What JK Rowling and John Cleese get wrong about cancel culture

A belief in accountability does not involve condoning threats or violence – and freedom of expression does not mean freedom from consequence

By Billy Bragg

Last week, in an interview with Mariella Frostrup at Cheltenham Literature Festival, Graham Norton ventured that “cancel culture” is just another word for accountability. He referenced recent complaints made by John Cleese, who feels he is persecuted for his un-“woke” views. No one expects the Spanish Inquisition, eh John?

When pressed on whether his idea of accountability included the abuse suffered by JK Rowling following her statements on trans women, Norton suggested that it might be more illuminating to talk to trans children and their parents, rather than merely amplifying the opinions of a celebrity or author – even a very good one.

I have long believed that what right-wing media call “cancel culture” is nothing more than the tendency of reactionaries to cry wolf when caught conducting a rearguard action against the progress made by minorities over the past half-century. So I retweeted a clip of Norton, adding that I agreed that we needed to hear more from trans children and their parents, given their status is the focus of so much online debate.

This brought an immediate response from Rowling, who accused Norton and me of throwing our support behind “rape and death threats to those who dare disagree”. I challenged this, stating that I would never condone such abusive behaviour, but Rowling doubled down, again spuriously claiming that Norton and I had equated threats of violence with accountability.

Norton was bombarded with online abuse from others and, on 17 October, he deleted his Twitter account. Will John Cleese use his new platform at GB News to express his solidarity with cancel culture’s latest casualty? Somehow I doubt it. Those with reactionary views see this particular mantle of victimhood as theirs alone. The right and left may argue over the meaning of cancel culture, but there is a universal principle that all should recognise – and that is accountability.

I believe that freedom of expression gives us the right to offend, provided that our statements are generalised rather than directed at an individual, but those who offend should expect to be held accountable for their behaviour – and celebrity confers no protection. For, while a tolerant society should be able to accommodate vehement differences of opinion, everyone engaged in debate must understand that freedom of expression does not mean freedom from consequence.

Rowling misconstrued that final caveat when expressed by both Norton and me, using it to imply that we would support any repercussion no matter how foul befalling those who expressed opinions deemed offensive by others. I can’t speak for Norton, but I feel sure that, like me, he would recognise that threats directed at individuals are indefensible and that no one, whatever they have said, should be subject to such personal abuse. That of course includes Rowling.

The failure of democratic societies to hold individuals to account for their actions has led to a drift towards authoritarianism over the past few years. The idea that free speech absolves the speaker from any consequences has made social media a cauldron of rage and slander. Like all of the tools available to us in our quest for truth and a better world, accountability has its limits. It must never be used as an excuse for intimidation or violence. However, provided it is balanced with the right to freedom of expression, I believe it is the one sure guarantor of a civil discourse and a free society.

Source: What JK Rowling and John Cleese get wrong about cancel culture

Musician Billy Bragg on the “passing of a generation”

By Billy Bragg

It is reputedly the longest train journey in Germany – from Munich to Hamburg via Leipzig and Berlin, over seven hours travel time. That’s where I found myself on Thursday as news came through that the Queen’s doctors were ‘concerned about her health’. I was in Germany to give a couple of talks about my most recent book ‘The Three Dimensions of Freedom’ which had originally been planned for 2020. As I was explaining to my travelling companion from my Munich based publisher that the Queen had been becoming visibly frail for some time, I saw a screenshot of Huw Edwards, the BBC newscaster, wearing a black tie.

“I think we have to assume the Queen is already dead” I told my German friend. It seemed unthinkable to me that the BBC would go into mourning by mistake. The outrage that would descend on the corporation should they be seen to jump the gun on such a sensitive issue would be more damaging than any of the scandals that have beset them over the past decade.

It would be several more hours until I saw confirmation of her death, while travelling to the event in a taxi. It was interesting to be in a foreign country when the news broke. People seemed genuinely surprised, unaware that the Queen’s health recently been in decline. The taxi driver, a middle aged man, was visibly moved and spoke about how he felt when his father had died a year after the death of his mother. When I mentioned the news to the audience, there was an audible gasp of shock. Later, in my hotel room, I found that a number of German tv channels were covering the news live.

The Queen clearly meant something to these people, beyond her being the head of state of a neighbouring country.

Personally, I’ve never had strong feelings about the monarchy and the cosmetic role they play in our constitution. My concerns have always been about the way the powers which were once the sole preserve of the monarch have been conferred onto the prime minister, allowing the holder of that office to declare war and sign treaties without recourse to parliamentary debate. Hopefully the ascension of Charles III will initiate a debate about the role of the monarchy in a modern democracy, perhaps helping to kick start reforms such as the abolition of the House of Lords and a written constitution.

Having said that, I do want to take a moment to reflect on the passing of a person who has played a role in our national life over the past seven decades that is unrivalled in its significance. The importance of the Queen as a figurehead was made clear to me in 2007 when I saw a news report of the dedication of the Armed Forces Memorial, remembering those who lost their lives in conflicts since the Second World War. Watching the Queen walk along a line of ex-service personnel who had fought in every war from Korea to Afghanistan, I was struck by the thought that there is no one in British public life whose presence at an event could be equally meaningful to an 80 year old veteran as well as one in their 20s.

Obviously this is a product of the record-breaking longevity of her reign. Very few of us alive today can recall anyone else sitting on the British throne. That fact alone is what makes the notion of a King Charles III so strange and unfamiliar.

As a child, I had a great aunt who lived around the corner from us. Aunt Hannah was born in 1887 and lived in an upstairs flat that was lit by gaslight. She cooked on a coal-fired range and had neither tv nor telephone. Her only real concession to modernity was the fact that she would walk the two streets to our house to watch Sunday Night at the London Palladium. Like the Queen, she represented a living link with the past, a sense that all the things that had happened in her life could be summoned into the room by her memories. She died in 1972. By the time Elizabeth II was crowned, Aunt Hannah had lived through the reigns of six different monarchs in her 66 years. I’ve managed to rack up almost as many years without witnessing a single coronation.

For people around my age, there is another dimension that gives this moment in our history a poignancy that defies the rational concerns about crown and constitution.

Like the Queen, my parents were born in the 1920s and their formative years were shaped by the Second World War. Her father, George VI, had been Emperor of India and as a child had sat on the knee of Queen Victoria. Yet Elizabeth II represented a break with the Victorian idea of monarchy and empire. Her coronation in 1953 held the promise of a new beginning, of a world without colonies where the state supported each citizen from the cradle to the grave.

My parents were married that same year and, as part of that Elizabethan cohort, they aged along with the Queen, the great markers in their lives falling in the same span of years. They were in uniform together, they met their partners together, had children and later grandchildren together. With both my parents gone, the Queen endured as a reminder of who they were and who they became. She was their last representative, still visible in the life of our nation.

So when they bury her next week, I too will mourn – not so much for the passing of a monarch, but for the passing of a generation.

Ten Thousand Times Adieu review – beautiful old songs sung with love

‘Bobstock’, in honour of the folk singer Bob Copper, assembled a fine and exciting lineup featuring Shirley Collins, Linda Thompson, Robin Dransfield and Martin Carthy, writes Colin Irwin

It’s nearly 11 years since Bob Copper died, four days after receiving the MBE at Buckingham Palace, but with a new generation revelling in his legacy, his role as English folk song’s genial and unwitting patriarch has never been more cherished. Much of the revered treasure chest of traditional song lovingly preserved by his Sussex family for more than 200 years was refreshingly reinvented during an ambitious event – dubbed Bobstock – marking the centenary of his birth.

“Keeping a toehold on the past adds another dimension to the present and the future,” Copper said in one of the documentary films preceding the big evening concert, and the strands connecting “the authentic voice of ordinary people”, as Billy Bragg called the Copper family, with modern times were joyously underlined every time the nine-strong present incumbents of that family tradition stepped on stage. The link even extended to their trademark tuning forks, trusty songbooks and self-mocking humour, emphasising the irrelevance of vocal perfection when beautiful old songs with an historic role in rural local communities are sung with love and conviction.

At the evening concert, nostalgia blended with youth and modernity. Rabbits out of the hat were Shirley Collins and Linda Thompson, overcoming the dysphonia that has effectively kept them both off stage for decades, to remind us of Bob’s adoration of blues with an enjoyably ramshackle The Soul of a Man. Other blasts from the past included an Oak reunion (Peta Webb still singing with spine-tingling beauty); Robin Dransfield ably performing Spencer the Rover with his sons; Heather Wood reviving the spirit of Young Tradition with Jon Boden, Fay Hield and

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The incredible story of Cecil Sharp House

Shirley Collins

This place feels very important, but I don’t know why yet,” said Billy Bragg, wandering into Cecil Sharp House in 1986. Many of us have felt something similar, slipping from busy north London, though

his place feels very important, but I don’t know why yet,” said Billy Bragg, wandering into Cecil Sharp House in 1986. Many of us have felt something similar, slipping from busy north London, though the English country garden, into the UK’s first dedicated folk arts centre.

First opened in 1930, the building holds all the tension of the 20th century’s battles over the definition of “folk music” and who it belongs to. Visitors will feel it in the architectural push-pull between blunt, right-angled utilitarianism (formal rectangular halls for dancing, rectangular windows for light) and mystical curves of wooden carvings of green men, dragons and bawdy Morris men. For at Cecil Sharp House (CHS), town meets country, academia jostles with vernacular tradition and all three classes collide.

On its 90th birthday, CSH’s chief executive, Katy Spicer, reminds me that we can trace those tensions right back to 1898, when the middle-class Folk-Song Society was founded to collect and preserve folk songs and tunes primarily from Britain and Ireland. They found and filed songs for the nation’s cabinet of curiosities just as other Victorians collected shells, ferns and fossils. Prominent members included Lucy Broadwood, Frank Kidson and Anglican priest Sabine Baring-Gould. Letters stored at CSH reveal the fierce rivalry between many of the collectors as they competed to discover the best, oldest or most obscure “peasant” tunesIn 1903, Cecil Sharp joined the fray, recording material from “the old singing men and women of the country villages”. Now widely acknowledged as the founding father of the folk revival, Sharp, the son of a slate merchant, became interested in folk tradition after observing a rare group of Morris dancers performing at the village of Headington Quarry near Oxford at Christmas 1899.

The composer Ralph Vaughan Williams began collecting songs the same year. “There is a feeling of recognition, as of meeting an old friend,” said Williams, “which comes to us all in the face of great artistic experiences. I had the same experience when I first heard an English folk song, when I first saw Michelangelo’s Day and Night, when I suddenly came upon Stonehenge or had my first sight of New York City – the intuition that I had been there already.”

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