Tuesday, August 09, 2005


I have always been rather wary of those advancing arguments to restrict freedom of speech. This may have started out, a long time ago, as simple self-interest, since I was once more radical than I am now, and wished to retain the opportunity to express my views (whatever they were: I'm not sure now, and may not have been sure then). It seemed to me obvious, though, that this freedom is as near-as-possible absolute, since as soon as you start restricting it, you are effectively imposing censorship by the government, the police and the courts, and while one would not of course suggest that this was their intention, the principle, once established, that politicians have a right and mechanism to gag their electorate, seems a dangerous one. For of course it is easy to allow freedom to those who agree with you: the test for a liberal democracy has to be its willingness to allow its citizens to voice dissent. I can remember in the 1980s that the Anti-Nazi League sought to prevent right-wing politicians from addressing student meetings under the banner of their "no platform for racists" policy. I can remember at the time being dubious of this argument: freedom of speech should not be so lightly surrendered just because you don't like how it is used. For the same reason, attempts to beef up prohibitions on racist and religious bigotry have caused alarm. Comedians have rightly quetioned whether the government really wants to get involved in deciding which individuals or groups of people can be safely lampooned and which cannot. And now with the anti-terror legislation, we are facing a government intent on stopping people saying some things as "incitement to commit terrorism" and even "glorifying terrorism".

This is wrong, as the opposition parties have noted. Identifying and punishing new criminal acts is one things. But the government is effectively criminalising the holding of certain beliefs. In doing so, it is making up law to suit its own agenda. One of the threadbare rights of a UK citizen is to complain about the government, or even to argue that the system is wrong and should be changed, if necessary by completing the works of Guy Fawkes, "burnt in effigy to remind the Parliament that it would have been a Good Thing", as those notorious anarchist subversives Sellars and Yeatman put it in 1066 And All That. These thoughts can be expressed through speech, letters, pamphlets, letters to newspaper editors written in green ink, or in the manifestos of new political parties. I would rather the BNP were open in their racism than for them to adopt the appearance of being a reasonable right-ist anti-European party whose members just happen to be white skinheads.

Because what the government is trying to do by targetting the rhetoric of terror is to control people's beliefs. I would say that rhetoric of war and imperialism (ie officially approved rhetoric) does not provide the basis for confidence in the application of common sense. There is a world of difference between saying that cars are crimes against the environment and blowing up a motor factory. A sensible view would be that people are allowed to think what they like as long as their actions remain legal. To do otherwise is to actually reduce the culpability of the terrorists, since they can argue "it wasn't my idea- he told me to!" as if this was some excuse. If we want people to take responsibility for their actions, then we must focus on their choice about whether to follow a belief into practice, not on some inflammatory preacher they once heard speak. If only Tony Blair were a lawyer, or knew one.*

* A note for non-UK readers. Blair was a lawyer, is married to a lawyer, and his best friends are lawyers.

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