BY DOMINIC WIGHTMAN
I was chatting with a Venezuelan friend the other day on WhatsApp. He remarked how lucky I was to be in Britain – to be able to do anything I wanted, eat anything I wanted and say anything I wanted. At the time, given the fact that my friend had just chewed through a single arepa for lunch and I had just dined out on a Beef Wellington supper, I did not query his comment and felt an augmented sense of guilt for my acceptance into the Christmas belly club.
It was only afterwards, while thinking of his words, that I questioned the last of his three refrains. Can I as a Brit really say what I want or has the glue of political correctness in the West – and the infiltration of cultural Marxism into everyday speech – enslaved Britons under some form of soft totalitarianism?
Last February anger erupted in Venezuela when videos went viral on social media showing President Maduro and the first lady, Cilia Flores, feasting with a celebrity chef at a famous steakhouse in Istanbul. Maduro was on a layover while returning home after an official trip to China seeking aid for his cash-starved homeland. Try a different canvas of sin perception and a different sin – would not similar fury erupt in the UK if Boris Johnson were to fly to Uruguay, where you really can say anything and, as friendly Uruguayans do without any bad intentions, greet a black waiter as “negro”? Judging by the Football Association’s reaction to the Uruguayan footballer Luis Suarez’ use of the word in 2011, Johnson would be forced to resign.
It seems to me that – far from being restricted in terms of free speech – we are afflicted by authorities’ inability to pin jelly to a wall; to decipher good from bad and implement nuance. Nuance seems to become ever more difficult for authorities, or companies, to implement when under Twitter storm from keyboard warriors, who often have ulterior motives. Free speech – due to unworkable legislation and impossible enforcement interpretations – being the jelly.
Under Article 10 of the Human Rights Act 1998, “everyone has the right to freedom of expression” in the UK. But the law states that this freedom “may be subject to formalities, conditions, restrictions or penalties as are prescribed by law and are necessary in a democratic society”. Varying interpretations of these formalities, conditions, restrictions or penalties have seen Harry the Owl investigated by police for retweeting a transgender limerick, a Hampshire school referring a 15 year old boy to the police for declaring interest in UKIP and another 15 year old getting served with a court summons under the Public Order Act (as amended by the 1998 Criminal Justice Act) for declaring, wholly appropriately it should be said, that ‘Scientology is not a religion, it is a dangerous cult’.
Now let’s think laterally for a minute. During the French Revolution, Britain was the only country where political propaganda was free and legal. The most famous caricaturists at the time included James Gillray, Isaac Cruikshank and Thomas Rowlandson. Although all three caricaturists had different perspectives and opinions – detested by some establishment figures – they were the pioneers in the great drive towards patriotism when England faced attack from Napoleon. By contrast zoom forward to 2011 and Bilal Zaheer Ahmad, 23, from Wolverhampton, becomes the first person in Britain convicted of collecting information likely to be of use to a terrorist, including the al-Qaeda publication Inspire. So, where does the axis of freedom begin and where should it end? Where are there useful caveats and when do those caveats act as freedom-diminishing traps? How on earth is a policeman – often on the spot – supposed to interpret the grey from the black and white? With the arrival of the Internet and simultaneous spike in Islamist terror creating massive tumult, are we not playing a game of pin the tail on the donkey during an earthquake?
In the West today, generally speaking, we are in a freedom of speech fight between the Left and Right; between, on the one hand, the writer Jim C. Hines who claimed that, “Freedom of speech does not protect you from the consequences of saying stupid shit” and, on the other, the late Christopher Hitchens who said, “My own opinion is enough for me, and I claim the right to have it defended against any consensus, any majority, anywhere, any place, any time. And anyone who disagrees with this can pick a number, get in line, and kiss my ass.” (There are of course a few religious zealots in the milieu – cynically using the free speech argument – to whom few serious people pay lip-service. They try their darnedest to bring in blasphemy laws and have somewhat penetrated the DCLG*. Thus far, thanks be to the Lord, no government has been so dumb as to not see the MCB (Muslim Council of Britain) for what they are – hard-line Islamist crackpots, schmoozing in mufti.)
In the first half of the nineteenth century Alexis de Tocqueville auspiciously described how democracies of the future would suffer a new “species of oppression” – a “mild” or “tutelary” despotism undermining the vitality and self-respect of democratic souls. The French thinker Pierre Manent further defined de Tocqueville’s species of oppression, as “a despotism of the soft, whose pestiferous rules and regulations would aggressively aim to make life both more equal and more humane.”
Last April, the historian Niall Ferguson called for a NATO of the pen. This decade opened with Toby Young calling for a Free Speech Trade Union. Both mean well and have identified a problem that exists. However, perhaps instead both should focus on hiring the finest lawyers for their planned movements, for it is in the legal definitions and their interpretations that more freedom can be brought about. It’s on government-subsidised university campuses and in government-regulated schools that so much contemporary censorship takes place – this can surely be legislated against, during Boris’ years of fat majority, with a fine lawyer’s eraser and pen.
As for free speech for the rest of us, alas enforcers must keep pinning the tail on the donkey. Either speech is completely liberated to the whines of the offended and the police lose some useful traps in which to ensnare extremist Islamists, or we bumble along suffering occasional errors by those over-enthusiastic persons in authority who misinterpret malicious communication and hate speech, often making fools of themselves in the process.
The good news? We’re not Venezuela – yet.
*The Department for Communities & Local Government (now called MHCLG, apparently)
Dominic Wightman is the Editor of Country Squire Magazine.