The disgraceful scenes at the Oxford Union last night are a salutary reminder of the decay of free speech in this country. Not only the illiberal ‘hard Left’ [what a misnomer!], Islamist and Zionist protesters – a curious coalition – and their rowdy hangers-on, but the mainstream political parties and the various semi-official organs of Political Correctness such as the ludicrously titled ‘Equality and Human Rights Commission’, pay lip-service to freedom of speech as in duty bound; but in practice they attack and undermine it wherever it clashes with their own opinions and prejudices.
If we are to continue to be in any sense an open democracy and a pluralistic society, free speech should be sacrosanct and indivisible. But it is far from being so in the mealy-mouthed Britain of today, where unpopular and obnoxious opinions are not merely frowned upon and derailed from public expression – increasingly and ominously by scenes such as last night’s gratuitous violence at Oxford – but are curbed by an ever growing array of new laws against ‘hate speech’ deemed offensive to those criticised.
This attempt to shelter the allegedly ‘vulnerable’ from honest criticism as well as from poisonous prejudice strikes me as totally undemocratic and wrong.
The traditional principles of free speech are crystal-clear. If it has any plausible meaning, it involves the right to say publicly whatever one wishes to so long as you do not directly incite violence and breaches of the peace, or libellously defame another’s character. As Voltaire is alleged to have said, “I detest what you say, but I will fight to the death for your right to say it”.
Saying it lawfully, of course, does not extend to group demonstrations intended to provoke violence and counter-violence, such as the fracas at the Oxford Union last night. Like Evan Harris MP, I am astounded that the police allowed demonstrators to scale the walls and gain uninvited entry to the Union’s private premises, and even more astonished that the police then washed their hands of their duty to remove the intruders on the pretext that it had become a ‘civil’ and not a ‘criminal’ matter. Something distinctly fishy there, which calls for a public enquiry.
Having spent most of my life actively campaigning for gay rights, often against viciously hate-filled opponents, I am the last person to wish for sexual minorities – or any other minority – to be abused, mistreated and discriminated against. But I am far from convinced that criminalising the verbal expression of ignorant prejudice and even hatred is the wisest way of dealing with bigotry. What counts is the battle of public opinion – the candid convincing of hearts and minds – and this is never won by curbing freedom of speech. On the contrary, it is only by exercising the fullest freedom of speech without fear of legal restraint or physical violence that honest, sincere, open-minded people will reach sensible conclusions based on factual evidence rather than on lies, prejudice and fiction.
Unfortunately, so many of today’s political and social arguments are less and less reality-based. In the scary atmosphere created by the government’s over-hype of the terrorist threat, the distinction between fact and fiction is increasingly blurred until it no longer seems to exist for many people, even including front bench spokespersons.
If the charge against David Irving is that he denies facts for which there is copious and convincing evidence, the proper way to demonstrate this is by demolishing his arguments – as was conclusively done in his unsuccessful libel action against Deborah Lipstadt – not by rioting against his freedom to speak. If the British National Party’s views are wrong-headed, obnoxious, and fuelled by hate, the proper way to combat them is not by denying them platforms and rioting which lets them pose - with a smidgeon of justification – as aggrieved martyrs; it is to out-debate them.
But if the self-styled anti-fascists – who all too often act out a passable imitation of fascist street thugs – prefer the sort of behaviour they perpetrated last night, it is they, and not their enemies, who are among the worst betrayers of our hard-won democratic freedoms. Whether knowingly or not, these misguided people are contributing to the destruction of our increasingly fragile open society.