Some have held up the Tory Party’s anti-protest police and crime bill as evidence that threats to free speech come not from cancel culture and social conformism but from the jack-boot of an authoritarian state. The truth, of course, is that it’s equally threatened by both.
All true champions of free speech will have breathed a sigh of relief on Monday 17th January when the House of Lords blocked the Government’s draconian and anti-democratic police and crime bill.
Authoritarian measures bolted on to the original bill at the last minute by Tory peers would have amounted to yet another assault on our freedom to express ourselves in public.
Designed to neutralise direct action movements such as Insulate Britain and Extinction Rebellion, the measures would have given the police and courts new powers to crack down on protests deemed disruptive.
Among the proposals blocked by the Lords were plans to outlaw noisy protests and give the police the authority to stop and search anyone at a protest “without suspicion” for items used to prevent a person being moved, known as “locking-on”. The red-robed peers also shut down the Government’s attempts to stop ‘disruptive’ individuals from attending protests and ban the blocking of infrastructure sites such as newspapers and airports.
Meanwhile, a provision aimed at introducing harsher sentences for obstructing the public highway was watered down so that it applied only to major routes and motorways rather than all roads.
Tories, including Deputy Prime Minister Dominic Raab, have continued to voice support for the proposals, claiming protestors’ right to draw attention to their cause in public must not trump other people’s right to go about their ‘lawful business.’
But that’s the issue with freedom of expression (which gives us the right to hold our own opinion and express them freely including through public demonstrations); it becomes meaningless if Governments, pressure groups or, indeed, mobs dilute it with ever proliferating restrictions on our right to exercise it.
Regardless of whether we agree with the tactics and aims of Extinction Rebellion and Insulate Britain or not (I do), their right to engage in non-violent direct action protests must be preserved; if it isn’t, we will all move a step closer to becoming like Saudi Arabia or Russia.
The Bill was dangerous and its defeat was a blessed relief, but to suggest, as Labour peer Shami Chakrabarti has done, that it is proof that free speech is menaced not by left-wing cancel culture but instead by authoritarian Governments is simply wrong. It is imperilled by both equally.
In the UK and the US, online and offline mob enforcement of compliance with ever proliferating social codes has created a pernicious climate of fear around what we say and what opinions we hold. As Anne Applebaum says in The Atlantic, those who do not fall in line with the new norms are speedily punished.
“Right here in America, right now,” she says, “it is possible to meet people who have lost everything—jobs, money, friends, colleagues—after violating no laws, and sometimes no workplace rules either. Instead, they have broken (or are accused of having broken) social codes having to do with race, sex, personal behaviour, or even acceptable humour, which may not have existed five years ago or maybe five months ago. Some have made egregious errors of judgment. Some have done nothing at all.”
Manuscripts are left in drawers, comedy sketches shredded, opinions hidden, University talks cancelled and counter-arguments self-censored out of fear of inviting the wrath of (in most cases) ‘progressive’ peers. The dreaded punishments are meted out not by Governments but by colleagues, class mates, managers, students, fellow board members, audiences and Twitter mobs.
According to Applebaum, who has written a book on the Sovietisation of Eastern Europe, it was this type of peer pressure, more than the spectre of state violence, that cowed people living in Stalin’s Soviet Union into trotting out party lines and singing anthems they didn’t believe in.
But modern day Britain and America provide ample evidence that we don’t need Stalinism to make people live in fear of being punished for insufficient social conformism. Citizens of both countries who either deliberately or mistakenly transgress social mores now face on and offline bullying, social and professional ostracization, career-ending reputational damage and the loss of their job and income.
Examples abound. After Daniel Elder, a prizewinning composer (and a political liberal), posted a statement on Instagram condemning arson in his hometown of Nashville, where Black Lives Matter (BLM) protesters had set the courthouse on fire after the killing of George Floyd, he discovered that his publisher would not print his music and choirs would not sing it.
In the UK, those who have challenged BLM have also been punished by peers. In June 2020, amid a stringent lockdown and weekly BLM protests, 24-year-old welder Jake Hepple flew a ‘White Lives Matter’ banner over a football stadium. It was arguably not the best thought out of critiques (of BLM) as it could have been interpreted by some to be supportive of white supremacism, but police investigated and found Hepple had not broken any law – not even the all-embracing Public Order Act 1986 and its hate speech clauses. It mattered not; the wheels of mob justice were-a-turning.
Burnley FC, which Hepple supports, banned him from their stadium for life. The club’s captain rushed to say that he was ‘embarrassed and ashamed’ of the action. His employer, Paradigm Precision, sacked him. The media vilified him. GoFundMe axed a campaign to raise funds for him. The police felt the need to offer him protection.
Hepple is not alone. Nick Buckley, the founder and director of Mancunian Way, a charity that helped thousands of young BAME people find employment and avoid gangs, was dismissed from his job after criticizing the more left-wing aspects of BLM’s manifesto. The charity’s Trustees had felt pressured to remove Buckley after a petition was posted online calling for him to be sacked.
Journalist Martin Shipton also fell foul of peers when he posted a series of Tweets questioning why BLM protests were being allowed to protest during the lockdown. He was asked to step down as a judge from the Wales Book of the Year competition and faced online bullying and harassment.
Failures to toe the line on issues of race also saw comedians Jimmy Carr and Whoopi Goldberg publicly pilloried and the former shadow minister Rebecca Long-Bailey fired. Long-Bailey’s ‘mistake’ was to re-tweet her interview of actor Maxine Peake and refer to her as an ‘absolute diamond’.
The comment was judged by Labour leader Keir Starmer to be anti-Semitic and a sacking offence because Peake had said in the interview with Long-Bailey that Israeli forces had taught American police the kneeling technique used during the killing of Floyd George.
Race relations is not the only arena in which non-compliant voices are muzzled by over-bearing group-think. As numerous unfortunates have discovered to their cost monolithic thought is also the order of the day when it comes to the topics of sex, sexual identity, gender identity, immigration and religion.
Felix Ngole, a social work student at Sheffield University, was removed from his course for saying ‘the Bible and God identify homosexuality as a sin.’ Nobel prize winning biochemist Tim Hunt was forced to resign from UCL after outlining the ‘troubles’ he faces when working with ‘girls’ in his labs. “I fall in love with them, they fall in love with me and they cry when I criticise them,” he said.
Meanwhile Gareth Roberts, an award-winning writer known for his work on Dr Who, was dropped by his publisher for using the word ‘trannies’ in a Tweet and for arguing that the Trans movement reinforces gender stereotypes.
The situation in the media, academic and creative sectors is so bad that some 150 writers, academics and activists – including authors JK Rowling, Salman Rushdie and Margaret Atwood – signed an open letter in 2020 denouncing the “restriction of debate.”
Universities, former bastions of liberal thinking, have become such hotbeds of censorship in the UK that former education secretary Gavin Williamson proposed a free speech law in 2021 that would make English universities liable for breaches by allowing no-platformed speakers to sue for compensation.
In some cases the repression comes from particular communities rather than left or right wing thought and speech ‘police’. In Britain today we have a de-facto blasphemy law. No electorate has approved it. No parliament has passed it. No judge supervises its application and no jury determines guilt beyond reasonable doubt. There’s no right of appeal. And the penalty is death.
It was introduced by members of Britain’s Muslim community who called for author Salman Rushdie to be murdered for ‘insulting’ verity Allah and the Prophet Muhammed in his book the Satanic Verses.
Ayatollah Khomeini of Iran then ordered Muslims worldwide to kill Rushdie and the author was forced into hiding. Translators of the book were also deemed valid targets for execution and the Japanese translator was stabbed to death in Tokyo 1991 while the Italian and Norwegian translators both survived assassination attempts.
In 2006 there were more calls for blasphemers to be murdered when Muslims protested in London against cartoons depicting the Islamic prophet Muhammad in the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten. The banners held by participants said ‘behead all who insult Islam’; ‘massacre all who insult Islam’; ‘freedom of expression go to hell’; ‘Europe remember 9/11’ and ‘liberalism go to hell’. One man wore a fake bomb vest.
These scenes were repeated again in London after the staff of the French magazine Charlie Hebdo were slaughtered by Islamists in Paris for publishing unflattering images of the prophet Muhammed. British newspapers could have published similar images (or indeed any image) of the prophet as an act of solidarity but they didn’t. Guardian journalist Nick Cohen has said their decision was motivated by pure fear rather than respect for the dictates of Islam.
It is illogical to suggest, as Shami Chakrabati has done, that peer-enforced restrictions on free speech are in any way less pernicious than those that come from the state. Sackings, public shamings, bullying and violence are as effective a tool in silencing people as police batons, prison sentences and fines.
People living in Britain today do not enjoy freedom of expression. The curbs on our right to speak our minds and hold divergent opinions are numerous and ever proliferating and it matters not if they are coming from the Government or elsewhere.
The defeat of the police and crime bill was an important victory but there is a long way to go if we wish to become a nation of free thinkers.