Member of the British House of Lords, Baroness Nicholso (Photo by Mohammed Huwais/AFP via Getty Images)
Artillery Row

A woman for all seasons

A rare brave voice in the House of Lords

Baroness Nicholson of Winterbourne is a Conservative peer from an ancient political lineage. Her family has been involved in politics for centuries, and she was raised within a patrician tradition. An elegant woman, she is greeted like an old friend by the waiters at the cafe where we meet. She is an unlikely contender to become a champion for left-wing feminists, but as a consequence of her advocacy for women she is regarded with admiration and affection by many. At a time when craven, dissembling politicians tiptoe around the minefield fearing career detonation, Baroness Nicholson is unafraid to tackle the stifling orthodoxy on sex and gender. Her willingness to listen to medical whistle-blowers and act on their revelations was evident in her attempt to revoke Annex B. 

As Baroness Nicholson has argued, Annex B is self-ID in practice

If you have never heard of Annex B, it is not surprising. It was slipped into NHS policy without media scrutiny or debate. In 2010, the NHS Constitution added a pledge to provide single-sex accommodation, and it is still mandatory for hospital trusts to record breaches of this policy. Patients are ill, perhaps facing surgery, in an unfamiliar environment they cannot control in close proximity with people they don’t know. It is axiomatic that they should not be in mixed wards. The reasons are obvious: privacy, dignity, safety. Annex B renders that paradigm commitment meaningless because it requires NHS staff to place patients in the ward they request. Its “broad and inclusive” definition of “transgender” is well worth reading. There is no requirement for a Gender Recognition Certificate (GRC), no requirement for any pharmaceutical or surgical “reassignment treatment”. There is zero requirement for a consistent identification with the opposite sex. Living “temporarily in a gender role” will suffice. If a man identifies fleetingly as “non-binary”, Annex B dictates that his demand to be placed in the women’s ward will be met. In an extraordinary example of ideological fervour, some hospitals included guidance that women who objected were to be told no men were present on the ward. As Baroness Nicholson has argued, it is self-ID in practice. She was unable to revoke Annex B, but she spotlighted this clandestine NHS policy and its serious ramifications. During the debate on the Health and Care Bill, she said, “I suggest that the rights of women are a priori a touchstone for any civilised society. We have got it wrong, we have somehow changed course.”

When she first started speaking in defence of women’s sex-segregated spaces, she received a private message of support from a female peer. Baroness Nicholson asked why more people were not speaking out about this. The reply was immediate. “People are frightened about the career repercussions. For their grandchildren.”

The House of Lords is the apotheosis of power and privilege. What does it say about the tattered state of freedom of speech in this country when its members remain silent for fear of family career annihilation? A blanket of itchy orthodoxy has been thrown over debate in the UK to smother dissent. 

In 1987 there were only 40 women in parliament. She was a trailblazer

Baroness Nicholson tells me that freedom of speech is key. “We are not here to be afraid,” she says, a note of steel in her voice. She talks about the abdication of responsibility by senior managers in powerful positions who defer to junior activists instead of challenging their demands and the chilling effect this is having on artistic freedom. She suggests that activists who are perched in pivotal, influential positions within institutions such as the NHS are able to implement policies driven by an ideological agenda. If activists are determined to implement policies that directly impinge on women’s rights, what can be done to challenge this? Media scrutiny and freedom of speech are imperative. Ask questions. “Be curious.” It is interesting that her emphasis on the freedom to challenge, as a cornerstone of democracy, is juxtaposed with those who denounce questions as heretical and expect deferential compliance.

Baroness Nicholson attended the Academy of Music when she was a young woman and had dreams of a musical career. Her life took a different path. When I ask her about her favourite piece of music, she tells me she loves “Guten Abend, Guten Nacht”, which you sing to children to soothe them to sleep. Her concern for women and children has motivated her to enter the fractious, often vituperative debate on sex and gender. She tells me she has listened to many women on the left and learned from them. Her willingness to listen, when so many politicians are deliberately deaf on this issue, is what elicits praise like this from Isidora Sanger, retired doctor and author of Born in the Right Body: “Baroness Nicholson has been an invaluable advocate for women patients and health care professionals within the NHS. She is one of the rare politicians with the compassion to listen and the courage to speak out in defence of our sex-based rights.” 

When she declared her intention to enter politics, her family were “horrified”, she tells me with a raucous laugh. Politics was not considered an appropriate arena for women. In 1987 there were only 40 women in parliament. She was a trailblazer. The political and institutional landscape is now dominated by evangelical advocates of a radical quasi religion who want to permanently dismantle the category “woman”. They are prepared to wage war on freedom of speech in pursuit of this goal. Is this progress? Not according to Baroness Nicholson, who refuses to remain silent in these curious times. 

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