'Take TV presenter and quintessential Sensible Kirstie Allsopp' (Credit: Jeff Spicer/WireImage/Getty)

April 16, 2024   6 mins

How does a public consensus come into being? The Sensible Centrists like to imagine that this is a careful, deliberative process. Ideas are debated, among people of good faith, and assessed dispassionately, on their merits, in an ongoing collective striving for truth.

But this is nonsense. As we’ve seen in the wake of the Cass Report, what actually happens is a mixture of magical thinking, conformism and moral grandstanding coalesces under a thin veneer of rational objectivity — and everyone except the most stubbornly reality-oriented falls obediently into line. And amid the chaos of frantic back-pedalling and rewriting of history, this consensus can form and re-form in real time without its basic structure ever changing, or lessons ever being learned.

Most egregiously of all, Ruth Hunt, former CEO of Stonewall, denied to the Times that on her watch Stonewall fostered a stifling climate of “no debate” on gender ideology. On the contrary, she said: “I’m absolutely someone who has always been working in the middle ground, trying to build consensus.”

Let’s leave aside the fact that, as the Times points out, under Hunt’s leadership Stonewall called for schools to “shred” the only schools guidance on gender even remotely in line with Cass recommendations. Let’s ignore the testimony of veteran gay rights activist and one-time Stonewall spokeswoman Anya Palmer, who reports that Hunt promised her Stonewall would never embrace trans activism, before pivoting to focus on almost nothing else. Let’s instead consider, for a moment, what it actually means to “build consensus”, in the Hunt sense.

Perhaps the most succinct literary anatomy of Huntish “consensus” was written more than two centuries before Hunt assumed leadership of Stonewall. In the first sentence of Pride and Prejudice (1813), Jane Austen informs us that “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.”

It’s a one-line joke, that juxtaposes two distinct, and very differently coded “ways of knowing”. In the process, too, it reveals that far from being distinct, these two ways of thinking actually operate in lockstep.

“It is a truth universally acknowledged” stakes a claim to objectivity: the kind of fact that, as “classical liberals” such as Ben Shapiro like to put it, doesn’t care about your feelings. This mode of knowing, central to the Enlightenment privileging of reason and objectivity, was (and still is) masculine-coded. It gains its power from asserting that its truths will remain true whether or not you acknowledge them as such.

Austen ironises this, by exposing the process of consensus-formation that lies beneath many such claims: a dynamic less concerned with facts than social, contextual meaning and desirable behaviour, captured in “a good fortune” and “must be in want of a wife”. These phrases are loaded not with objectivity but context: an intricate and intimately feminine world of 18th-century social hierarchies and sex roles, afforded narrative urgency by the real privations that faced unmarried “gentlewomen” excluded by social custom from paid employment.

The punchline lies in the implication that what lurks under the bonnet of “truth universally acknowledged” is often not truth but this feminine-coded matrix of embedded meanings. Any effort at detached objectivity will be leavened by status-signalling and aspirational manoeuvring.

Meanwhile, what holds this together is less the fact of its “truth” but that it’s “universally acknowledged”. That is, we’re reading a normative statement disguised as an objective one. And not just normative but prescriptive: “universal” has a faintly threatening undertone, suggesting that anyone who matters acknowledges this truth, and by extension you probably should if you don’t want to be shunned.

Austen’s one-liner is the gently ironic opener to one of the greatest modern love stories. But it points to a truth that today seems more pertinent than ever: that many modern truth-claims follow this structure, and are enforced through very similar social mechanisms.

Perhaps the most totalising recent instance of this was Covid consensus-formation. It’s dizzying now to read press reports from just before the Great Covid Panic took hold. Before this happened, Ian Bremmer approvingly describes experts doing “an impressive job of calmly and professionally setting out the factual framework behind the government’s coronavirus strategy”, while Boris Johnson accepts the moderate expert advice provided by Chris Witty to wash hands, protect the elderly but otherwise carry on with “business as usual”.

It’s yet more extraordinary to remember that in the 20 days after this article was published on March 3, we witnessed a screeching media 180 from encouraging “business as usual” to near-universal calls for lockdown.

Over the period that followed, competing Covid claims and counter-claims were all larded with “experts” and “evidence”. Reviewing these now makes one thing clear: Austen’s assessment of TUA remains true. Moral consensus precedes rationalisation. The Covid vibe shift may have been presented as scientific and factual; but what powered it was a chaotic tangle of magical thinking, fear, and the threat of social ostracism. The statement made by epidemiologist Sir Mark Woolhouse to the Covid enquiry captures the social pressures boiling beneath the claimed objectivity: “The emphasis on consensus and clear messaging,” he said, “plus a sense of not wanting to ‘rock the boat’, made it difficult to discuss these issues openly at the time.”

No one likes being ignored, scorned, or shunned. No wonder so many Sensibles fall obediently into line on every TUA. Take TV presenter and quintessential Sensible Kirstie Allsopp, who last year waded vigorously into the what she called “the trans moral panic” on the Stonewall side. Her reward was a pat on the back from the Daily Stormer of gender woo, Pink News, for opinions “backed up by science and facts”. It’s more accurate, though, to describe her opinions as (at the time) robustly supported by the moral hive-mind that determines and then enforces the Truth Universally Acknowledged.

Here, again, the comparison with Austen is instructive. In Austen’s day, genteel moral consensus-formation happened within a social world of dinners, balls, picnics and other social events. Today, though, it’s been professionalised, via what author Matt Goodwin calls a “New Elite” comprising an “epistemic class” which dominates institutions such as TV, journalism, museums, charities and academia, and uses their influence to shape the public conversation in line with approved opinions.

And yet, in some respects, nothing has changed. For many of these elite women who, in Austen’s time, would be eyeing one another over their fans at Lady So and So’s, now work in New Elite industries, many of which are markedly female-dominated. Allsopp is a case in point: her parents are Lady and Baron Hindlip, and she is a Hon., though doesn’t usually use the title. She has parlayed old-elite status into National Telly Treasure status, whence she holds forth on moral issues with an unwavering moral certainty Austen would have recognised, and probably lampooned.

“Now the winds have changed, we find Kirstie Allsopp back-pedalling.”

So, now the winds have changed, we find Allsopp also back-pedalling. It was never true, she asserts, that there was “no debate” on the issue of medical experiments on gender-confused children. Puberty blockers, Kirstie informs us, were bad all along. But we could always talk about it: “it is, and always has been possible to debate these things and those saying there was no debate are wrong”. All the people (mostly women) unfairly fired or bullied out of jobs, all the grannies punched in Hyde Park by men with special identities, the no-platforming, the intimidation, the threats, and the censorship — that wasn’t actually a thing.

Allsopp is the clearest indicator yet that at least where child gender vivisection is concerned, at least some of the grandes dames of Truth Universally Acknowledged may have paused broadcasting a TUA in order to convince themselves, in the light of a new emerging groupthink, that the new consensus is what they believed all along. And because moral consensus precedes its “expert” rationalisation, so we also find that those who purport to stand for science and reason are also curiously quiet.

On Sunday, for example, Sex Matters founder Maya Forstater (herself notoriously a victim of the “No Debate” consensus Kirstie Allsopp says never existed) called on science communicator and Humanists UK president Adam Rutherford to defend systematic scientific reviews, against the trans activists spreading misinformation about the Cass Review. Did he come out swinging for science and reason over gender ideology? Reader, he flunked it: “It’s not something I know much about.”

Last November, Humanists UK welcomed a Private Members’ Bill banning “conversion therapy” — in a formulation that would, in effect, ban anything but the “affirmation” approach to gender identity, recently decried by the Cass Review as unsupported by evidence and potentially harmful to children whose sense of self is still developing. Perhaps Rutherford is waiting, as many commentators did during Covid, until it becomes obvious which Truth Universally Acknowledged was always obviously supported by the evidence.

We can hardly blame him. I don’t doubt his vaunted commitment to even uncomfortable scientific truth. But if Covid taught us anything, it’s that scientific truth can be — with the best of intentions — somewhat ductile, especially weighed against the risk of ostracism by every desirable dinner-party hostess in medialand. But should those hostesses resume broadcasting their TUA, having agreed that they always believed puberty blockers were bad, perhaps the Rutherfords of our public discourse will feel able to hop back in the trenches on behalf of science, objectivity, and Dr Hilary Cass.

Overall, though, no lessons will be learned. None was learned from Covid, for all that Woolhouse described the lockdown policy bluntly as a “failure”. Not even a recent report showing the appalling and preventable harm lockdowns did to a generation of children seems to have prompted much soul-searching among those who advocated loudest for such measures.

And this is because the unhappy inference is that we’re still stuck in the same paradigm: the chattering-class two-step of moral groupthink masquerading as science. Just like Johnson in 2020, we’re still looking to “experts” as a means of outsourcing moral judgement — and as someone to blame when things go wrong. Even Hunt, on whose watch Stonewall helped entrench gender ideology in public health, is now busy describing her “regret” at having naively “trusted the experts”.

In truth, though, “experts” are a front for the TUA: the chattering-class moral consensus. And this is manufactured by people who care less about being right than looking virtuous. Career moral entrepreneurs such as Hunt; vacuous grandes dames such as Allsopp; “communicators” such as Rutherford whose job is to make consensus look sciency. Downstream of their posturing, children were irreversibly harmed. They didn’t care; they wanted to look kinder than you. They should not be allowed to forget how wrong they got it.

Mary Harrington is a contributing editor at UnHerd.