Free speech under attack after anti-Brexit Soubry and Jones heckled

The shrill responses of MPs, far-left tweeters and some media commentators to the boorish heckling of MP Anna Soubry and journalist Owen Jones by pro-Brexit demonstrators outside parliament last week could lead to further restrictions on our freedom of speech at a time when many of us are already nervous about voicing our opinions. 

Since last week, MPs have called the protesters “thugs”, “fascists” and “far right” and described their heckling as “threatening” and potentially criminal. They have called for increased police protection and law enforcement has allegedly now arrested James Goddard, the most vocal of the hecklers. MPs, TV pundits and far-left groups like UAF declared that a “line had been crossed”; the hecklers had simply gone too far. 

For sure, the group was invading Anna’s and Owen’s personal space and using offensive and inaccurate language but at no point was it threatening or violent. And given how much suffering politicians can cause, should they not have broad enough shoulders to take some insults anyway? Think of the devastation Soubry’s party’s austerity regime has visited upon millions of us.

There have been calls for the protesters to be arrested under the Public Order Act 1986, calls, which, if heeded, would have ominous implications for everyone else in society. Section 4A of the Act gives the police the power to arrest anyone who causes “intentional alarm or distress”, though “reasonable” behaviour is exempt. If the police were to zealously use this power, which is clearly wide open to individual interpretation, many of us could find ourselves arrested for merely vigorously expressing our opinion. It’s a chilling prospect.  

There is the freedom of speech issue and then there is the hypocrisy. The hysterical cries for a clampdown on heckling betray the hypocritical stance of far-left protestors and the mainstream political parties and media and on the issues of free speech and public protest.

The Speaker in the House of Commons, John Bercow, described the heckling as “a type of fascism” and called for the police to take action. Key aspects of the definition of the word fascism are the “forcible suppression of opposition” and “restrictions on individual freedom”. What will Bercow’s call for the police action result in if not the forcible suppression of opposition? Tory MP Helen Whately has expressed concerns about the protesters making “people become fearful of speaking up”.

Yet only the bravest of us would dare to robustly challenge politicians on the street now after the what has happened this week. Besides enduring an onslaught of criticism from mainstream media and MPs and far-left activists, Goddard has had his Facebook and PayPal accounts closed down and has now been arrested on suspicion of public order offenses.  

But the double standards run deeper than that. The groups Stand Up to Racism and the Unite Against Fascism (UAF) , which are backed by mainstream political parties and other high profile figures including Owen Jones, regularly try to shut down so called “far right” protests, political meetings, talks or even speeches at Speaker’s Corner, by using tactics and language that are far more aggressive than those used by Goddard and his associates. “Nazi scum off our streets” and “the police protect the fascists” (note the implied violence here) are regular chants at UAF and Stand Up to Racism counter-protests, all of which have a hardcore element of black-clad and masked “anti-fascists” dedicated to physically assaulting those they disagree with. 

On 9th December 2018, Owen Jones himself was standing amid hundreds black clad “anti-fascists” who were trying to push past law enforcement to physically assault pro-Brexit protestors attending the “Brexit Betrayal” rally. I was present on the day in my capacity as a freelance journalist and witnessed six of the “anti-fascists” attacking a lone opponent with sticks, kicks and punches. Jones may not have been one of the violent thugs, but he certainly wasn’t condemning their actions. 

Diane Rose, a 61 year old woman present among the Brexit Betrayal demonstrators, told me that an “anti-fascist” had physically assaulted her and other supporters of the For Britain party at a hustings in Lewisham in May 2018. Diane, an American, said that a large black-clad man had smashed over the head with a stick.

Unlike the heckling of Owen Jones and Anna Soubry, this physical assault on attendees at the Lewisham hustings was not deemed newsworthy by mainstream media or politicians and would almost certainly have been deemed a success by groups such as Stand Up to Racism and the UAF, the same groups that have expressed outrage on Twitter about Goddard’s heckling. The double standards are breath-taking.

Our rights to speak freely and engage in public protest are vitally important and must apply equally to all groups and individuals provided people are not inciting murder or engaging in violence. This includes those whose views may be regarded as repugnant by metropolitan liberals or mainstream politicians and journalists.