Error has no honorary positions

What the Booker binning Emma Nicholson means for the public square

Artillery Row

There’s blood in the water and the sharks are moving in. On Wednesday, the Booker Prize distanced itself from honorary vice-president Baroness Nicholson, in response to criticisms of her tweets about trans rights and same-sex marriage. But a group of authors, led by Damian Barr, wanted more. The Baroness – who since 2009 has played no role in the running of the prize that her late husband had helped to establish – had to be not only disavowed, but symbolically obliterated. 

Marlon James, who won the Booker in 2015 for A Brief History of Seven Killings, and is gay, said: “It’s not enough to distance yourself from her views, you have to distance yourself from her and condemn HER.” Novelist Sarah Perry declared: “there is a world of difference between someone merely holding views, and someone in a position of power affirming those views publicly and irresponsibly and with no regard for distress caused to individuals or disrepute brought on an institution.” (Exactly what power an honorary position provided is unclear.)

In other words: there could be no room for someone like the Baroness in public life. By the end of the day, the Booker’s trustees had decided to abolish all honorary positions, including the one held by Nicholson. It’s hard not to feel a pang at what this must mean to her, given the personal nature of her relationship with the prize; then again, her critics could say that she didn’t show much consideration for their feelings, and they’d have a point. Having got into a spat with trans activist Munroe Bergdorf, some of Nicholson’s tweets come off crass. 

But I’m not here to defend Nicholson’s social media conduct, nor her views, which led her to vote against same-sex marriage in 2013. I think equal marriage is an unequivocal good, but then again, Nicholson is a conservative peer: aren’t they sort of expected to be like this? For her critics, a belief that marriage is between a man and a woman for the purposes of having children is self-evident proof of homophobia. 

Her defenestration is not about her actions, but about a forced realignment of what opinions are allowable in public life

James charged her with “speech calling for my erasure.” Barr claimed this meant she’d “have the wedding ring off my finger,” and asked: “How can we have any faith in a prize that has a person like this at the top of their organisation?” Well, you could perhaps look at the list of winners. Nicholson’s involvement in the Booker did not stop Alan Hollinghurst (gay) from winning for The Line of Beauty (about a gay protagonist) in 2004 – or, indeed, stand in the way of James getting the prize. If Nicholson was trying to erase him, she was not using her alleged powers very successfully. 

Here’s an alternative explanation: Nicholson, over the course of many years, has succeeded in not doing the thing her critics claimed to be worried about her doing. Perhaps she has been diligent about not bringing her alleged beliefs to work, or perhaps the Booker’s governance successfully nullified them. Perhaps she simply cleaves to a now-eccentric principle about the institution of marriage without having any negative feelings about gay men and lesbians individually. Whichever applies, it’s hard to detect the problem. Her defenestration is not about her actions, but about a forced realignment of what opinions are allowable in public life. 

That is worrying. Nicholson’s opinion on marriage was a minority one in the UK when she voted, but not that minority: in 2012, according to Ipsos Mori, 73% of British adults thought gay couples should be able to marry while a quarter opposed it. Those proportions have shifted further towards the liberal side over time, but there is still a non-trivial population who feel as Nicholson feels. Are they all also to be personally ostracised by right-thinking institutions?

If so, that would mean the end of public life for many observant religious people – Christian, Jewish, Muslim. (If we head too far in that direction, Nicholson’s detractors may find themselves open to the charge of Islamophobia, so perhaps they will not press the point.) And why stop at marriage, or trans issues? What about other hot-button social issues like surrogacy, or abortion? 

As a long-term supporter of abortion rights, I’ve come to the position that other people’s consciences are exactly that: other people’s consciences, and not mine. So long as opponents of abortion aren’t given positions where they can directly dictate access (so long as no one is about to make, say, Ann Widdecombe into the Abortion Czar), there’s no reason to oppose their appointment.

What’s the point of organisations which crumble as soon as they have to take a bit of heat?

And isn’t the gradual erosion of Nicholson’s support on marriage evidence that open discussion works? Opinions change. People who feared that Adam and Steve would be the end of society as we know it don’t fear that anymore, and none of them had to be kicked into permanent obscurity to make it happen. Even people who once upon a time expressed or nodded along with deeply homophobic sentiments, now welcome into their families their daughters’ wives, their grandsons’ husbands. 

This isn’t about hearts, though, and it’s certainly not about minds. Nicholson hardly matters. She’s a small scalp to make a bigger point: fall in line, or you go next. You’re either with us in the enforcement of identity politics norms, or we’re against you. There is a whole world of unpleasantness in the demand that the Booker Prize “condemn HER”. This was a campaign of a pointedly personal nature, justified by emotive claims about “erasure” and “distress”. 

For it to be the literary world that engages in this kind of hazing is, of course, depressing. What’s the point of writers who don’t believe in free thought? What’s the point of novelists who can’t imagine that character might run along more than the narrow track implied by a handful of statements? But, more than that, what’s the point of organisations which crumble as soon as they have to take a bit of heat? By giving in to this landgrab, the Booker has ensured that the next one will be that much harder to fend off.

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