Disagree well

I have always felt very comfortable to be a member of a party that is able to disagree well. Sometimes Liberal Democrats have been so bloody reasonable we have taken the side of our opponents in a debate!

However, I have been increasingly concerned that this almost unique characteristic has at times been at risk of being lost in the recent debate on gender identity and the recent call for members who disagree to leave the party has compelled me to speak out.

I voted for the Gender Recognition Reform Bill in the Scottish Parliament. Several party members opposed the bill on perfectly understandable grounds. Many have been members for decades and are dedicated to the party and its beliefs. Now they are being told they are no longer welcome because they just can’t agree with the official position of the party.

Some seem to believe that to question the implications of self-identification, even in a nuanced way, is to question the very rights of trans people.  However, I believe it is possible to disagree but still defend the rights of trans people. I know these members; they are generous and kind liberals, and I would never describe them as transphobes.

It is certainly reasonable to question the wider policies and laws that allow a rapist, who identifies as a trans woman, to be considered for a place in a women’s prison.

Ultimately, I think that it is counterproductive to try to push people out of parties – or seek to silence them – for raising what remain quite mainstream concerns.

I don’t believe that this polarisation helps anyone, including trans people. Instead, there should be engagement and respectful discussion in which we try to share understanding of the issues and learn from one another.

If we do not even try to convince members of our own party of our position, then we will certainly never convince a sceptical public. Likewise, as times change things we take for granted today may come to be seen differently in future. We can only hope that future liberals will choose to be gentle.

Let’s get back to disagreeing well.

* Willie Rennie is a Member of the Scottish Parliament and former Leader of the Scottish Liberal Democrats

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  • Alisdair Calder McGr 22nd Mar '23 - 11:48am


    There is no space to disagree well with people whose values are in direct contravention of the values of the party as expressed in the preamble to the party constitution.

    The transphobes want nothing less than the complete removal of trans people from public (& in many cases private) life.

    There is no room for polite disagreement on this subject. It is far beyond the bounds of what is acceptable within the party and modern life.

    Unlike the other serious disagreements between factions within the party – to take an example from the most recent conference, the disagreement between multilateralists and unilateralists – it is impossible for polite coexistence to happen when the transphobes position is “trans people should not be allowed to exist” and everybody else’s is “yes, they should”. Especially when the transphobes actions are expressed as *internal* party business motions to eradicate the representation of minorities within the party apparatus.

    Transphobia is beyond the pale of acceptable behaviour within a liberal party, and conference made that very clear when it expressed its view that not only does it not want to adopt the transphobic motion that was proposed, but it did not even want to hear the bigoted speeches that would inevitably attend the debate.

    Conference quite rightly moved Next Business on the transphobic motion – only the 3rd time in the history of the party when Next Business has been used – and did so overwhelmingly, with a far greater margin on the vote than was required.

  • As liberals, I think we accept that some things should be beyond debate in a reasonable, liberal, political party. Fundamental rights fall into this category.

    Those who want to have this debate out never seem to be able to answer this: would they accept similar debates on the rights of other minority groups as legitimate debates? I think most of us would not accept that these are legitimate debates for other minority groups.

    So if you say this is a legitimate debate on trans rights, then you are creating a separate category for trans people which means they don’t have access to the same equalities that other groups e.g. people of colour have. That’s horrific, and means that trans people are not actually treated as equal. Having the debate itself intrinsically relegates trans people and gives them less protection and status.

    Willie, I would welcome your reply on this point.

  • Zoe Hollowood 22nd Mar '23 - 12:38pm

    Thank you Willie.

  • Trans people: “We would like to have the same right to exist and live in peace as everyone else”

    “Gender Critical” People: “We think that an entire group of people’s existence is a threat to us for reasons which collapse with the barest examination, and basically think they’re icky. We don’t care how often or how well you demolish our arguments, we’ll keep restating them because we think they’re icky.”

    Willie… which of these positions is falling to disagree well?

  • “There is no space to disagree well with people whose values are in direct contravention of the values of the party as expressed in the preamble to the party constitution.”

    Surely, Alisdair, you do that when canvassing all the time?

    “The transphobes want nothing less than the complete removal of trans people from public (& in many cases private) life.”

    Most of the people who disagree with you on self-ID simply don’t believe that, and there is a real risk in reading a hidden agenda into the arguments of opponents in every case. They may be wrong, but I’d advise you to listen and debate (politely) the points actually being made.

  • At some point, the decision has to be made on whether we would rather have trans members or transphobic members.

    To me, many in the “establishment” seem to have already made their mind up.

  • Alison Jenner 22nd Mar '23 - 1:13pm

    Willie’s article is welcome and states the Liberal position extremely well. Sadly, the comments below contradict it.
    For clarity I wish to state my own position, shared with many other people within the Liberal Democrat party.
    I entirely agree that transgender people exist and should be able to play a full role in our party. They should, and already do, have all the human rights enjoyed by any other person in this country. I would be appalled to hear of any injury befalling a transgender person, or their being sacked or evicted or assaulted, just as I would do to any one else whether I knew them or not.
    And while believing these non controversial views I also believe other mainstream opinions, including that women, too, need to be welcome here and our needs understood and accepted too. Sometimes our interests differ; many members agree that “gender-affected sports” should remain categorised by sex. Many members also agree that rapists, born male, should not be lodged in women’s prisons. These are not controversial views and we need to discuss them reasonably.

  • Kieran Seale 22nd Mar '23 - 1:15pm

    Thank you for setting out a liberal position so clearly and fairly Willie.

  • “Those who want to have this debate out never seem to be able to answer this: would they accept similar debates on the rights of other minority groups as legitimate debates? I think most of us would not accept that these are legitimate debates for other minority groups.”

    Surely on self-ID, people would have a debate if people self-identified as a different race or age (for example) as this would raise practical problems on access to measures to promote equality (grants, shortlists etc) and age-related perks (travel passes etc)?

    For example, you have legal protections against discrimination as an older person, but they aren’t absolute and it’s incorrect to say that you can’t discriminate based on age – you can do so if there is objective justification. So a 60 year old can claim certain legal protections as a 60 year old, but cannot simply identify as being 30 and demand to be treated as if they were. So there is always debate on the best way to protect minority rights.

    I don’t rule out that self-ID is the appropriate way to proceed to protect trans rights based on the particular nature of what it is to be trans. But as a society we haven’t actually used that mechanism to protect other groups, and there is a legitimate debate on the right form of protection (which is in fact regularly had by reference to other groups).

  • Gary Wilson 22nd Mar '23 - 1:27pm

    A very strong liberal position from Willie. Liberals will invariably disagree from time to time on principled grounds. We should always try and be respectful to those with whom we disagree. It is only by listening to one another that we can resolve our differences and move forward together.

  • George Cooper 22nd Mar '23 - 1:28pm

    Thank you Willie, for trying to lower the temperature on this fraught debate. Even the comments here ascribe views to people that they may not hold. If we are never prepared to listen to our opponents, how do we know what they really believe?

  • Thanks Willie for your post. I disagree with elements, but agree with the thrust.

    We should remember that the right to gender self-ID is not a “trans right”, it is a human right – it’s just trans and gender non-conforming people need to make particular use of it. People who attack the right to self-ID are attacking everyone’s rights. Generally we accept that some rights are conditional – prisoners don’t have free movement – so a priori it seems people should be able to disagree on when rights can be breached.

    Personally I think forcing women into men’s prisons or into protracted isolation is a very bad idea. The threat a prisoner poses should be assessed independently of their sex. As a liberal, I disagree with discrimination on the grounds of gender or sex except where strictly necessary (eg where anatomy impacts medical treatment).

    I dislike the assertion that having people with bigoted views in the party is incompatible with being an inclusive party. Everyone has bigoted views. Bigotry is not binary. There is a spectrum between microscopic prejudice and political thuggery. The question is where present troublemakers sit on that spectrum.

    Those of us who hate transphobia but would still rather change minds than people are under an obligation to practice what we preach and try to change these people’s minds. It can’t be left to those who are exhausted from doing it for years on end.

  • Zoe O'Connell 22nd Mar '23 - 1:32pm


    I would agree with you if the current debate were reasonable and fact-based.

    Sadly, it is not. It is a debate based on hyperbole that seeks to exclude trans people from public life. This has been bourne out in the past – a trans woman was sexually assaulted at Pride London of all places in 2008 because a Met Police LGBT liaison officer decided to exclude trans women from the women’s toilets. We have had the reasonable, fact-based debate over these things already. A solution was found – case-by-case risk assessments. This is not new. Domestic violence shelters have been dealing with women in same-sex relationships, or women who are also sexual abusers, for decades – they get signposted to other, more appropriate services instead. Adding trans people into the mix is nothing new there.

    Please do not presume to tell trans people what will or will not help us. We tried to be reasonable. We campaigned alongside our LGB colleagues for same-sex marriage but had the spousal veto foisted on us instead. Nevertheless, we celebrated when the bill was passed. But the moment that happened, LGBT issues were sidelined. Everything is done, apparently. The party goes off and celebrates same-sex marriage, calling it “equal” because trans people don’t matter, apparently.

  • Zoe O'Connell 22nd Mar '23 - 1:33pm

    Then we get to self-ID. A minor administrative change that has nothing to do with toilets or prisons and everything to do with being able to marry and die in dignity in our acquired gender. And what do we get from our parliamentarians? Hand-wringing and “genuine concerns” from some. Outright hostility from others, while the news is filled with stories of a trans teenager being murdered and other trans people seeking to flee the UK.

    Where was the LibDem press machine when section 35 was being debated over the Scottish proposals for reform? Silent. An obvious chance to combat Tory overreach against a democratically elected Scottish government and simultaneously stand up for trans rights. Missed.

    But, of course, we can’t have LibDem parliamentarians facing awkward questions on TV. Heavens. That would be simply unacceptable.

    Is it any wonder the backlash against parliamentarians and others who are increasingly out of touch with the wider party is increasing? The overwhelming vote at conference should, I would have thought, given those in power pause for thought.

    That it has not is, to say the least, disappointing.

  • How long must we keep listening to positions which have been repeatedly proved factually wrong before we say “we’ve listened, we’ve has enough, we’re sick of listening now”?

    How long must we put up with (as I witnessed in York) three transphobic members of the party surrounding and towering over a wheelchair-using trans-supportive member and haranguing her?

    How is this disagreeing well?

  • To be clear I don’t think the transphobic views being espoused by some people in this comment section are actually “reasonable concerns”. They aren’t, they’re just bigoted. But they’re understandable concerns when they come from a place of natural unexamined ignorance.

    So, practising what I preach, I’ll address Alison’s “concern” about trans women being housed in women’s prisons. Alison, I understand why you’d be concerned, but I think you’re wrong to be – not just morally, but factually. Once upon a time people wanted prisons to be segregated by race so that white women wouldn’t be housed with black women. Then some people wanted lesbians and other WLW to be housed separately so that they wouldn’t assault other women. I’m sure you’ll agree that those positions make sense within a bigoted worldview, but we would disagree with them as irrational, hateful, and wrong all the same.

    If you’re fine with a tall, strong cis woman with convictions for sexual assault being housed in a woman’s prison, but not with a short, weedy trans woman, then you’re discriminating against people not on any rational basis, but purely because one is cis and the other is trans. There is no way to describe that other than bigotry. I don’t think you’re personally evil for thinking that way, but your view is unscientific, and fundamentally incompatible with Lib Dem values.

  • James:”Surely, Alisdair, you do that when canvassing all the time?”
    There’s a difference between “not getting into a row with a bigot on the doorstep” and “being expected to sit politely when the bigots are invited to join the party and spout their bigotry from the conference platform”.

  • Zoe O'Connell 22nd Mar '23 - 1:46pm

    James: “Surely on self-ID, people would have a debate if people self-identified as a different race or age (for example) as this would raise practical problems on access to measures to promote equality (grants, shortlists etc) and age-related perks (travel passes etc)?”

    This already happens with sexuality and, to a lesser but still significant extent, disability.

    Some people may also be reluctant to publicly disclose their religious orientation or race to access certain benefits or services.

  • Jennie – I’m a socially anxious shut-in so very isolated from things like in-person events other than occasionally with my local party, and maybe I have misjudged how bad things are at them. That example you cite sounds like something that should absolutely get those people expelled. I hope the victim is happy to make a complaint and that witnesses are happy to support. There’s no defending it.
    My assumption was that transphobia in the party was mostly people handing out unpleasant leaflets and making pathetic campaigns to erase non-binary people from party procedures. If it’s at the point where they’re harassing and intimidating people for disagreeing with them then forget everything I have contributed. We can only tolerate them as long as they’re prepared to truly tolerate us.

  • David Barnsdale 22nd Mar '23 - 2:06pm

    Thank you Willie.
    It is important always to remember that usually when people people disagree with you they too want a better world – they just see things very differently. In that I include those who wish to throw me out of the party though on that point my disagreement is, naturally, quite strong.

  • Jennie what you describe is appalling and I hope you reported it, but let’s not pretend that intimidation doesn’t happen to ‘gender critical’ people by trans rights activists as well. Indeed we saw that at conference with speakers being shouted down.
    As Willie says, people who oppose self-ID and believe sex is binary and NOT transphobic. No matter how many times you saw we are, it’s not true. Until about 5 or 6 years ago it was the mainstream view in this party that trans people should be respected and supported, and that a woman’s toilet should be for biological women. We also believe that in a Liberal party dissent should be cherished and forced conformity of view should be guarded against.
    Well done Willie for a great Liberal article.

  • You suggest people don’t self-ID on race, James.

    This is exactly what happens. You don’t get a race officially assigned to you (thank goodness). There’s no official piece of paper.

    It may be that you think people have a well-defined race, so this seems different? But the point is that trans people have a well-defined gender in exactly the same way: self-ID.

  • Zoe O'Connell 22nd Mar '23 - 2:34pm

    TonyH: “Until about 5 or 6 years ago it was the mainstream view in this party that trans people should be respected and supported, and that a woman’s toilet should be for biological women.”

    Even ignoring the scientifically inaccurate “biological women” trope and instead reading it as “cis women”, which is what you mean:

    No it wasn’t the mainstream view at all and was contrary to party policy. Further, it would constitute unlawful discrimination. It leads to sexual assaults on both trans women and non-gender-confirming cis women, which in turn leads to forced exclusion from society.

    The effect is extremely discriminatory, regardless of the motives.

  • “Until about 5 or 6 years ago it was the mainstream view in this party […] that a woman’s toilet should be for biological women. ”

    It really, really, REALLY wasn’t. Really. That would be illegal discrimination even under the imperfect laws we have now.

    I’ve been in the party fifteen years, and trans women and gender non-conforming folks have been using the ladies loos all that time, and nobody started harrassing them until very recently, because most people, quite rightly, take the view that if someone needs to pee, they need to pee, and that’s an end to it.

    And I’m cis, very cis, but I have short hair and wear trousers. I’ve been harassed in the women’s loos because people thought I might be trans. But as I said, only very recently.

  • Charley Hasted Charley Hasted 22nd Mar '23 - 2:43pm

    I am tired of being to be nice to people who want me to stop existing.

    I am tired of being told to be nice to people who believe I don’t exist.

    I am tired of people acting like this is some university debate club event where we all go have a laugh and a drink at the bar afterwards because none of us actually believe we should reintroduce the death penalty/end migration and it’s all academic and fun.

    This is people’s lives we’re talking about. My ability to access public life, my ability to travel more than half a full bladder’s time from home, my ability to access medical care. You can’t nice that into not being the case.

  • Alexandrine Kantor 22nd Mar '23 - 2:44pm

    Why does some specific demographic always feel the need to set the record straight on what people should feel/believe?

    Let’s be frank. It’s been almost 7 years that we hear this narrative, it’s an exhausting distraction. Stop using women as a shield for bigotry and as a tool to discriminate against LGBTQ and other vulnerable communities.

    Weaponizing women’s safety has been a key element of many horrors in human history. We need to stop being complicit with it and that is exactly what conference did by not allowing hate to be debated.

    It is always a good advice to listen to vulnerable minorities instead of their oppressors.

    People’s right to exist is not an acceptable cordial disagreement, and absolutely not a party policy disagreement. It is a value disagreement and it has no place in our party.

  • Due to the comment length limit, I am going to post this in two seperate comments. Apologies if this breaks procedure, I have not used the comments here before despite being a long time reader of the website.

    As a former member who left primarily over the party’s backsliding over trans issues, I was slightly heartened to see James Belchamber’s earlier post and hear about how the hateful motion at conference was dismissed.

    However, seeing the swathes of people show up in the comments, and now this article, is reminding me why I left again. Seeking to dismiss concerns of minorities under the pretense of being reasonable is not liberal. Being anti-conflict in the face of bigotry is not liberal. If you are uncomfortable with people you know, or yourself, being lumped in with bigoted positions, rather than push back against the minorities telling you about the problem, you should be willing to seriously consider if there might be a problem with you and your colleagues.

  • Part 2 of my comment

    Honestly, having campaigned with Willie in the past, this article hurt to read. I am so thoroughly tired of having people claim to be pro LGBT rights but be unwilling to recognise that our country is blocking legislation to improve their situation and is pushing hateful rhetoric daily. It is not “ok” to be trans in the U.K right now, the entire process for trying to obtain a Gender Recognition Certificate and legally accquire Hormone Replacement Therapy is incredibly long and dehumanising. Many people restort to obtaining these drugs illegally as a result.

    Advocating for people to simply debate calmly is insinuating that there is not a correct position on this beyond one that people can agree on, because you believe agreeing to coexist is more important than anything else. Applying this to oppressed groups is not “reasonable”, it only upholds existing structures of oppression.

    I’m signing this post off with an extract from MLK’s Letter from Birmingham Jail which I feel is appropriate. I highly suggest reading the full thing, which I cannot post because of the comment length limit.


    ” Shallow understanding from people of goodwill is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.”

  • “Being anti-conflict in the face of bigotry is not liberal.”

    Oh so much this

  • Chris Moore 22nd Mar '23 - 3:28pm

    When I first moved to the small Spanish town where I live, I was the target for a fair amount of homophobic bullying. I am not gay; but was rather feminine and camp in manner and also a championship dancer which some associate with gayness.

    A few years later my son was born: I became the local bi-sexual.

    Now 15 years have passed, ever more gay and lesbian couples walk hand in hand. Unheard of 20 years ago.

    One of my son’s friends is a transexual man (well, boy). He is loved and cherished and to date has experienced no hate or discrimination.

    Progress happens. Please do not lose hope.

  • James Brough 22nd Mar '23 - 3:56pm

    As Chris Moore says, progress happens. However, it happens on the back of an awful lot of hard work. It happens following misery and suffering and persecution. It happens despite people citing reasonable concerns and suggesting that people should stay because they’re not really all that bigoted. And it can’t be taken for granted.

  • Simon McGrath 22nd Mar '23 - 3:57pm

    Congratulations to Willie for writing the articleand to the LDV team for agreeing to publish something I am sure many of them disagree with

  • Tristan Ward 22nd Mar '23 - 4:30pm

    @ Andrew Hickey

    “it’s really not for you, a cis man, to say who’s transphobic, any more than it is for a white person to say if someone’s racist, a Christian to say if someone’s an Islamophobe, a straight person to say if someone’s a homophobe, an abled person to say if someone’s ableist, or a gentile to say who’s antisemitic.”

    Really? You seem to be saying that unless you are a member of a particular group, your opinion simply doesn’t count and should be ignored. Is that really what you mean?

  • “We can all disagree without being disagreeable” is a nice idea. But when you have people saying that *my friends* are potentially “predatory” against women and girls or that they are being “unfairly advantaged” just by existing or that you rather they didn’t exist, then frankly being “agreeable” isn’t an option anymore.

    There is no middle ground here. Its like when I was suffering domestic abuse. Those who were “not taking a side” were by sitting on the fence siding with by abuser.

    “Playing nicely” and “trying to be reasonable” only benefits the aggressor.

  • Chris Moore 22nd Mar '23 - 4:46pm

    @James Brough,

    Hi James, I believe the massive change in attitudes to LGBT people where I live is down to two main factors:

    1. Generational change: in this working-class town, many are much better educated and better travelled than their very prejudiced grandfathers/mothers who are passing on.

    2. Gay Pride: this one famous event televised every year from Madrid has revolutionised attitudes to gay people. Joyfulness, fashion, fun, articulateness, kindness, humour: all replacing negative stereotypes.

    In the background, there is the constant patient struggle for rights, as you say.

  • Surprised (pleasantly) to see this article.

  • This article made me very sad. I believe Willie is generally a good person and a good liberal. But I think he needs to educate himself more deeply about trans issues. This is not people disagreeing anout abstract principles. It is one small but vocal group advocating for the removal of existing human rights from another group of people.. They are not all bigots. Some of them are afraid. And some of them really believe cis women or lesbians are at risk even though their reasons dont hold up. But when it gets to the bottom line, they can only be described as intolerant of trans people. And if we as liberals mistakenly believe liberalism means we must tolerate the intolerant what will inevitably happen is that the intolerant will prevail. And I for one am not prepared to see that happen.

  • I was one of the small group of people that Sal Brinton approached on Sunday for a polite conversation, which Jennie has completely mischaracterised in her comment. I would like her to retract it.

  • Brandon Masih 22nd Mar '23 - 5:12pm

    I do appreciate Rennie writing this even if I disagree with the nature of the debate, and I think he certainly is an ally to Trans Rights through his leadership of the party, and subsequent support of Scottish GRA reform. It is sad that the usual suspects have come out to say that “actually this says we’ve been reasonable with our concerns this entire time.”

    I’m not trans so I won’t be able to relate to the experience of having to justify my identity and experiences to the world; I live in a time that my race isn’t seen as something that is a threat to other people in day to day life whilst many of my trans friends (online or irl) constantly face being told their identity makes them a threat to women when in their experience, they never have posed a threat and they themselves find themselves in fear of being excluded from basic decency we ourselves as cis members of society are afforded.

    Splitting into two comments 1/2

  • William Francis 22nd Mar '23 - 5:17pm

    I doubt you would call for “disagreeing well” if the topic of debate was your rights and freedoms.

  • Brandon Masih 22nd Mar '23 - 5:17pm

    Cont. 2/2

    There are definitely those with concerns that we can talk to, the ones I think Rennie refers to, and explain that, for example, the threats posed to trans people if made to justify to their gender for years. That for trans prisoners, there are threats to them if placed in a prison or with inmates that align with their legal gender at birth, and there is a need with prisoners for proportional assessment on threat, just like there is meant to be for any other, just that assessment does not mean that trans women should be put with men for example. In these cases, I think members can be won over on self-id and would continue to share our values. This is a result of media coverage, and our credit as Liberal Democrats should be campaigning and talking, even to our liberally minded members, on these falsehoods perpetrated by transphobic media. My hope there is we can distinguish between those who can be convinced and the other group I describe.

    There are those who don’t (and that goes for some in this comment section), and would deny non-binary people dignity in their conference speeches and talk on and on about the existential threat to women as if trans rights is the demiurge. Those are the people Belchamber would suggest showing the door to, and I would be one of the first to join him in opening the door to get transphobes out

  • If you were one of the three people I was talking about, Anne, I would, but I recognised them, and know all their names, and none of them is called Anne.

  • Mariana Yarnold 22nd Mar '23 - 6:11pm

    Thank you Willie. A very much welcome and objective intervention.

  • Excellent article, very reasonable and pleased to see it published here. It is hard to disagree with any of what Willie Rennie says and I definitely agree that one of the things that always attracted me to the Lib Dem approach is that they always believed in trying to persuade rather than trying to crush or smear their opponents. A lot of people can be convinced by good arguments.

  • Iain Coleman 22nd Mar '23 - 7:25pm

    So Willie says that I should disagree well with people who have a long track record of arguing in bad faith.

    That I should disagree well with people who have never abandoned any of their fallacies, despite frequent appeals to evidence and logic.

    That I should disagree well with people who pursue a dogged obsession with the genitalia of strangers.

    That I should disagree well with people who campaign to drive an already vulnerable minority out of public existence.

    That I should disagree well with people who hold rallies alongside saluting neo-nazis.

    I suppose I could.

    I am, after all, a cisgender heterosexual man. It’s not as if any of my rights are threatened. No one is campaigning against my existence.

    But that would be a betrayal.

    A betrayal of my trans friends and colleagues.

    A betrayal of trans and non-binary people across the country.

    A betrayal of the committed and principled trans liberals who have already been driven out of the party.

    And a betrayal of my own liberal principles.

    We do not appease bigots. We oppose them.

    Otherwise, what is the point of us?

  • I find it really _classy_ how Willie has wandered onto this topic, gone “listen up, I have some thoughts”, then wandered off and not engaged with the comments or answered any of the questions he has received.

  • Caron Lindsay Caron Lindsay 22nd Mar '23 - 8:45pm

    Lib Dems are generally very good at disagreeing well. We even like it. One of the most heartbreaking things I have ever had to do was to propose that motion for all women shortlists back in 2016, knowing that if I did my job properly and it passed, one of my best friends would leave the party. At the end of the session, we went to the pub together and hugged it out.

    There are people in this comments thread with whom I agree about very little indeed, but have been known to defend them, much to their surprise as mine.

    During the coalition when the orange bookers and Social Liberal Forum were kicking lumps out of each other, we quickly united to fight secret courts.
    But there are limits.

    In her International Women’s Day speech, Liz Barker linked the toxic culture which demonises trans people to a global effort to undermine human rights. She said:

    “In the UK we know that there is a daily campaign against trans women. We see it day after day in our media. It is a campaign that seeks to pit women against women. It portrays trans women as a significant and systemic threat to other women. I have to say that, after six years, it is a campaign that has yet to provide evidence of that, and it is yet to win significant approval. That is not to say that some politicians have not been taken in by this and have been ever ready to use it to their political advantage. I have to say today that some of us will always reject playing with human rights, because if you play with the human rights of some people, you play with the human rights of all, and if you jeopardise the rights of some women, you jeopardise the rights of all.”

    Part 1 of 2

  • Caron Lindsay Caron Lindsay 22nd Mar '23 - 8:47pm

    When we’ve had heated disagreements on social issues before, it’s been when we’ve given new rights eg same sex marriage or abortion. This is different. It’s about taking away not just rights, but reducing the quality of life of an already marginalised group of people. If the anti trans groups get their way, trans people will not be able to get legal recognition, nor will they be able to do something as basic as go to the toilet in safety.

    As a woman and a committed feminist, I have spent my whole adult life fighting for women’s rights, representation and safety and I always will. And I will also reject all attempts to manufacture a conflict between women’s rights and trans rights, because, as others have said, there is no evidence to back that up.

    I try to live by the words of much missed Scottish feminist Emma Ritch, who told an LDV fringe about how feminist and LGBT organisations in Scotland worked together in a spirit of radical kindness to improve the rights of all. Kindness has to work both ways. But we only see radical cruelty from the anti trans groups. They cannot even respect people’s identities from the platform of Conference. Liberalism has at its heart a respect for the individual. When someone tells you who they are, you believe them. It is the most basic courtesy of all.

    Conference was visibly shocked to see them in their true colours and that’s why the vote against them was so high.

    Sometimes, differences are irreconcilable and there has to be a parting of the ways.

    Part 2 of 2

  • @Willie – This isn’t an academic debate about an abstract concept like multilateral disarmament or UBI. It’s a visceral debate (which is only a “debate” because others insist on pretending it is so) about whether an embattled minority (i.e., trans people) should be expected to continually justify its continued existence in public life forever, or whether, as Liberals, we as a party decide that enough is enough and that they should not have to constantly fight that battle to exist.

  • Richard Coxon 22nd Mar '23 - 9:54pm

    Thank you Willie for this contribution and bringing your experience as leader to bear, especially after the members we lost who thought that we could ever be pro-Independence in 2014,

    I think indeed it’s fine to ask a genuine question on the execution of a policy, for example “of course I agree that a GRC should be easier to get, but could the GRR Bill mean that a rapist could serve their sentence in a women’s prison?”. The answer is of course no, but it’s important that we answer these concerns honestly and clearly.

    I also agree that as Scottish Liberal Democrats we should respect and celebrate everyone’s own identity. We self-ID as members, of course.

    You’re asking us to respect and celebrate the identity of trans folk, and you yourself voted for that, by making it easier for the Government to do it. We would never tell someone what their identity is.

    You’re also asking us to respect and celebrate the identity of our members as Scottish Liberal Democrats, even if their words and deeds are, in our view, against the fundamental values of our Party and seek to deny trans folk their identity that is theirs to declare.

    A noble sim. But is it practical and possible?

  • Thanks for this Willie. I’ve considered leaving the party over this issue- not over disagreements on policy as I’m broadly supportive, but because the party is unable to have a nuanced discussion or explore some of the grey areas. I’m a liberal and a contrarian, when everyone is agreeing with each other I want to start poking holes.

    The comments are predictably depressing.

  • Mary Regnier-wilson 22nd Mar '23 - 10:57pm

    This post may well have been perfectly valid 10 years ago. There are things to be discussed as a society about how we as a society deal with a growing number of trans people (of course, it’s not the number that is growing, but the fact society has got better and more people feel ok to be openly trans)
    It’s a valid thing to question whether a trans woman with a history of sexual violence against women should be housed in a women’s prison. And the answer of course is the one society has come to – that every single individual prisoner should be individually assessed as to their risk to others. It’s an answer everyone accepts. Except transphobes. Who keep asking it as a way to demonise all trans and non binary people.

    It’s a valid thing to ask whether it’s fair that someone with the physical advantages of a male body should Be allowed to compete in female sports. And the answer is that every individual should be assessed on the physical advantages or disadvantages they have and decisions should be made on the basis of science not bigotry.
    But transphobes keep asking – because it dehumanises trans and non binary people and sets up competitions between them and cis people.

    None of the trans and non binary people I know have a problem discussing gender issues or answering good faith questions. But the questions being asked in our party stopped being good faith ones a LONG time ago.

  • Mary Regnier-Wilson 22nd Mar '23 - 11:10pm

    To be clear when I say there are things that we should be discussing a society, I mean things like how we ensure sex and relationship education doesn’t exclude trans and non-binary people. How we enable access to proper healthcare for trans and non-binary people in a medical system that has often been based on gender, (and often failed cis women). About how we break down a patriarchal society so that everyone can succeed and feel comfortable in it regardless of gender or masculine/feminine presentation and without conforming to gender stereotypes.

    These are the valid questions I want us to move on and discuss. And instead we have bogged down in constitutional amendments and have to listen to people spewing hatred

  • Stephen Glenn 22nd Mar '23 - 11:48pm

    Willie I would love there to be a world in which those of us who stand up and defend trans rights can disagree well with those who are gender critical.

    The problem is that every time we do this via social media or other means our social media gets highjacked. We get called groomers for acknowledging that some people know they are trans before they turn 18, just like many of us knew we were lesbian, gay or bisexual before that age. We get called homophobes or mysogynists for standing up for trans people, even when we stand up for trans men as much as trans women. We can go days without an accessible or user friendly notification section on our social media.

    So if I could disagree well with such people I would. But it is tiring, it is straining and it is something that as a gay man from Northern Ireland I know what it is like to face those who cannot disagree well. But saying there is a debate, only for the debate to be insulting to trans members to the extent they no longer feel safe in party spaces then we have gone beyond the pale.

  • David Le Grice 23rd Mar '23 - 12:42am

    This article is missing the point entirely. The article Willie was responding to was about people who were trying to remove gender inclusive language from our Constitution and thereby have the party discriminate against trans and non binary people.

    There may be some room for nuance and differing opinions when it comes to policy but this is not about that. It’s about people who explicitly want our party to discriminate against trans people, and it’s perfectly right for us to demand that they leave.

    Even then when it comes to self ID as public policy, anyone who opposes this needs to support something else that doesn’t subject trans people to a Kafkaesque process that requires them get an appointment with a specialist that the NHS will never employ in close to sufficient numbers for them to ever actually get seen.
    The status quo is inevitably contributing to the high trans suicide rate.

  • I’m a (fairly) regular commenter here, and I know a lot of people personally who have commented on this post (as well as Willie too.) There are many I know and care about on both sides of this discussion too. Yet I’m not comfortable giving my thoughts on this topic in public, because I know that – whatever they are – I will get all kinds of brown stuff dumped on me for saying it (I’ve left my email on here so the Editors know who I am). It reminds me of the independence referendum, where too often the debate online descended into a battle of who was being harassed the most by the other side, and the realities of what was being discussed were lost.

    This is what Willie is getting at. Just be kind.

  • Mick Taylor 23rd Mar '23 - 8:04am

    Willie is a great Liberal, but it is clear that on this issue he’s sadly wrong. The toxic level to which the so-called GC people have descended means that reasonable debate and agreeing to differ simply isn’t possible.
    The GC agenda isn’t up for debate. They never change their minds . On the contrary, they just get more strident and threaten trans people with dire consequences as well as those who, like me CIS and heterosexual, support the trans community.
    In disagreeing with Willie I would strongly urge him to engage fully with the trans community and find out first hand what the GC minority get up to.

  • Andrew Emmerson 23rd Mar '23 - 8:14am

    One can only disagree well when ones rights aren’t on the line. Ask the GC lot honestly what their end position is, and it’s the removal of trans people from public and private life as well as the removal of protections.

    You can not disagree well with someone arguing from such a point of intolerance.

    But then I find people making these arguments are very rarely from a disadvantaged group or have any understanding of the toxic effects of visceral hatred faced everyday.

  • @Andrew Emmerson “Ask the GC lot honestly what their end position is, and it’s the removal of trans people from public and private life as well as the removal of protections.”

    Do you really believe that, Andrew?

    I am sure there are some extremists on the GC side, but, if you use the definition of GC that I have found, a very large number of UK residents are GC. And I don’t think they want trans people removed from public or private life.

  • Peter Watson 24th Mar '23 - 12:45am

    “Some seem to believe that to question the implications of self-identification, even in a nuanced way, is to question the very rights of trans people.”
    This is why – until now – I’ve been too nervous to comment in a thread like this! Also, it seems that there is a vocabulary around this subject that means I risk accidentally choosing the wrong words (or even joining words in a way that changes their meaning) or expressing myself clumsily, and unintentionally causing offence, so apologies in advance if I do that here.
    However, the whole subject raises a number of important but difficult questions. The sentencing of prisoners and fairness in sport are currently in the news, and fears for the safety of vulnerable women (which should include trans women) from predatory males pretending to identify as female in order to gain access to safe spaces appears to be the basis of J. K. Rowling’s well-publicised comments. Indeed, ensuring that self-identification is genuine and sincere while respecting those whose gender does not match their biological sex seems to be at the heart of a lot of this, but the discussion of these “implications of self-identification” seems to get shut down angrily without any constructive progress or resolution.

  • Luke Richards 24th Mar '23 - 10:24am


    With *you* – whose intentions I believe to be good and whose voting record does appear to support that conclusion – I will disagree well. I believe you are wrong on this and I would like to urge you to read the comments to this post in detail, listen to those in the transgender community and revise your opinion.

    With the members of the gender critical movement whose actions do not meet the standards of the party’s code of conduct or the definition we have adopted of transphobia? Sorry, I will not be taking a “let’s agree to disagree” approach. Transphobia has no place in the party as it is fundamentally opposed to our values. We need to be clear on that and not apologise for such opinions on the basis of ‘open debate’.

    I respectfully disagree with you, Willie. I think you’ve called this wrong.

  • Denis Mollison 24th Mar '23 - 11:08am

    @Peter Watson – Well said!

    I grew up in the 60s, when a key element of `freedom from conformity’ was escaping gender stereotypes. I still think that’s progressive and liberal.
    There must be a way of reconciling that with today’s emphasis on gender identity, without anyone feeling that there existence is questioned, or anyone being cancelled for believing that biological sex also matters.

    As Peter says, there are a number of important but difficult questions; we can only resolve them well if we have an open and liberal debate.

  • Ross O'Kelly 24th Mar '23 - 2:43pm

    Yesterday the world Athletics Council banned trans women who had gone through puberty as males from competing i women’s events. In recent months the governing bodies of rugby in England, Wales and Scotland had come to similar conclusions. The wider community is having a debate on these difficult issues and is slowly, inevitably, coming to a view. Can we say that, as a political party, we can have no debate ourselves on these matters for fear of giving offence ? I think this is what Willie Rennie is saying.
    I was not at conference, I did not hear the objectionable comments made, though from what I hear some people went way beyond the mark. We must always treat each other with respect and kindness, but perhaps also a little humility, in the knowledge that none of us have the monopoly on truth.

  • Mel Borthwaite 24th Mar '23 - 5:48pm

    UK equality law recognises nine ‘Protected Characteristics’. ‘Sex’ is one Protected Characteristic and ‘Gender Reassignment’ is another. We need to ensure that we do not conflate these separate Protected Characteristics. I, personally, see no reason why separate representation should not be constitutionally mandated for each of these Protected Characteristics on all committees and working groups within the Party.

  • Stephen Glenn 24th Mar '23 - 10:00pm

    @Ross O’Kelly “The wider community is having a debate on these difficult issues and is slowly, inevitably, coming to a view.”

    At the very foundation of our party we wrote our constitution and the preamble. We said that nobody should be enslave by conformity in that preamble. That applies in the case of gender identity, sexual orientation, gender roles, race and everything else in between.

    For true liberals not enslaving someone to conformity should not be an issue. When people object to the very existance of people who don’t conform to their opinion of what everyone should be there can surely be no debate. When those they want to ignore, eradicate or exclude, can not feel safe when such subjects as their existance and life is being discussed from the platform of our party in derogatory manner we have a right to not agree well or at all.

  • Peter Nicholson 24th Mar '23 - 11:44pm

    Thank you Willie for saying something that in my view needed to be said.
    To those who disagree, I fear you are ascribing to all whose standpoint you do not accept, the views of the extremists in the opposite camp, which I suggest is itself an illiberal and certainly disrespectful position to take. Certainly it is one with which I as a liberal (cap or small L makes no difference) feel instinctively uncomfortable – if we shut down debate in that manner, we risk being deaf to what may be genuine concerns that should be addressed and thereby alienating some people who should be our natural supporters.
    Trans people should have every right to live as they choose, but it is a mystery to me why it appears to be assumed that such rights could never be abused by certain malevolent non-trans others with predatory intent. I believe that the great majority of those who have voiced unease at the bill passed by the Scottish Parliament are simply seeking greater recognition than has been shown to date of the practical issues to which it gives rise – and equally importantly, that it will be more difficult to advance the position of trans people as we would wish if the manner in which this is done causes avoidable resentment.
    I hope that this contribution can be accepted in the constructive spirit in which it is offered.

  • Ross O’Kelly 25th Mar '23 - 8:31am

    Stephen, hi. I agree entirely. Nobody should be enslaved by conformity. It’s just that sometimes we need to talk about what that means in practice. I think I made it clear in my final paragraph that I have no time for those who would “object to the very existence “ of trans people.
    As Peter Nicholson says, there is a danger that the existence of some unpleasant characters on the fringe are being used as a reason to close down a discussion.

  • Mick Taylor 25th Mar '23 - 8:32am

    Peter Nicholson. The GC people bang on about predatory people, pretending to be trans and how they will threaten women. Yet they can produce absolutely no evidence. In any event, can you even imagine the sort of macho heterosexual, who would be predatory, dressing up as a woman to enter female spaces? That sort of man would rather be dead than dress as a woman. Again, absolutely no evidence. As has been said previously on this thread, the GC arguments have been debunked again and again and yet they persist in uttering their hateful, illiberal comments about trans people. Talking to them has made no difference. They simply are not prepared to let the issue be. They are disrupting our party and driving good people out, just because they’re trans. It has to stop and they have to go.

  • I’m an ex member who is looking for another party to vote for. Not because of LD’s trans policy but because it appears to have closed down debate from one side on this issue. I suspect I’m not alone in this situation and this issue may be part of the reason why the Libdems are not taking advantage of the Governments troubles in the polls the last year or so. This piece gives me hope that I can continue supporting the Liberal Democrats. The fact that the outgoing SNP leader got in to trouble on the GRR bill demonstrates the concerns that opponents of the bill had. It was also encouraging to see some common sense being demonstrated by World Athletics and eloquently explained by Seb Coe on Radio 4 yesterday. I winced when Tim Farron had that interview with Cathy Newman in 2015 but no one is suggesting he should leave the party and I think he is one of the best MPs in parliament.

  • Peter Watson 25th Mar '23 - 3:19pm

    @Mick Taylor “can you even imagine the sort of macho heterosexual, who would be predatory”
    It must be reassuring for women and girls to know that predatory males are so easy to identify ! 🙁

  • Peter Watson 25th Mar '23 - 11:39pm

    @Mick Taylor “The GC people bang on about predatory people, pretending to be trans and how they will threaten women. Yet they can produce absolutely no evidence. In any event, can you even imagine the sort of macho heterosexual, who would be predatory, dressing up as a woman to enter female spaces? That sort of man would rather be dead than dress as a woman. Again, absolutely no evidence.”

  • Matt Bristol 26th Mar '23 - 4:07pm

    Willie, it’s too late. Many of us wanted to see a party which has often stood for a consensual, pluralist democratic approach to debate and decision-making, recognise how far it stands from the centre-ground national position on this debate, and consider how to negotiate that gap, rather than pretending its chosen policy represented the only way forward to morally better model of society that would win out in time against a the rest of reality whom it pretended were a bunch of rightwing fraudsters rather than democratic stakeholders with a variety of different opinions and motives. We’ve given up waiting. We’ve left.

  • “why it appears to be assumed that such rights could never be abused by certain malevolent non-trans others with predatory intent”

    If rights can only exist when it is impossible to use them to assist a criminal or abusive action, then no rights can exist at all. The rights to privacy, freedom of movement within national borders, property ownership, and more are used as part of almost every predator’s toolkit … so is it liberal to abolish them for the safety of the people now?

  • Jenny Barnes 27th Mar '23 - 3:18pm

    “simply seeking greater recognition than has been shown to date of the practical issues to which it [the GRR bill] gives rise ”

    mmm. what are they? I can’t see any serious problem with people getting a death certificate or married in their acquired gender. I think these alleged practical issues are made up with minimal evidence. If we’re really worried about violence to cis women and girls, the police would be the best place to start.

  • Peter Watson 27th Mar '23 - 4:12pm

    @cim “The rights to privacy, freedom of movement within national borders, property ownership, and more are used as part of almost every predator’s toolkit … so is it liberal to abolish them for the safety of the people now?”
    Interesting point, but it does seem to be accepted that a “liberal” society can (must?) put all sorts of constraints on those and other rights, especially when the rights of one person clash with those of another.
    While I don’t doubt the existence of those motivated by fear and hatred of “different”, I believe that there are many (more, I hope) well-intentioned people who want to find solutions that balance those rights and which optimise freedom and safety for all, but often the heat and polarisation of debate on this topic undermines the goodwill of potential allies. I also fear that discussion is sometimes quashed in order to minimise publicity for something that might be right and good but unpopular and controversial.

  • Tristan Ward 27th Mar '23 - 5:51pm

    People may wish to consider this article about the Labour party, but it is equally applicable to the Liberal Democrats – arguably more so in my opinion: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2023/mar/27/labour-lose-election-three-hurdles-working-class-immigration

    Over the last few months canvassing for votes, helpers and new members, I have had a number of conversations about trans- rights and the approach taken by some who promote them within the party. All mentioned an aggressive and intolerant attitude on the part of some campaigners. The most recent conversation was yesterday.

    It is of course possible that the people I spoke to were themselves intolerant of trans rights, and my best guess is that at least one of them fell into this category. However I am doubtful that every person I spoke to “wished that trans people did not exist” or similar. One was a former member of the party (and so identified himself as liberal to a greater or lesser extent; and another had marched (she said) in the 1990s against section 28. My point is that most of the people I spoke to were not obviously quasi-facsists.

    I suppose I am merely echoing Matt Bristol’s point above.

  • Tristan Ward 27th Mar '23 - 6:09pm

    I hear what Charlie and others say about the tedium and pain of having to rehearse the same arguments about trans rights over and over again. I feel the same way when I argue with climate change deniers – arguably with less justification.

    But to refuse to argue is – unfortunately – illiberal, however unpleasant and painful the subject matter. It’s all there in On Liberty, where Mill talks about freedom of speech.

    For example

    ” ..the peculiar evil of silencing the expression of an opinion is that it is robbing the human race; posterity as well as the existing generation; those who dissent from the opinion, still more than those who hold it. If the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth; if wrong, they lose, what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth produced by its collision with error.

    Or elsewhere: “If we censor expressions that are false, then our beliefs will be ‘held as a dead dogma[s], not living truth[s]’, i.e. we will not have a clear and lively understanding of the truth.”

    A liberal thinks trans people have human rights just like all human beings, and are equally entitled to “life liberty and the pursuit of happiness”. The difficulty is where that pursuit collides with a similar pursuit by others.

    In an argument about bullying and/or abuse of power a a liberal can only take one side of course.

  • Mick Taylor 27th Mar '23 - 8:25pm

    Peter Watson. Sadly the default position has become, for many women, that ALL males are predatory. And you believe something that’s in the Evening Standard run by George Osbourne? Hardly known as an advocate for trans rights. The GC people suggest that women are at risk from hordes of men seeking to invade women’s spaces by pretending to be trans. This is abject nonsense even if one case can be produced that purports to ‘prove’ their point.
    This whole debate has become necessary because the GC people absolutely refuse to compromise one iota, are wholly resistant to any arguments put forward against they views and are aggressive and vitriolic about trans people. It really beggars belief that sensible people in our party still want to defend people whose views are not in the least Liberal and who have driven many good trans people out of the party. Our party used to be the place for LGBT+ people and it’s fast losing that status, because people like Willie, otherwise good Liberals, don’t accept that some views are without the party’s constitution and can’t be reasoned with. Worse, when trans people and their supporters point out the problems, it is them the are attacked rather than the appalling views of the GC brigade. When are more people going to wake up and stand against these bigoted and illiberal views, instead of making excuses for the bigots?

  • “it does seem to be accepted that a “liberal” society can (must?) put all sorts of constraints on those and other rights, especially when the rights of one person clash with those of another.”

    On a case-by-case basis, yes – Liberal Democrats do not usually argue for the abolition of prisons, which place extremely substantial restrictions on the human rights of those within. On the other hand, Lib Dems also do not usually argue that because some people will commit crimes, everyone should be pre-emptively imprisoned (or at least placed under house arrest and monitoring) so that they can’t.

    The general liberal principle is that people should get rights, and people who harm others (and only they) should be restricted to the extent necessary to prevent that harm.

    So even if there was a hypothetical circumstance in which person A used their ability to place “F” on a form to cause serious harm to others – and noting that around half the population have the entirely uncontested ability to do that anyway, which it is not yet being proposed to restrict, so if that question on the form is being used as any sort of protection against harm there’s a *much* more serious problem here! – that would be cause to restrict the rights of person A, not to restrict the rights of people B through Z who have nothing to do with this circumstance.

  • Peter Watson 28th Mar '23 - 10:32pm

    Mick Taylor “And you believe something that’s in the Evening Standard run by George Osbourne?”
    I’m sure you don’t mean to suggest that you won’t believe that a woman was attacked because I linked to a report in the Evening Standard, but here is a link to the British Transport Police: https://www.btp.police.uk/news/btp/news/in-the-courts/dangerous-offender-jailed-after-sexually-assaulting-woman-in-ladies-toilets—birmingham/
    In this Ian Bullock case, it feels important for me to note that the poor victim might well have been a trans woman, and the offence happened under the current system so is not evidence against gender self-identification per se.

  • Peter Watson 28th Mar '23 - 10:33pm

    With regards to the debate over “safe spaces”, I don’t believe concerns are necessarily motivated by transphobia. After all, it highlights a fear of cis men, not trans women. One does not have to wait long for an article on this site about the risks posed by cis men to girls and women, trans or otherwise, and the lengths to which men will go in order to invade or spy on women’s “safe spaces” is pretty well documented, often for supposedly comic effect.

    Also, I believe that the two sides are less far apart than it sometimes seems. As far as I can tell, self-identification is about simplifying the potentially traumatic process for a person to change their legal gender. While I am sure there is plenty of debate to be had, some rational and compassionate, some irrational and transphobic, about how simple and obstacle-free that process should be, particularly for young people, I don’t think that supporters of self-identification are demanding that it should be simple enough to allow a man to spontaneously and dishonestly announce they identify as a woman while marching into a women’s changing room, toilet, refuge, etc.

    There are many implications of a more liberal approach to gender, single-sex schooling springing immediately to mind, and I think that finding a fair solution to these dilemmas requires a much more dispassionate atmosphere than we see at the moment.

  • Peter Watson 28th Mar '23 - 10:40pm

    cim “The general liberal principle is that people should get rights, and people who harm others (and only they) should be restricted to the extent necessary to prevent that harm.”
    I agree entirely.
    But so often, it seems to be defining “harm” and determining “the extent necessary to prevent” it that makes liberals fall out, or at least makes liberalism debatable, complicated, difficult, inconsistent, risky, interesting, etc. 🙂

  • Jenny Barnes 29th Mar '23 - 4:38pm

    Take a step back. Why is it any concern of the state what gender you identify as or who you find attractive?

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