When it comes to the lunatic cancellation battles in the raging culture war, the British used to lag behind the Americans. Not anymore we don’t.
The latest outburst of madness is raging in London. Baroness Nicholson, 78, a blueblooded former M.P., now a member of the House of Lords, has fallen afoul of a trans activist and the trustees of the Booker Prize Foundation, as in Britain’s most eminent literary award.
Nicholson, whose late husband, Sir Michael Caine (no, not that one), helped set up the prize, had been honorary vice president of the foundation until she fell afoul of the transgender-rights brigade.
Take a deep breath now—because the ups and downs of this seething row have more twists and turns than any Booker Prize winner in decades. Eat your heart out, Salman Rushdie.
Nicholson got into trouble when she tweeted that transgender model and activist Munroe Bergdorf was a “weird creature.” She then “misgendered” the model by calling her “Mr.,” thanks to what Nicholson said was a failure of predictive text. “Musht be shome mishtake,” she wrote. “My finger typed M. but the invisible editor forgot that I also use French.... ”
Nicholson got into trouble when she tweeted that transgender model and activist Munroe Bergdorf was a “weird creature.”
Bergdorf blasted back at Nicholson on Instagram for “calling me ‘a weird creature’ and sharing transphobic memes featuring abuse that I received three years ago, reframed as if I said it myself. She has also deliberately misgendered me.”
Bergdorf reported the baroness to the House of Lords commissioner for standards, who investigates alleged breaches of the House of Lords’ Code of Conduct. The Booker Prize Foundation, founded by Nicholson and her husband more than 50 years ago, then got rid of the baroness.
Many writers pressed for her ouster, including Damian Barr, a successful gay novelist, who claimed that Nicholson, who voted against same-sex marriage in the Lords in 2013, would “have the wedding ring off my finger.”
To make Nicholson’s predicament even darker in the court of trans opinion, she has also founded a children’s charity with J. K. Rowling. Nicholson has backed J. K. Rowling (the reigning Trans Enemy in Chief, after expressing “deep concerns” about transgender activists) in her latest trans-rights battle.
Nicholson has tried to bury the hatchet, giving an “unreserved apology” to Bergdorf and saying it would be “fun” to meet her. When she tried to call the model a “weird creature,” Nicholson told the Daily Mail, she meant to type “wild” and was alluding to Shakespeare’s Sonnet No. 1: “It’s about a creature who is really wonderful and beautiful.”
Bergdorf has just accepted Nicholson’s apology—and an invitation for a rapprochement tea at the House of Lords.
Nicholson remains angry with the “cowardice and feebleness” of the Booker’s board of trustees—and the clumsiness of the e-mail they sent her to sack her. They wrongly addressed her as “Dame Emma,” when she is a baroness.
But once you’re canceled, you’re canceled. As Nicholson told The Telegraph, “It’s as if I’m a leper holding out a bell, saying, ‘Don’t come near me—I’m toxic.’”
It’s hard to know where to place Nicholson in the much-fought-over hierarchy of minority groups. She was born 92 percent deaf and partially blind, after her mother suffered from German measles during pregnancy. But then again, she was brought up in privilege as a privately educated daughter of a baronet, descended from the family that founded the gin-making firm J&W Nicholson & Co.
“It’s as if I’m a leper holding out a bell, saying, ‘Don’t come near me—I’m toxic.’”
To make things even more complicated in the goodie-baddie wars, she was first a Conservative M.P., serving as Margaret Thatcher’s vice-chairman of the Tories, before switching to the Liberal Democrats and then back to the Tories. She also fostered an 11-year-old child, Amar Kanim, badly wounded by Saddam Hussein’s napalm bombing.
There’s now been a rearguard action to defend Nicholson. A new group, the Wild Woman Writing Club, demanded that she be reinstated by the Booker Prize Foundation. Its petition, with more than 800 signatures, says the Booker trustees “appear to have participated in ‘cancel culture,’ applying moral standards differently to different people.”
The dog-eat-dog world of identity politics gets even more byzantine in its complexity. Bergdorf herself had to resign as the Labour Party’s L.G.B.T. adviser in 2018 over alleged misogynistic and homophobic comments. And Damian Barr has had to apologize after his past transphobic tweets, referring to “Lady-man truckers” and a “mad tranny,” emerged.
Phew! Still with me? The Roman poet Juvenal said, “Quis custodiet ipsos custodes.” (Who will guard the guards themselves?) To put it into today’s terms, who will protect the victimized from the victimized?
Harry Mount is a journalist based in London and the editor of The Oldie