One of the most depressing things about the last few years — and in particular the last few months — has been the realization that there is just one thing that truly unites the Left, the Right and the Centre. And that is the lack of any real understanding of the importance of free speech and freedom of expression in a democracy.
This is a fairly recent phenomenon.
Ten years ago, when Nick Griffin and the BNP were still a feature in British politics, there was certainly a ferocious debate as to whether Griffin should be given a platform on Question Time. It sparked protests. But ultimately it was decided that he should be allowed on the programme, where he was torn to pieces.
I don’t think this would happen today.
It is also the case that, unlike in France and Germany, Holocaust denial is not a criminal offence in Britain. And yet, Holocaust denialism is not a bigger problem in the UK than it is in France or Germany. David Irving was given the space to air his views, and he has since been completely discredited. This is because, when put to the test in a rational, facts-based debate, bad ideas are usually exposed for what they are. If they are suppressed, they get pushed underground where they are not challenged.
So why are there so few people, on any part of the political spectrum, who when push comes to shove are willing to make the case for free speech?
Those who are perhaps most guilty of disregarding this most important principle are the ‘woke’ left. This has been exemplified by the attacks on J.K. Rowling for her supposed transphobia, and the bizarre decisions to pull Gone With The Wind and the Fawlty Towers episode ‘Don’t Mention the War’, from HBO and UKTV respectively.
Of course, parts of the Left long ago abandoned any pretence of caring about freedom of expression.
Ironically, this mantle has now been taken up by the libertarian right. However, along with the Centre-left, they too can be very selective in their support for free speech. Keir Starmer recently sacked Rebecca Long-Bailey from the shadow cabinet for sharing an interview with the actress Maxine Peake that contained an anti-Semitic conspiracy (that the police tactic that was used to kill George Floyd was learned by the American police from Israel). However, it was a wide-ranging interview, much of which focused on the government’s handling of Covid-19. It is therefore far from clear that Long-Bailey was necessarily endorsing any particular aspect of the article. Furthermore, Peake is one of Rebecca Long-Bailey’s constituents, therefore it is unsurprising that she would share an interview with her.
The far-left accused Starmer of authoritarian behaviour (oh the irony). But more disturbingly, the libertarian right, who claim to value free speech so much, applauded him. The Conservative minister James Cleverly said that Long-Bailey had ‘handed (Starmer) a pretty good excuse’ for sacking her. Douglas Murray, who wrote extensively about ‘cancel culture’ in his recent book The Madness of Crowds, praised Starmer in the Telegraph for ‘actually doing something’ about anti-Semitism.
The sad fact is, that neither the Right nor the Left care much about free speech. The Left will complain about cancel culture when they are defending their right to criticise Israel, and the Right will complain about it when, for example, Roger Scruton was misrepresented in the New Statesman. The only way to unmask the true racists, sexists, homophobes and transphobes in our society is through debate. So instead of having a 48-hour walkout from twitter, why not invite Wiley onto a major news programme, where he could be asked exactly what evidence he has for his views about Jewish people.
I don’t think he would fare well.