Back in 2009, at the height of the MPs’ expenses scandal, there were plenty of hilarious, infuriating and odd examples of politicians wasting taxpayers’ money. Some have become immortal – duck houses, moat repairs, Jacqui Smith’s porn claim and so on.
Sadly, one of my favourites has largely been forgotten – the case of David Tredinnick MP, who charged the taxpayer for the software and tuition required so he could become an astrologer. No, not an astronomer like Brian Cox or the much-lamented Patrick Moore – an astrologer. Think Nostradamus, carnival sideshow con artists and newspaper horoscope columns that say things like “As the new phase of Venus enters the Cancerian optimum, consider buying a scratch card – or a second hand Vauxhall.”
I wrote about it for the TPA at the time, suggesting the public might like to email Mystic Tredinnick and request he read their future, given that they had paid for his so-called education. He didn’t take it very well, and as far as I’m aware he never did agree to give out any lottery numbers in advance – though he did later agree to pay back the money he had claimed.
This wasn’t a one-off. As well as his taxpayer-funded foray into the territory of Gypsy Rose Lee, the Member for Bosworth has also pressed the NHS to fund homeopathy, claimed that “remote healing” via telekinesis works despite the total absence of evidence and argued that surgeons and police officers should plan their work according to the cycle of the moon.
Now it has come to my attention, via The Geek Manifesto, that not only is the Parliamentary equivalent of Paul Daniels still going, but he has been elected onto the Science and Technology Select Committee. This is an MP who not only believes in just about every debunked alternative therapy going, but who openly and repeatedly places anecdotal evidence above statistical studies. The ability and the willingness to assess and weigh evidence is the foundation of science – and yet science policy will now be studied by someone who rejects the very concept of what is and is not evidence.
One of the Select Committee’s upcoming Inquiries is into the way clinical drug trials are carried out in the UK. Will the people really be best served by someone who rejects the evidential proof that homeopathy does not work?
It doesn’t take David Tredinnick’s crystal ball to see that this is a car crash waiting to happen.
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.