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by Joan McAlpine
22 May 2024
When it comes to the Cass Report, morality matters more than political messaging

The Cass report, a review of gender identity services, was published last month | Alamy

When it comes to the Cass Report, morality matters more than political messaging

If an actor forgets their lines during a live performance, it can mean curtains for their career. But when a young politician did so recently, he was told he would go far. 

Darren Jones MP, Shadow Chief Secretary to the Treasury, was participating in a live broadcast on LBC when the host, Iain Dale, asked him if Labour in government would repeal laws that force voters to produce identification documents before being permitted to enter the polling booth. 

With unusual candour, at least for a frontbench spokesperson, Jones admitted he did not know Labour’s position on the matter. “I only see economic policy,” he explained. “Come back to me when we publish our manifesto.” 

Dale remarked that his honesty was refreshing, and Jones, who at the age of 37 does disarming rather well, said he thought it best to admit when you don’t know the answer to something, although this approach sometimes got him “into trouble”. 

Labour HQ was watching and, moments later, Jones’s phone pinged with a backgrounder on the contentious voter ID issue. “I’ve got my lines!” he grinned, deploying a boyish insouciance which has clearly taken him far in life. He said there was no time to share his “quite extensive top lines”, but then recited the party script verbatim, making no attempt to pass it off as his own. 

Listeners loved it and tipped him as a future Labour leader. He had exposed the pretence that politicians speak from the heart, when most are regurgitating policy lines honed by party researchers. 

Broadcast interviewers often indulge this artifice. Politicians who fail to “perform” their lines with sufficient rigour are mocked. Polished performers who inject enough authenticity to pass off a party line as their own considered opinion are praised. “He/she’s a class act!” Worst of all is the MP or MSP who repeats briefings like a robot on diazepam. We all know the type.

When Jones was elected to represent Bristol North West aged just 30, he told a BBC journalist that Tony Blair was his political hero. This choice was described at the time as “unfashionable and brave”. Maybe it was an early indication of his reckless veracity.

It’s also rather ironic, as Blair’s New Labour in the 1990s pioneered the centralised spin that is now the norm, but which Jones gently undermined on LBC. It is claimed that Blair, in opposition, once ran down a Westminster corridor to avoid journalists until he had received that day’s lines from Peter Mandelson. The story may be apocryphal, but such was the control freakery of New Labour, people wanted to believe it. 

Scottish politics is a particularly claustrophobic arena and the SNP government embraced the ‘message matters’ mantra long ago. However, there are times when the repetition of a glib line backfires. It’s insulting to the public and can also be dangerous if the line is used to shut down questions about an issue causing real human harm. When that happens, it’s time to stop playing the politics game. 

Since the release of Hilary Cass’s review into the treatment of gender-distressed children in England, Scottish ministers have deployed the same, uniform rebuttal: “These are decisions for clinicians, not politicians.” Versions of this phrase were used by politicians on media rounds immediately after the Cass release and repeated by health minister Jenny Minto in her statement to parliament. Disappointingly, the new first minister continued to deploy it on Radio Scotland. 

“Trust the clinicians” sounds superficially sensible, but like all slogans it’s reductive and unhelpful. Cass is a clinician. She was appointed for her expertise and seniority, to examine the practices of other clinicians. She did so alongside a team of respected experts, including those from York University who scrutinised the research evidence. After four years of work, Cass concluded that vulnerable children were being put at risk by some “gender affirming” approaches. 

There are clinicians who disagree with her, including those who have built a career in the gender identity field. Some of these clinicians are enthusiasts for medical interventions that can cause sterility in children too young to understand the long-term consequences. Clinicians can make mistakes. They can be influenced by ideology. Sometimes they change their minds too late – as the Dutch and Swedes have done in rolling back their use of puberty-suppressing drugs for such young people. 

Fads and fashions can and do affect medicine. We only need consider the NHS scandals involving mesh implants and infected blood to remember that medical mistakes have always been with us and, sadly, the clinicians responsible are often in denial. 

Sometimes politicians need to look at competing clinical opinions and make the right call based on evidence. Repeating a tired public line might help ministers preserve party unity and their battered relationship with the Greens. But at what cost? When the health of children is threatened, morality should matter more than messaging. 

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