Ministerial career ends before it begins over "offensive" blogpost

Image result for gillian martin
Gillian Martin's appointment as junior education minister
was opposed by opposition parties (Photo: BBC)

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has announced that she will not be putting forward Gillian Martin for a ministerial role today, after it became apparent that the Scottish Government would lose the vote to confirm her in office.

Scottish Labour, the Liberal Democrats, the Greens, and the Conservatives were set to oppose her confirmation as the new junior minister for education on the basis that a 2007 blogpost - in which Ms Martin made offensive remarks about transgender people, disabled people and Africans - showed that she was unfit for ministerial office.

Ms Martin's blog has been deleted for some time but two years ago, when Ms Martin stood for election, the Scottish Daily Mail unearthed the contents. 

Within the blogpost, Ms Martin - then a lecturer at North East Scotland College - attacked "political correctness" and "social inclusion", and mocked transgender students: "are we going to see lovely photos in the foyer of hairy knuckled lipstick- wearing transitional transgender Laydees being embraced by the principal of undisclosed college or visiting politicians for the press? See, I told you I was going to get the sack. (Or is that what the gender reassignment surgeon gets when they do the operation?)" Ms Martin also criticised her college for using disabled people in photo opportunities, saying: "(They) froth at the mouth with excitement if anyone in a wheelchair does anything that can be remotely described as an achievement." It was the kind of piece you'd imagine Toby Young would write, only less articulate.

The Aberdeenshire East MSP yesterday apologised for the blogpost. She issued a statement in which she said: "In 2007 I wrote a blog that I deeply regret. It used language that was inappropriate and offensive. I expressed myself in a way that did not reflect my view then and certain does not reflect my view now. That is entirely my fault and I am sorry for it. That’s why, when this blog was last raised publicly two years ago, I apologised and I am more than happy to unreservedly apologise again today.”

Is she sorry? I hope so. And I'm inclined to think that, in 11 years, people can change their minds. There are people in the Liberal Democrats, Labour and the Green Party who over a decade ago might have held less progressive views than they do now. Certainly, on the specific issue of transgender inclusion, much progress has been made in that time in changing attitudes. We need to be fair-minded if we're going to criticise people for what they may or may not have believed 11 years ago.

However, I think the opposition parties have been absolutely correct to take the action they did. In years gone by it would have been left to LGBT organisations and charities to challenge this kind of transphobia - now it is political parties who immediately take up the issue. That in itself is a positive development. 

I personally find the apology unconvincing. I believe that people can and do change their minds, but if you're going to apologise for something you wrote several years ago then at least explain why you actually wrote it in the first instance. This perhaps concerns me most - a standard "I'm sorry" doesn't right the wrong in this case. What is a lecturer doing publicly mocking students?  How is it acceptable that she ridiculed her employers and their efforts on diversity and inclusion? I accept that this happened before Ms Martin entered politics, but she still held a position of responsibility. That no reason, or even excuse, has been provided for her rantings makes it difficult for me to feel that Ms Martin is able to take responsibility for her actions.

Whether Ms Martin is fit to be a minister depends on what her reasons were for writing that post. So far, she has decided to keep those reasons to herself. Personally, I have more time for people like Nicky Morgan, who have publicly changed their views on e.g. same-sex marriage and who honestly acknowledge why they once thought the way they did and what caused them to see things differently.

Ms Martin's blogpost is not an example of an individual simply having an online rant of a political nature, as many bloggers do from time to time. No. It was the work of someone who had a position of trust, and for whatever reason decided to publicly ridicule her place of work and many of the students who studied there. It's the equivalent of a staff nurse writing a blogpost about why their job would be much easier if it wasn't for all these patients with their pathetic health problems, the Asian doctors and the politically correct management with their diversity agenda.

I don't know what Gillian Martin's views on transgender people are. However, I do know that someone in their previous employment as a lecturer saw fit to abuse their position and publicly demean students in terms that could easily be construed as transphobic, racist and ableist. This wasn't a few silly comments but a lengthy tirade of offensiveness. For me there are many questions that need to be answered about the blogpost - none of which are really dealt with by the apology. 

So I do feel the opposition parties were right to oppose the appointment. I agree with them that it would have been a highly inappropriate appointment, especially as the ministerial office in question was in the field of education.

Only yesterday, a Scottish government spokesperson defended the appointment, saying: 
“These posts, which have already aired publicly, stem from more than a decade ago, at which point Gillian wasn’t even an SNP member, and long before she was elected. Gillian is totally committed to helping drive forward opportunity for all across our further and higher education sector. That is what she will be focusing on, not some out-of-context entries from a ten-year-old blog.”

Such a dismissive statement fails to appreciate that conduct outside of political activity can have a bearing on suitability for public life; it also, when referring to "out of context [blog] entries", fails to explain that context - one of a college lecturer belittling students on the basis of disability, race and gender identity. That the government saw fit to make that statement leads me to question its judgement.

Given that Ms Sturgeon would have been aware of the contents of the blogpost, I can only wonder why she thought the appointment would be acceptable to parliament. Christine Jardine, now the Liberal Democrat MP for Edinburgh West, certainly raised concerns about Ms Martin's suitability for political office during the 2016 election. I can only surmise that the Scottish government underestimated the degree to which such unprofessional behaviour - and especially the apparently transphobic comments - would be condemned by opposition parties.

It is a welcome thing that transphobia is being openly challenged, and even more so that support for trans inclusion is now seen as a litmus test for suitability to ministerial office. Normally I'd be inclined to accept people's views had changed, but nothing in that apology or the Scottish government's defensive statement confirms that Ms Martin supports trans rights. Those who tell us not to judge decade-old comments on the basis that views do change should at least provide evidence that those views have indeed changed.

One final point - while the media have focused on Ms Martin's comments on transgender people, why have they not given the same significance to comments within the same blog on race and disability? The truly shocking thing about Ms Martin's blogpost was the way in which it insulted so many minority groups...


Anonymous said…
I have to say I disagree. It wasn't that offensive, it's over 10 ten years old, and it had been deleted. She was called out on it and she apologised. Why should there be anything more than that?