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No place at the bar for challenging woke politics

The Bar Council’s verdict on Jon Holbrook’s cancellation last month shows that the bar has become an unwelcoming place for those who believe in free speech

Artillery Row

I was expelled by my Chambers last month. My 30-year career as a barrister came to an end for a tweet that had challenged woke politics. I wrote to the Bar Council chairman asking him, not to defend the content of my tweet, but to defend the lawful rights of all barristers to speak freely. I argued that if the barristers’ professional body could not do this then it would be clear that the bar had become an unwelcome place for those who, like me, had challenged left-wing politics.

The chairman’s response does not defend the right of barristers to speak freely. Worse still, he has stated that barristers who challenge woke politics are “likely to diminish the trust and confidence which the public places in… the profession”. Which public is he referring to: the elite public that views cancel culture as the antidote to popular opinion, or the broader public that believes in free speech?

The broader public believes in free speech

My tweet was a critical response to a video from the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) that had celebrated the racialising of society with an Equality Act that gave rights to a schoolgirl on the basis of her race (as I explained more fully here). The elite may see my challenge as likely to diminish public trust and confidence in the bar, but the broader public would not. The broader public believes in free speech and the importance of being able to challenge arguments raised by others. Of course, many would go further and support the content of my tweet, but it is not necessary to do so to believe in the importance of free and open debate.

The Bar Standards Board (BSB), which regulates the bar’s professional code, has never contacted me, despite my critics making many complaints to it in recent years. Maybe it will now come after me, especially as the Bar Council has given it the green light to do so. And in any event the BSB has its own political agenda, as I pointed out two years ago with this tweet in response to its partisan celebration of LGBT politics. But if the BSB were to censure me, it would merely cement the view that the bar has become a profession that will only tolerate conservatives if they stay mute.

The basis on which the Bar Council chairman argues that I brought the profession into disrepute is particularly troubling, since it is based on a premise that the woke can proselytise while their critics should be muzzled.

The chairman does not, unlike those who cancelled me, contend that my tweet was racist. The charge of racism was central to those who acted in haste to appease a baying Twitter mob. It was implicit in the charge levelled at me by my chambers and it was explicit in the press release from the Social Housing Law Association (an organisation I founded and then chaired between 2005 and 2008). The chairman is patently right not to contend that my tweet was racist, for the reasons given by other commentators.

Writing in The Times on 2 February, Melanie Phillips stated in Vindictiveness of woke warriors knows no bar:

Holbrook’s offence was to tweet a response to a video from the Equality and Human Rights Commission about a former schoolgirl, Ruby Williams. She had been sent home for having an Afro hairstyle that contravened her school’s uniform policy.

The commission funded a successful claim against the school on Ruby’s behalf and said in the video that this was a case of racial discrimination. Holbrook tweeted in response: “The Equality Act undermines school discipline by empowering the stroppy teenager of colour.” This provoked outrage on Twitter as a racist statement.

Seriously? Holbrook was making the reasonable argument that schools should be entitled to set their own uniform policy without being required by law to accommodate cultural sensitivities, an issue that should instead be left to their discretion.

His reference to Ruby as a teenager “of colour” was also reasonable, since she had won her case on the basis that the law gave her the “protected characteristic” of race. Yet for this remark, made on his private Twitter account … Holbrook’s chambers voted to expel him. … He told his colleagues: “It is not possible to practise at the bar whilst expressing conservative and populist opinion.”

Further evidence for my tweet not being racist came in The Lawyer on 5 February, when Zita Tulyahikayo and James Pereira QC asked in Loving legal life: On Jon Holbrook “what was Holbrook’s offence?”:

Was it the use of the term “of colour”? The acronyms POC (person of colour) and BIPOC (black, indigenous and persons of colour) are mainstream terms of expression in the field of racial awareness. Not everyone agrees on their acceptability, but that difference is tolerated. Black and minority groups use the term as a form of identity. Their use does not label the user a racist. There was no other obviously racially charged language in the tweet.

Twitter also concluded that my tweet was not subject to removal under its rules or German law, which are stringent in challenging hate speech.

Stripped of the poignancy of a claim that my tweet was racist, on what basis does the chairman seek to justify my cancellation? He puts it like this: “Behind all of this is a young woman, still a teenager, … She is a student, no doubt experiencing the same pressures as the rest of her generation. … I wonder if the real test here is of personal judgment and empathy.”

This argument is difficult to comprehend. As noted above, the reference to the pupil as being “of colour” was unobjectionable and central to my criticism of the EHRC tweet. Moreover, a teenager who was sent home repeatedly for defying a school uniform policy that merely required her hair to be “of reasonable size and length” can hardly grumble at being described as “stroppy”.

My refusal to yield to cancel culture has exposed the bar’s leadership as infused with wokeness

When she brought her legal claim as a schoolchild the claimant did not obtain the anonymity that courts invariably give to minors. This was no doubt because she wanted to speak publicly about her claim, which she often did by criticising “institutional racism”. The EHRC’s video would not have been issued without the young woman’s consent. And in response to my cancellation she gave a media interview, defending her stance. My tweet, it should be noted, never named or identified the “young woman”, it was publicity from her and her mother (who has sought modelling work for her daughter) that enabled the public to do that.

In any event, there is an important dividing line between children and adults, and the “young woman” is now 19. For more than a year she, as an adult, has been able to vote, stand to be an MP, sit on a jury and marry without parental consent. And yet, according to the chairman, despite exercising her right to speak and campaign, my criticism of this EHRC campaign brought the profession into disrepute.

The Bar Council chairman has endorsed cancel culture by elevating unwarranted therapy for a “young woman” over facts. He argues that the woke should be able to proselytise whilst their critics are muzzled. This one-sided approach to political argument portrays the bar as an unwelcoming place for those who believe that democracy requires an equality of arms. Free speech is a pre-requisite for that equality.

My refusal to yield to cancel culture has exposed the bar’s leadership as infused with a wokeness that cannot tolerate its outspoken critics. I spoke up for ordinary people by refusing to take down a tweet that irked the left. I am just one of many from the professional to the porter, who has now been cancelled for resisting left-wing politics whether it be by challenging porous borders, questioning same-sex marriage, asking if orthodox Islam is compatible with women’s rights, or by daring to say that people with penises are men, not women. With each of these issues there is a woke narrative that is bolstered by coercion and there is a popular counter-narrative that elite society will stamp on at every opportunity.

I may have brought the profession into disrepute in the eyes of a left-wing elite, but the broader public will continue to support those who defy the woke and the cancel culture they hide behind.

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