One of the fundamental tenets of a free society is free speech – the freedom to criticise, to debate, to hold to account and to shock or insult. The world is full of people who will say “I believe in free speech – but it doesn’t mean the right to insult people or their beliefs.”
Well, I’m sorry if you find this offensive, but I’m about to offend that belief. It’s illogical nonsense. Free speech is not free speech if you cannot use it freely – and part of its function is to allow people to express their beliefs, including that the beliefs or sensitivities of someone else are incorrect, unpleasant or just plain idiotic.
The fallacy of “I believe in free speech, but not the freedom to offend” is alarmingly widespread, and extremely dangerous. Sometimes it is spouted by the naive, the mistaken or the simply stupid – but often it is a faux-logic cover for those who simply do not believe in freedom at all.
Claiming to believe in free speech but not in the freedom to offend is like saying you believe in the freedom to breathe, but not the freedom to absorb oxygen into a bloodstream, or that everyone has a right to use pens but ink should be banned. It means you don’t believe in free speech at all. It is the verbal equivalent of sleight of hand – and not a very good one, drawing a distinction where no distinction exists.
If you are guilty of using it, please stop doing so. In the magic trick stakes, it’s more like the kind you get free in a cracker and try to perform drunk on Christmas afternoon than a Derren Brown illusion. No one thinks you actually have magic powers, they think you’re a tiresome relation who can’t hold his drink. When you finally doze off in front of one of the weaker Bond films, they’ll raise a silent cheer and either draw on your face or place your hand into a cup of warm water. Or both.
Until now, the law backed up these amateur Paul Daniels tribute acts. Section 5 of the Public Order Act 1986 made it a criminal offence to say anything insulting, where that insult is defined subjectively by the recipient of the comment or anyone witnessing or hearing tell of it.
I’m delighted to read that the Home Secretary has now accepted a Lords amendment to delete the provision which outlaws insults. I hope you will join me in congratulating the Reform Section 5 campaign – and in keeping a watchful eye for any other incursions into free speech.
UKIP’s internal tensions have been obvious for some time. As the main party has gathered points in the opinion polls by picking up kneejerk reactionary positions on gay marriage and the burkha, the youth wing – Young Independence (YI) – has seen its own surge on the back of libertarian activism.
As I tweeted a month ago, after witnessing a debate on gay marriage between an old guard member and Olly Neville (a leading member of YI):
— Mark Wallace (@wallaceme) December 14, 2012
All parties – and the country at large – have that growing generational difference, particularly when it comes to the understanding of individual liberty. The test of their character is how they deal with them. And that’s where UKIP are now in big trouble.
In what some have inevitably dubbed the #Ollyshambles, Neville – who recently became the popular Chairman of Young Independence – was last night sacked from his post by the party’s leadership. His crime? He dared to disagree with them over gay marriage and on the idea that European Elections were more important than Westminster – both perfectly sensible positions for a libertarian eurosceptic to take.
So why should anyone care? After all, I hear you say, he was just the youth leader of a political party which has no Parliamentary representation. That’s true, of course, but the Neville affair does have some important ramifications for UKIP and for our wider politics.
Consider the context: UKIP are at 16% in the polls, widely touted as headed for first place in the 2014 European Elections and according to the Mail on Sunday set to deny David Cameron any chance of a General Election victory, all at a time when the EU is an increasingly important issue. Whether they convert their current polling into votes, and how they campaign matters a great deal.
The implications are numerous.
First, there’s the impact on UKIP’s effectiveness. The party’s youth wing had been signing up activist after activist from Conservative Future, based on its message of good humour and libertarian politics. That is now shattered, as the leading proponent of both is roundly duffed up. UKIP have already had resignations over the scandal, meaning they are losing energetic young activists as well as the gloss which an active youth organisation gives to a brand.
Then there’s the damage this does to UKIP’s message that it is a different kind of party, one that rejects top-down control and the enforcement of toeing the line. They have made great hay with this – look, for example, at the comments given by former CF Deputy Chair Alexandra Swann on her much-publicised defection to UKIP:
“As a member of Conservative Future, with no real power, I was monitored and forced to stick rigidly to the party line. The Tories stifle debate, and no one gets along, whereas UKIP encourage debate and they all get along fine.”
That sounded great for them at the time, but now rings extremely hollow. Small wonder Alexandra was looking rather uncomfortable on Twitter last night in the face of the news.
Given that the Conservatives allow MPs to break ranks on leaving the EU or opposing green taxes, while Labour keep Frank Field, Lord Adonis and plenty other outspoken rebels in their ranks, UKIP risk their anti-politics reputation by sacking people for simple disagreement.
Perhaps most serious for Nigel Farage is the impact this has on his own core messages about what UKIP believes. Time and again we’re told it is a libertarian party, and yet it seems that speaking your mind in favour of libertarian positions is a sackable offence.
The same goes for the question of who their leader backs or sacks. When Winston Mackenzie, the UKIP candidate in the Croydon North by-election, became the latest official representative of the party to say something horrendously bonkers by announcing that gay adoption was a form of “child abuse”, we were told that UKIP is a party that lets its people hold their own opinions.
As recently as Monday, Farage was on the Today Programme defending his troops from the Prime Minister’s allegations of oddness on the grounds that:
“…we’re eccentrics, and we tolerate eccentricity.”
So either it’s acceptable “eccentricity” to insult gay people, but unacceptable to suggest they should be allowed to marry, or this is an overnight change of position. If it’s the former, then that’s pretty horrendous. If it’s a change of position, presumably UKIP will now sack anyone who breaks from any policy at all. That would be awkward for them, given a) the tendency of their candidates and MEPs to do so and b) the fact that Nigel Farage himself has publicly gone on record as opposing their policy on drugs.
Next time (and there will be a next time) a UKIPper says something genuinely awful, how will Farage fight off the demands to sack him or her?
All in all, this is a pretty mess: young activists alienated, a libertarian and anti-politics reputation fundamentally undermined, and a total inconsistence with their own leader’s attitude to sacking and policy cohesion. Anyone acquainted with the history of UKIP will know that they are no strangers to arbitrary purges – indeed, they are probably the only political party with far more ex-members than members. It’s fair to say a return to that bloody heritage is not the road to political success.
2012 may have been UKIP’s year to party, but the Ollyshambles suggests 2013 may be the year of the hangover.
It’s a depressing reflection on our nation’s politics that one of the reasons Ed Miliband’s well-delivered speech at Labour Conference is being feted by apparently stunned journalists is that he was able to make a speech without having it written down in front of him.
Across the pond, on the other hand, Gov Gary Johnson – the Libertarian Party Presidential candidate – has shown how to really break the mould when making a speech: Crowd-surfing…
Today’s news of David Cameron’s trouble remembering what Magna Carta means on theLetterman Show inevitably recalls Tony Hancock’s classic “Twelve Angry Men” episode of Hancock’s Half Hour:
With the immortal words:
Does Magna Carta mean nothing to you? Did she die in vain?
Hancock reduced the audience to gales of laughter, and secured yet another entry in the annals of comedy history.
And yet, there’s also something rather sad about that clip, echoing down from 1959. If a prime time comedy show made that gag today, how many people in the audience would laugh and how many would be left scratching their heads over what it meant?
If you go to Runnymede, where Magna Carta was signed – laying the foundation stone of English freedom – you will find a memorial. Its inscription reads
“To commemorate Magna Carta, symbol of Freedom Under Law”
But it was not erected by the British public, or by our Parliamentarians, or our legal institutions. It was put there by the American Bar Association who, it seems, value Magna Carta more than we do.
Perhaps Hancock was right – Magna Carta means nothing to us. She died in vain.
Arresting people for swearing is ridiculous. And yet, under Section 5 of the Public Order Act, it regularly happens.
Section 5 is a badly written, catch-all law which – as one former officer put it to me recently – “lets us take people off the streets if they haven’t committed a specific offence but we don’t really want them there”.
The precise wording outlaws anyone who:
(a) uses threatening, abusive or insulting words or behaviour, or disorderly behaviour, or
(b) displays any writing, sign or other visible representation which is threatening, abusive or insulting,
within the hearing or sight of a person likely to be caused harassment, alarm or distress thereby.
Given the total lack of any definition of what constitutes “threatening, abusive or insulting words or behaviour”, and the overzealous nature of some (though far from all) bobbies on the beat, it is hardly surprising that the clause has been abused over the years. It has been applied to stop people making perfectly valid criticisms of Scientology, protesting against the murder and oppression of gay people in the Middle East, and saying religions are “fairy tales”, among many others.
Given that it is on the statute book, and that it is regularly used to arrest ordinary members of the public for far less serious behaviour than that displayed at Downing Street last week, Section 5 should surely have been used to arrest Andrew Mitchell, the Chief Whip.
Instead, he was allowed to swear repeatedly at a police officer, despite the police log’s report that bystanders looked “visibly shocked” – which seems to my lay perspective to qualify as using “insulting words…within the hearing or sight of a person likely to be caused harassment, alarm or distress”.
How many plebeians would be allowed to get away with that with only a verbal warning, rather than a trip to the cells?
Giving greater privileges and more freedom under the law to members of the Government than is given to the people at large prevents Westminster from understanding how bad the criminal law of this country has become. Leading the Chief Whip away in cuffs would have been an absurd scene when his sacking or resignation should be the sensible outcome, but it would have woken our representatives up to the excessive powers of Section 5.
Until that happens, what hope is there that they will realise the urgent need to reform the Public Order Act?
As readers will know, I don’t normally feature my day to day work on this blog. However, occasionally there are exceptions where the libertarian aims of Crash Bang Wallace and the output of my day job overlap.
One of those is the article I have written for today’s City AM, making the case for our outdated Sunday Trading laws to be abolished entirely following their successful trial during the Olympics. You can read it (and join the debate) here.