A Fight for the Right to Debate | Comment

Gary Raymond reflects on the declining status of debate in left-wing circles, dissecting how a fear of open, mature, and informed debate has fed the success of the right.

[This article was originally published on Gary Raymond’s weekly substack newsletter, Meridian Strip].

I used to think the old adage, that of “I didn’t leave my tribe, my tribe left me”, was an excuse for getting old, a denial of encroaching conservatism that gets us all in the end. But I can see now that, for some people, getting older gives a new perspective on how things shift. It’s like that moment on a train when your mind plays tricks and asks is it the train moving or the platform? Well, I’m here to tell you that sometimes – sometimes – it really is the platform that’s slipping away.

I believe I retain the basic values bestowed upon me as a youngster, those of garden variety liberalism, and the messiness that entails. My values have evolved just like most people’s, and I’ve undergone periods of both firebrand south Walian socialism and the odd bout of pearl-clutching. Political belief is a complex business. As I began to understand the things of the adult world (as much as an understanding short of inviting insanity is possible) I came to a belief in socialist democracy, in meretricious communities, in the promotion of reason, kindness and compassion (even when I fail to display any of those traits myself), in a world where those who have the benefits of a good life help those less fortunate. As personal values become politics, you find yourself in alignment with some people and not with others. Tribalism is a loaded word, and isn’t always a helpful one, but you find yourself belonging to a group who shares much of your thinking.

For me, the liberal left was a place where you were challenged on your ideas as much as they were affirmed. Granted, you were likely to be tugged more to the left, or more to the centre, rather than to the right, but being turned on to Billy Bragg or the Redskins was not indoctrination, it was cultural outreach. I couldn’t go as far as the anarchos, Crass weren’t quite my thing. I found just as much interest in Tony Benn’s diaries (won in a pub quiz) as I did in the war diaries of Harold MacMillan (found in a skip). Sure, sometimes I was reading to confirm my biases, but often I was reading to broaden my horizons (sometimes instead of deepening my understanding), to learn about people rather than cast them aside as enemies of the righteous and true.

I’m certainly not the first to write something about my growing concern for the erosion of open debate on the left, and I’m not pretending that the left has always thrived in a culture of mature transparent edifying forums (think Stalinism and the blind eyes cast over the Holodomor as one example, or anti-Semitism in the Labour Party, for a more contemporary one). I also don’t pretend this kind of thing is the sole preserve of the left. But it’s a shame to see a new movement of left-liberal “no debaters” calmly claiming this ground anew.

I left the Labour Party several years ago, unable to feel comfortable in a party that at the time seemed determined to find space for Ken Livingstone to equivocate on anti-Semitism. Remember when we could laugh at the former Mayor of London’s inability to talk on any single topic without evoking the spirit of Hitler? Ah, such innocent times.

I had an email exchange with my local MP at the time, a man I knew a little bit and had always greatly admired and personally liked (he had supported my writing, too). He had known Livingstone a long time and said he was no anti-Semite, and also said that, in fact, in fifty years of membership of the Labour Party he had never come across anything that looked like anti-Semitism on the left. It was a problem of the right and the right alone (he seemed to be of the similar opinion of Welsh politician and former Plaid Cymru leader Leanne Wood who suggested recently that racism is only real if it’s on the right). I had a different experience. I’m not Jewish, but I am working class, and growing up in the staunch left-wing environments of south Wales and Liverpool there were occasions when Jews were evoked as the bogeymen, the puppet masters, the enemy within (I should add this never came from any members of my family – but I heard things said around them, throwaway comments, some of them extremely shocking). So, me and my MP had a short debate. He learned something about my reasons and experiences, and he took that in good faith, and I learned something about the experience of the powerbrokers in the socialist left of the party. And I took that in good faith.

Recently, filmmaker Ken Loach was denied his membership of the Labour Party. The posturing celebrities of the hard left fraternity on social media kicked up a fuss. How can a Labour Party worth its name deny membership to a man of the socialist credentials of Ken Loach, champion of the working classes for seventy odd years with his powerful and passionate movies? Well, one reason might have been that the Labour Party has been dragged over the coals about its relaxed attitude to anti-Semitism in the party, and Loach recently was quoted in a BBC interview as saying that the Holocaust as history was “there for us all to discuss”. (He has tried to clarify his comments since, but The Jewish Chronicle remains unconvinced). The reasons for Loach being expelled from Labour remain unclear (the Labour Party doesn’t comment on internal affairs), but he has a fractured history with the party anyway and seems unable to find common ground with it when the “broad church” is not exactly where he wishes it to be positioned. Loach here is adopting the position of uber-liberal, where everything is open for debate because free speech is sacrosanct. But the truth is, Loach isn’t one for debate, just declaiming. He’s not much of a listener. Perhaps if he’d listened to the two times he was asked to denounce Holocaust denialism in the BBC interview he wouldn’t have needed to clarify his position months later.

What is in the minds of people clinging to the ghost of Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of Labour, I wonder? Here is a man who proved his declarations to rid the party of anti-Semitism during his reign were insincere when he let slip that he thought in truth the problems were “overstated” and that the overstating was politically motivated. He was suspended from the party for that, and his supporters claimed “witch hunt”. Margaret Hodge, an MP of Jewish heritage, said, “I simply cannot comprehend why it is acceptable for Corbyn to be a Labour MP if he thinks antisemitism is exaggerated and a political attack, refuses to apologise, never takes responsibility for his actions and rejects the findings of the EHRC [Equality and Human Rights Commission] report.” For her part, Hodge was bombarded with anti-Semitic and misogynist abuse for speaking out in opposition to Corbyn’s position.

These are perhaps just some of the most notable and most recent imbalances on the left when it comes to the wish to debate important issues. There is an entrenched belief by many that being “of the left” denotes a moral purity. It’s easy to understand why this develops when you look at what the left is fighting, and losing, against. The British right has as its standard bearers mostly charlatans like Boris Johnson and his ratty crew who, no matter how many gaping holes open in the hull beneath their feet, stay ebulliently afloat. Brexit was a massive blow to liberal minds and hearts who see openness as progressiveness (Corbyn was and is a Brexiteer, no matter how much he pretended otherwise while leader). We can understand the retreat to defensiveness and the erection of hard exteriors around an insecure and frightened core.

The very nature of “debate”, of course, is not axiomatic. I’m not saying free speech can go wherever it likes, and I’m not going to disagree with the likes of Frederick Douglass, who stated clearly his refusal to debate those who questioned his right to freedom. Slavery is not up for debate. The Holocaust is not up for debate. But maybe we need to debate what is up for debate? The alternative is what we now see frequently on the left in the culture of “no debate” the argument that “lived experience” is not just a valid and vital part of a particular exchange of ideas and viewpoints but it is the endpoint of the debate, and is, in fact, the only thing that can inform any journey to resolution and understanding. And, of course, what do we see next, but that “lived experience” is not just the final word, but the real qualifier is that only the lived experience of the right sort is valid. Debate is no more, and the fabricated reality is no longer complex. Just last year an interview with a black female artist was cut from a podcast because it became apparent that she held gender critical views. Her “lived experience” as a black woman framed and informed her feminism, but her feminism did not align her with the views of trans rights activists and their allies (ie. the podcast producers), so “lived experience” in this case counted for nothing. Her views were not to be debated. She was edited out.

In the trans wars, being fought now in the courts and not just on social media, we see the most striking and virulent examples of no debate culture on the left. More and more, it seems, the side pushing gender ideology are showing themselves to be anti-free speech and truculent “no debaters”. (Helen Joyce’s new book, Trans, traces the history of the trans phenomenon and is an excellent and accessible study of how we have reached this point, as is Kathleen Stock’s Material Girls). It’s taken a huge amount of work by some very brave women to get the problems surrounding the nature of the trans debate out into the mainstream, and just this last week actor and former gay rights activist Simon Callow wrote a piece in the Times about the dangerous trajectory of Stonewall, the LGBTQ+ rights activism organisation he helped to set up in 1989. Regardless of where you fall on the trans debate, it’s difficult to argue with Callow when he says that Stonewall has adopted a tyrannical stance on saying self-identification “cannot be discussed”. “Yes, it can be discussed,” Callow writes. “Everything can be discussed”. (You can safely assume Callow is here using a rhetorical flourish, and does not, like Ken Loach, suggesting the Holocaust is up for debate). Many see Callow’s intervention on this matter as a watershed moment in the evolution of trans issues. This is not because of his views on trans issues, but because of his views on debating them.

The farcical endpoint of no debating has recently been reached. Peter Tatchell issued an apology for agreeing to debate gender critical philosophy academic and writer on trans issues Professor Kathleen Stock. In his apology, Tatchell stated that he had “planned to say that trans rights are not a matter for debate, they are not negotiable”, which is quite the butterknife to bring to the gunfight, when you think about it. The No Debate Debate Room feels like a Monty Python sketch that never was.

This brings us to the moment where I step in. A few weeks ago, Poetry Wales, a magazine dedicated to verse that has an international reputation going back decades, offered a public apology to its readers and beyond for an interview it had carried with author and poet Kate Clanchy. Clanchy, at the time of the apology, was at the centre of a very public and messy furore around phrases in her award-winning 2019 book, Some Kids I Taught, and What they Taught Me. Now, I’m not going to get into the Clanchy stuff here – if you missed it, here is a summary from Lucy Campbell in the Guardian. The arguments around Clanchy were not my concern at the time, but something about this apology niggled me. My question to Poetry Wales, first posed on Facebook, and then later on Twitter, was quite simply to ask what were they apologising for? Clanchy, at the time of the interview, had not been publicly called out for any transgressions, and apart from the interviewer apparently not identifying these traits in her work as anything worth asking about, Poetry Wales, it seemed to me, were innocent of any crime.

The apology stated, “In publishing the conversation with Clanchy, we contributed to the distress of peers, strangers, and friends. We have undermined our own values by publishing this item, making our magazine a less safe space, especially for writers of colour, disabled writers, and neurodivergent writers, which is entirely the reverse of our aims.” My query was a good faith one, and the only reason I asked it, the only reasons I felt I could get involved, is that I am currently the longest serving editor of a cultural magazine in the country of Wales. I have edited Wales Arts Review for nearly ten years, and I felt, and still feel, that I have something of value to add to any conversation about publishing in Wales.

But my views were not only unwelcome (fine, I have no problem with that – my experience doesn’t give me any right to be heard), but they were dismissed as invalid. Far from hurting my feelings, it made me worry for the direction of publishing in Wales. For saying that I didn’t think Poetry Wales had anything to apologise for, I was told by one of the co-editors that I had no right to tell him how to fight racism. Of course, that wasn’t what I was doing. But I was questioning whether a poetry periodical, particularly one in receipt of public subsidy, should be “fighting” anything at all. And I particularly baulk at this idea that a magazine should be a “safe space” for anyone. A cultural magazine should be a place where figures of note are given space to explore ideas and address concerns about art, craft, and yes, society and the world we live in. It should frequently challenge and prod and poke. It should aspire to be anything but a “safe space”. Otherwise, you’re a catalogue, not a magazine. At least that would have been part of my side of the debate had a debate been allowed to take place.

Instead, on Twitter, the official Poetry Wales account told me to “please take your desire to be right elsewhere, and help us to protect the wellbeing of our followers, readers, writers and staff that your tweets undermine.” (My inquiries as to whether the apology was in response to any official complaints from Poetry Wales’s readership went unanswered, although in fairness they may have gotten lost in the heat of the room). Sidestepping the ad hominem, in response, I argued that the kind of public self-flagellation I believed I was witnessing from Poetry Wales was not going to do liberal magazines any good in the future. I was told that “People and organisations who believe [magazines do not have a social responsibility] are the reason that structural harm goes unchecked… what is ‘problematic’ for a typical white man is demeaning & dehumanising for many others.”

What stuck with me was not the reference to my gender or skin colour, but that I was being refused a debate on this issue despite… dare I say it… my “lived experience” as an editor of a national arts magazine. How to run a magazine in Wales is, if I have one, my area of expertise. That was why I felt I had something to contribute.

My position on this is simple. I do not think a cultural magazine, particularly one that receives public subsidy, should see itself as a social justice organisation. A magazine improves the world by doing its job as a magazine. And that is to encourage debate and discussion amongst the readership. I think they should house a plurality of voices, and even when the natural editorial sympathies lean in one direction, an editor should at the very least leave the door open for viewpoints from different spectrums. Disagree with me by all means. But on this, I assure you, I am not a voice in the wilderness.

The reason why I keep coming back to this subject on social media is not because I have a bee in my bonnet about Poetry Wales. (And, contrary to one accusation, I’m not trying to make this all about me [eyeroll]). Rather, I keep being compelled to think about it. Since I first questioned Poetry Wales on social media, I have received a surprising number of private correspondences from people who want to debate this. Some agree with me, some agree with me partly, some disagree, but every single person was appalled at the way the conversation was shut down on Twitter. Why are they not themselves posting their queries and viewpoints to Poetry Wales, or on any of the threads of PW’s editors, or just to me on Twitter or Facebook? Well, the answer is simple. They’ve all told me why. Fear. Fear of being “cancelled”. These liberal, good-minded people who might just have a slightly different opinion about an editorial decision made by a poetry magazine are afraid to mention their views in public. Magazines are there to challenge ideas, to shine a light in darkened corners, they are there, first and foremost, to encourage and to stir debate. The moment there is fear of the debate, we are lost.


Gary Raymond is a novelist, critic, broadcaster, and editor of Wales Arts Review. To sign up to his weekly newsletter click here

(Header image is a still from the 1978 horror movie, The Shout)