ByHayley Dixon, SPECIAL CORRESPONDENT 30 July 2023 • 6:00am
The 81-year-old peer has backed many campaigns, but feels her fight for sex-based rights is one of the most important – and vitriolic
She has stood up to the Taliban, exposed wrongdoing by Saddam Hussein and has even taken on Margaret Thatcher.
So it was perhaps naive of trans activists to think that they could “cancel” Baroness Nicholson of Winterbourne with a co-ordinated campaign of emails and Twitter insults.
When we talk over tea in the canteen of the Houses of Parliament, the Tory peer reveals that over the past three years she has been the target of a witch-hunt for her gender-critical views that has resulted in several thousand complaints from those attempting to get her thrown out of Parliament.
Dressed immaculately in a dark trouser suit and sensible shoes, to help her race between meetings, at the age of 81, the Baroness’ warmth and cheerfulness are hard to reconcile with the figure of hate she has become.
As she speaks she is intensely focused, in part because she is profoundly deaf, but her determined concentration is frequently punctuated by chuckles.
The accusations against her dwarf those made against all other peers combined, but she remains characteristically sanguine. Could any number of complaints convince her to stay silent?
“No, I don’t think that they could,” she smiles. “I was particularly amazed to see that they wanted me out of the House of Lords, which really made me see the value of the House of Lords.”
The ire against her has been fuelled by the fact that she was one of the first – and remains one of the most vocal – parliamentarians to have engaged in the ever-toxic row over sex-based rights.
In the face of a torrent of abuse, she has stood by her belief that it is not possible to change biological sex. She has sent endless letters to ministers raising concerns, and spoken long into the night in House of Lords debates calling for the protection of single-sex hospital wards, toilets and changing rooms.
She has put pressure on ministers to produce the much-delayed trans guidance for schools and warned the education secretary that teachers should not be “telling schoolchildren that a bearded man with a penis can be a lesbian”.
Whilst the campaign by trans activists that has followed is like water off a duck’s back for a “tough cookie” like her, she worries about the impact that such action is having on others and on debate in public life.
“It is terrifying. So many parents, doctors, nurses, so many people, have been overwhelmed by this sewage, this tide of rubbish which is choking freedom of speech and freedom of thought. It is choking normal people’s lives and incapacitating them, preventing them from speaking out,” she says.
“You have young people going to universities who have no opinions because they are too afraid to offend, but that is because you have this bizarre situation where there are organisations waiting to be offended.”
It was this silencing of debate that first threw Margaret Thatcher’s former Tory vice chairman with special responsibility for women into the centre of one of the most controversial topics of a generation.
Despite being born into the landed gentry, as the third daughter of a baronet – the former Tory MP Sir Godfrey Nicholson – a descendant of the family that founded London gin distillers J & W Nicholson, and the cousin of former MI5 director Eliza Manningham-Buller, Baroness Nicholson does not fit the mould of the old-school Conservative blue-rinse brigade.
She was diagnosed with hearing loss at 16 but graduated from the Royal College of Music. Her hearing problems impeded a career in music and she first found work developing software in the fledgling IT industry before joining Save the Children, becoming its director of fundraising in 1977.
Ten years later, at the age of 35, she followed generations of her family into the Houses of Parliament when she was elected as MP for Torridge and West Devon, then one of only a handful of female Tory MPs.
A hate campaign against her first emerged in 1995 after she controversially defected to the Liberal Democrats, later publishing an explosive memoir Secret Society: Inside – and Outside – the Conservative Party in which she revealed, among other things, that she was once hit in the stomach by a fellow MP for voting to end sleaze over expenses.
On losing her West Country seat in Tony Blair’s 1997 landslide, that same year she was made a life peer, before being elected as an MEP two years later.
Alongside her political commitments, she has launched a number of charities, including Lumos, the global children’s charity she established with J K Rowling in 2010, and the Amar Foundation, which helps people in the Middle East rebuild their lives after conflict.
The latter was named after her foster son Amar Kanim, an 11-year-old orphan from Basra, horrifically injured by the Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein’s napalm bombing during the Gulf War.
In 2016 she announced that she was rejoining the Tory party “with tremendous pleasure”, saying that Theresa May, the then prime minister, “leads a party with a real commitment to delivering for the next generation and building a country that works for everyone”.
Today she is squeezing in an hour, ahead of a committee meeting on trade with Europe, to discuss the impact of becoming embroiled in the row over sex-based rights. But we wait until we are seated before the conversation can begin
As well as being deaf, Baroness Nicholson is also partially sighted after her mother suffered a bad measles attack when she was pregnant. She has overcome what could have been seriously limiting disabilities by learning to lip-read. Since 1999, when her beloved husband Sir Michael Caine died of bowel cancer, she has lived alone in Westminster, a short walk from Parliament.
As we talk, one of her volunteers hovers nearby, waiting to get a signature on the campaigning letters she is about to send out. She has become an unlikely champion of rights, ever since voting against same-sex marriage in 2013, alongside 148 other members of the House of Lords, though her involvement with trans issues began a few years later.
“It first started when a couple of nurses came to see me and they said that they had been sacked from their jobs for refusing to agree to work in a way which was against their training,” the former MP recalls over a cup of tea. “They objected to saying that sex was assigned at birth and that objection got them the sack. I found it almost unbelievable.
“They were followed by two teachers who had refused to say that sex can be changed between man and woman, which had also got them the sack.
“They were all at the beginning of their careers, and they told me they were now unemployable in the NHS or schools. Four young women who were all intelligent, committed, and passionate about their work who were forbidden from working.”
The 81-year-old, seen as something of a trailblazer, has never shied away from a fight. Her opponents have included the Taliban, members of which she chided for their treatment of women when she became one of the first Western politicians to visit their refugee camps in Afghanistan in the early 2000s, and Saddam Hussein, who she challenged over the systematic persecution and extermination of the Marsh Arabs and launched a parliamentary campaign.
She has taken on child-trafficking gangs in Eastern Europe and even went up against the Iron Lady – her own boss – over the poll tax. But her latest fight, for the protection of sex-based rights and against the over-medicalisation of children, has somehow been different.
“I wrote letters to ministers and officials and I got ignored. Proper, House of Lords, well-constructed letters, and I got nothing. And I wondered what was going on,” she says.
No longer a constituency MP, she does not have her “ear as close to the ground floor. I am no longer visiting hospitals and schools as I would when I was an MP, so I said to myself I have to find out what this is all about.”
So, in a move which in hindsight could be seen as somewhat naive, she turned to the internet and, specifically, Twitter for answers.
“Within almost seconds I was being attacked,” she says, “because my commitment to fundamental freedoms and the rule of law was against the people who had sacked the nurses and the teachers.
“There is no way that I could persuade myself that those who declared that sex was assigned at birth were a minority that were worth protecting – they were merely a minority who had got it wrong. It is incomprehensible that such people were in a position of authority, clearly their ideas were untruthful.”
It is the truth which Baroness Nicholson believes prompted people to vote for her, even those who disagreed with her – and throughout her career many have disagreed with her. But she discovered that in the cut-throat world of social media those disagreements take place at a very different speed.
She has never been tempted to leave Twitter though, because, alongside her detractors, she has gained many plaudits, found friendship and many “amazing” women have joined her in the fight for sex-based rights.
“When I first went on Twitter I found myself in a nanosecond being tossed around. I was called transphobic, racist, every insult. Quickly I became the wicked witch who was to be thrown out of everything.
“It has never happened to me before, but it is an experience that I don’t regret because I wasn’t just supporting the teachers and nurses, I understood what had happened to them.”
In 2020 she became embroiled in an online row with transgender model and activist Munroe Bergdorf, who reported her to the House of Lords Commissioners for Standards for bullying after an argument between them exploded on Twitter.
She said that her reference to the model in a tweet as a “weird creature” was intended as a reference to Shakespeare and that she had intended to say “wild”, and misgendering her as Mr was an error caused by her phone’s autocorrect function.
Although she apologised profusely and deleted the tweet, Bergdorf called on the trans community to make their upset known, describing the Baroness as a “bigot”.
“Within days the Booker Prize for English Fiction – which in its present state I helped to set up and which in its previous state my late husband helped start – told me that I didn’t share their values,” Baroness Nicholson recalls.
She then heard that other charities she was involved with were upset with her, and The Caine Prize for African Writers, which she founded in memory of her husband, expressed their “profound sadness and disappointment” and said they were “reviewing our structures”, but she fought back and said that they “kept her on the peripheries”.
“What was so fascinating was that these were writers, and all my life I thought that writers had defended the freedom to speak out.
“I was being targeted and pursued by all classes of humanity writers, writers who should know better. It allowed me to align myself profoundly with those teachers and nurses, and I redoubled my efforts to support what was true, right and proper.”
But for many activists, cancelling the Baroness in the literary world was not enough.
Bergdorf, a patron of the controversial transgender children’s charity Mermaids, asked her followers to send complaints to the House of Lords. There are still template letters of complaint and step-by-step instructions on how to complain about her available on other activist websites.
There were more than 1,300 attempted complaints to the House of Lords Commissioners for Standards.
Official statistics show that in 2020-21, those same Commissioners received 100 complaints about the conduct of all members.
“There have, in the past, been complaints made regarding Baroness Nicholson’s activity on social media,” a House of Lords spokesman says. “All have been dismissed after preliminary assessment by the Commissioners as they did not engage the Code of Conduct.”
But the failure of the campaign did not stop the deluge, and since then the Baroness says she has been subject to several thousand more attempted complaints.
Other actions which have prompted a flurry of complaints include her letter to Marks & Spencer which criticised their “gender inclusive” fitting room policy, where customers could choose which room they used, and asked them to reinstate single-sex changing rooms.
The Baroness has also been the subject of complaints to the Conservative Party and to Twitter from those wishing to see her thrown off the social media site. “The whole thing has been a fascinating insight into human behaviour,” she recalls with a shrug.
“Because if someone is targeted successfully, then everyone goes after them. I am a public servant, and I couldn’t care a score what they think of me. These are not people whose judgment I have any time for, they do not affect me in any sense at all, but they do affect other people.”
This is due to the toxicity of the debate, and the seeming inability to find a common ground. “In other causes, you might get people with whom you massively disagree, but whose commitment to the cause you can admire or respect.”
She says that at the extreme end of trans activism “they are managing to persuade a lot of people to live their lives in a certain way but it is like one of those particularly terrible religious sects where they found their own belief system.
“They are the Pied Piper of Hamelin in a much nastier way, and what’s astonishing is how much of the world has picked it up.”
She has sympathy for people who have genuine gender dysphoria, having in the past helped to campaign for the rights of trans individuals, and believes that they too have been harmed by extremist activists.
“This movement isn’t actually for trans people, it is for liars who don’t need science and truth, who threaten children and young people with dire consequences if they don’t get themselves mutated.”
But the Baroness is characteristically hopeful and believes that under the current Conservative government, the country is turning a corner. A corner that she has campaigned for as part of the backbench Common Sense Group of MPs.
“I asked Rishi Sunak just before he was elected about the protection of children in this issue and he gave me the perfect answer, he said: ‘Do not worry, I am working on it’,” she reveals. “We are very, very lucky to have a sane Prime Minister”.
But that does not mean that the time has come for her to give up, she says, and she remains particularly “upset and concerned that elements of the NHS were able to override an Act of Parliament” and is calling for a full inquiry.
In 2010 Parliament passed a law which banned mixed-sex wards in order to protect the privacy and dignity of patients at some of the most vulnerable points in their lives.
However, the most recent NHS guidance on implementing that ban, from 2019, includes an “Annex B” which states that trans people should be accommodated according not to their biological sex but according to their self-defined gender identity and the way that they dress.
Baroness Nicholson has publicly highlighted concerns from medics who feel that placing physically intact biological males on women-only wards is putting patients at risk, even last year raising in the House of Lords an example of a female patient who alleged that she had been raped on a ward.
The policy is currently under review and updated guidance is expected any day. Baroness Nicholson believes that health service bosses were convinced to implement the policy “by people who would have us believe that trans people are the most oppressed people in the world”.
“Have they met the Yazidis?” she asks.
A committed Christian, she is concerned that religious followers, whose faith prohibits them from sharing spaces with the opposite sex, are disadvantaged by such policies.
“What I want is an investigation into how parliament was overruled by a small cluster of people in the NHS,” she says. “How did they manage with their bizarre belief systems to act directly against an Act of Parliament? That is my underlying concern.”
In a vow that is likely to anger her opponents, she adds: “I am not letting it drop until that comes out.”
Given her track record, no one should doubt her persistence.