Free speech, please
As in other countries, there’s a xenophobic fringe to politics in the UK. We have two well-known parties: the “British National Party”, and the “UK Independence Party”. The former is working-class and is routinely denounced as racist thugs in the mainstream press; the latter is middle-class, and gets – broadly speaking – a good press.
[aside: Interesting that they both focus on an uneasy union of four nations as the subject of their allegiance. In the UK today, Scotland and Wales each has their own nationalist parties and some measure of independence, and Northern Ireland presents an ongoing problem, yet the xenophobic fringe parties bundle them together with England in their vision of a nation]
[aside2: There are elements of similar xenophobia in the main parties but, reassuringly, when William Hague’s Tories made it a major part of their platform, they went down to their biggest ever election defeat]
Anyway, back to the story. Radio 4 just had a discussion about Free Speech vs protecting peoples sensibilities. Among the witnesses questioned were the BNP leader Nick Griffin, so unusually we (the public) had the opportunity to hear from that party, as opposed to the usual filtered reporting of them. He argued strongly for free speech, and came across as hugely more reasonable than the frenzied portrayal of a demonic party we usually get.
And therein lies one strong reason why we need free speech. If Griffin and his party are reasonable people, then why do the media generally deny them a platform? And if they are demonic thugs, let’s hear them and they’ll surely condemn themselves from their own mouths. My best guess is that they fall somewhere between those descriptions, but that’s not a judgement I can make based only on secondhand media reports.
Religions thrive on repression: they become a focus for justified resentment and anger. The bible is full of epic stories; the seeds of christianity grew under persecution in Rome; Islamic extremism today is fed by monstrous injustices and blatent double-standards in the Middle East. If we repress the BNP, they too may thrive on it.
The R4 debate had another interesting contributor: a catholic lady writer whose name escapes me but who (like Griffin) has been attacked for highly controversial views. Of course, the catholic church is traditionally a bastion of intolerance, yet she too made a favourable impression on me, arguing in favour of free speech. The only speaker who conformed to stereotype was a 1970s-style anti-fascist whose knee-jerk reaction was that anything the BNP say should automatically be outlawed.
The sad thing is the speed with which our freedom is being taken away, attacked on the dual fronts of Security and Political Correctness, both massively abused. Freedom of speech has been much eroded, not only on the dubious fringes inhabited (allegedly) by the BNP, but also in such cases as Brian Haw, the peace protestor whose extraordinary persecution must be deeply disturbing to any Brit who would prefer not to live in a totalitarian state (whether you agree with him or not is, of course, immaterial). At the same time, they’re rapidly eroding the legal protection we formerly took for granted against political imprisonment. Add a quarter of a century to Orwell’s famous dystopia, and you have it.