin through his Asian great-grandmother and had brought a motion critical of Sir Geoffrey’s attack, was himself attacked by a Green councillor for "a startling lack of self-awareness for a white man".

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The approving nods from SNP, Labour and Green councillors, all white and similarly ignorant of Cllr Cook’s background, were a clear sign of widespread support for the view that a white person has no business criticising anything to do with an anti-racism campaign even if those criticisms are justified.

Their subsequent sheepish private apologies seemed to confirm that the racial background of a speaker matters more than what is being said. Sir Tom might agree.

Similarly, in the bitter divisions over gender and sex-based rights, women speaking up for women seems to matter less than the purity of policy. It has resulted in a campaign of vilification against Edinburgh SNP MP Joanna Cherry which has gone on virtually unabated, contrasted by a deafening silence from her leadership because of her unwillingness to bend to groupthink.

It’s an experience which Edinburgh’s now ex-SNP councillor Alison Dickie will recognise, ostracised by her leadership because she too refused to be silenced, in her case speaking up for whistle-blowing council staff determined to seek justice for the bullying and intimidation they suffered in the workplace.

At every step going back over 20 years, whistle-blowers with genuine grievances have struggled to be heard and believed by Edinburgh Council; the badly-needed review of Edinburgh Council’s management culture only came about because of the suicide of disgraced senior social worker Sean Bell, and just this week their representative Christine Scott was at first refused permission to address councillors and was only able to do so after pressure was brought to bear.

With Conservative councillor Cameron Rose, Ms Dickie has been a passionate advocate for bullied staff and over 25 people have gone to her with concerns, but for her passion she has been insulted and abandoned, despite it being glaringly obvious that by extension the council leadership was also insulting and abandoning those who had sought her help.

In the Scottish Parliament and town halls, proportional representation was supposed to breathe life into decision-making because more views would be represented, but instead it’s created a platform for opinions to be marginalised, where consensus means agreeing with the ruling coterie and, when there’s a problem, deals are struck behind closed doors so the public is presented with a fait accomplis.

As Jim Morison of The Doors sang, cancel my subscription to the resurrection.

John McLellan is a Conservative councillor in Edinburgh

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