Orwell, Holyrood and 'conversion therapy'

19, February 2024

This article, by Let Us Pray's James Kennedy, was originally published in The Parliament Politics titled "The subversive, varied influence of families" on 13 Feb 2024.

Everyone pretends they have read Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. But they haven’t; I’m sure of it. Because if they had, we wouldn’t, here and now, in the UK, be strolling nonchalantly towards frightfully similar totalitarian horrors.

Orwell’s boldly drawn satire throws a bright spotlight onto the often much subtler ways our own society might be tempted towards the same totalitarian patterns. He forces us to think carefully before we end up precisely in the position of his characters. And yet we seem to be sleepwalking right into that nightmare.

There’s a striking passage early in the book, in which Orwell describes children being conditioned to incriminate their own parents, even if it’s based on mere suspicion rather than guilt. It cuts rather close to the bone:

“It was almost normal for people over thirty to be frightened of their own children. And with good reason, for hardly a week passed in which the Times did not carry a paragraph describing how some eavesdropping little sneak – ‘child hero’ was the phrase generally used – had overheard some compromising remark and denounced his parents to the Thought Police.”

Of course, in the real world no one intends innocent parents to be caught out by overbearing laws. We can all see the benefits of a greater awareness of child-protection. The learnings of depressingly many abuse scandals tells us to take it seriously when children say something is wrong. That is good, right, and healthy.

But there is a constant danger of waltzing over a totalitarian precipice. Because once you begin to believe that parents ought to align themselves with a state-approved approach, you have chosen tyranny over freedom. ‘The State knows best and parents do not’ – that is an attitude to be extremely wary of. And yet it is familiar.

Take a look at the new ‘conversion therapy’ proposals put forward by the Scottish Government last month. The official policy is that refusing to let a child wear what they want, insofar as it relates to their own ‘gender identity’, could land parents with heavy jail time. Any number of other transgressions could lead to the same.

Part of the proposals intend to enable children to be ‘supported’ by ideologically-driven organisations to bring a case against their parents. Bizarrely these groups often benefit from significant state funding, carrying out the bidding of the legislators on one hand and telling the Government what to do on another.

On the basis of a case put forward by these state-sanctioned groups, courts will be able to place ‘civil orders’ on mums and dads and religious groups – even if no problem has yet arisen. On the basis of mere suspicion, groups aligned with state-approved ideology will be free to chase down those with whom they disagree.

Eight-year-old Alex might not have a clue about gender theory, puberty blockers, reassignment surgery, sexual function, infertility, and lifelong medicalisation. But so far as Alex is concerned, she is ‘really’ a boy because she hates the colour pink, doesn’t want to wear a dress, and playing football with the boys seems like a nice idea. But when the school ‘rainbow club’ finds out that Alex’s mum goes to church, or when she writes about her concerns on Mumsnet, in come social services and the courts.

This is exactly how it works in practice. A state-sanctioned curriculum teaches innocent children to play along, while their parents are made out to be a danger for taking a different line. This sort of thinking should have stayed in Orwell’s neat little world, but it’s leaking out. And not for the first time.

The Scottish Government’s ‘Named Person’ scheme sought to apply a state guardian to every child in the land, whose job it would be to monitor wellbeing – defined rather ludicrously as “happiness” – including having powers to access and share private data on children behind their parents’ backs. The scheme was, unbelievably, passed by the Scottish Parliament, but the Supreme Court thankfully overturned it.

“The first thing that a totalitarian regime tries to do is to get at the children, to distance them from the subversive, varied influences of their families, and indoctrinate them in their rulers’ view of the world”, the Supreme Court justices stated plainly.

There was an interesting little comment just before that too: “Different upbringings produce different people.” That is at the heart of the problem for the Scottish Government. Despite proclaiming ‘diversity’ as an ideal that they follow, in truth they do not trust anyone who holds different beliefs from their own.

Those who pay attention to Orwell will know that it was, in fact, those who shared his views that he was most concerned about. During the Second World War, Orwell wrote in favour of a form of democratic socialism, declaring it a necessary next step in British politics. He felt it possible to avoid the extreme tendencies of Communism and Nazism but, doubtless after much reflection, his own socialist instincts formed the basis of the totalitarian regime in Nineteen Eighty-Four. Whether or not you approve of Orwell’s socialism, his point is clear – whatever political world we live in, it is quite capable of turning sour. Certain belief systems can metastasise; “something resembling it could arrive”, Orwell told the press.

Before the Second World War, he wrote of a dangerous sense of fear, a desire to go around ‘smashing people in the face’, that was being aroused by those who were otherwise quite reasonably opposed to Germany’s Nazis. In Nineteen Eighty-Four, written some years later, it is precisely this feeling that is formed in the characters’ minds by the governing party seeking to control and subjugate them. People were right to be alert to the threat of Nazism, Orwell would say, but it is all too easy to manipulate people’s fear towards particular political ideals. That same fear, he would tell us, can be used to control and to convince even sensible people to hand over their rights to others.

It is a vital lesson to those in power in Scotland. It is fine to hold particular views, even to hold them strongly. But we must be wary when we become inclined to exercise our power in a way which tells others that their views are no longer legal. We must strive not to generate fear about people who hold different beliefs, but to calmly and equitably tackle genuine untruth and injustice. Heavy-handedness leads to overly broad laws, and overly-broad laws impact innocent people.

Twenty Twenty-Four is not so far removed from Nineteen Eighty-Four as we might imagine. However unintentionally, the Scottish Government’s proposals on conversion therapy do centre on the fear and repression of certain viewpoints that differ from those favoured by the State.

What the Scottish Government has put forward will drive a wedge between parents and children. ‘There are Christians abusing gay people’ the public is falsely being told; ‘the far right is out to get trans people’; ‘the media is vilifying people for who they are’ and ‘the Government must intervene in conversations and prayers’. The Scottish Government appears keen to send a signal about which beliefs – which thoughts – are or are not acceptable in Scotland today.

The fact that physical and verbal abuse is already illegal is quickly overlooked. The fact that parents know their children best is avoided. Ignored are the implications for freedom of belief, and for ordinary pastoral care, and for regular parents trying to do their best to love and support their children through trying teenage years.

Ordinary people are the collateral damage of this strange and fear-led approach to policymaking. Nineteen Eighty-Four is satire, but it is familiar too.

See also: The ‘jellyfish’ let loose in the House of Lords

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