Like a tin pot totalitarian regime, our present government has got it into its collective head that we should legislate against people who don’t support various fundamental British values. The aim is to allow the civil courts to ban people from expressing opinions which are disagreeable to our rulers. Of course, those who rashly think they have a right to free expression and ignore these banning orders will be sent to prison (most MPs love the idea of imprisoning their fellow countrymen and are deeply distressed that we don’t yet send more people to prison than any other country – though we’re getting there).
To be fair, despite having promised to publish its new Counter-Terrorism and Safeguarding Bill to ban free speech for the last two years, the government has still not done so. My guess is that the poor civil servants are finding it impossible to agree a form of words which will not produce chaos in our courts.
Let us first consider the alleged mischief at which this horribly un-British measure is aimed. As I understand it, the government thinks that it is not enough to stop people from inciting violence in support of their political aims. We should step in earlier and stop people from peacefully advocating various changes in the law or expressing disapproval of opinions deemed by Mrs May (yes – this is another of her Home Office initiatives) to be fundamental to our British way of life.
This is the closest we have yet got to the government’s notion of what the Bill should do: the law should ban “the vocal or active opposition to our fundamental values, including democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty and the mutual respect and tolerance of different faiths and beliefs.”
There are many quite respectable people who think universal suffrage a very bad idea. I understand their point of view. I would definitely have shared it in 1832. Obviously, they have no chance of persuading Parliament to abandon democracy. But why should the courts ban them from expressing their opinions? I have many dear friends who are convinced that it was quite wrong to allow the working classes to vote in the recent Brexit referendum. Why shouldn’t they be allowed to make their complaints? The rest of us can answer their arguments. There is no need to use the law to ban them from expressing their opinions.
I happen to be very keen on the rule of law. But, especially these days, there are many who disagree. They think we should have government by official edict rather than what the rest of us understand by “law”. And there are even people out there who attack judges for alleged political bias. They don’t advocate violence against the poor judges, they just express their opinion that judges are too left-wing or too right-wing. Should they all be clapped in irons?
The individual liberty part of these fundamental values could lead to hilarious results. On the present wording, Mrs May herself could be in trouble with the law for her efforts to stifle free speech.
But it is, of course, religion which presents the major problems. There are still lots of protestants who consider that Catholics are evil, that they have deliberately misunderstood God’s true message. They get frightfully worked up about such papist theories as that which says that salvation can come through good works. The thought of “Maryolatry” drives them into paroxysms of rage. They will never respect and tolerate Catholics and why should they? They honestly think that people like me (I confess to being a Catholic) are a thoroughly malign influence.
And there are some Catholics, also, whose dislike of other Christian churches, and even some members of their own, is intense (try suggesting to a priest of the London Oratory Church that it is not a mortal sin to receive Communion on the hand rather than the tongue and you will see what I mean).
And all this before we get on to Muslims.There are some Muslims, actually many of them, who advocate the punishment of homosexuals. I disagree, strongly, with them. Am I to be banned from expressing my disapproval because I am not respecting or tolerating their religion?
I have done a bit of research. I can find no one, other than Mrs May and, presumably, Ms Rudd, who supports this proposed attack on what one might call British values. Newspapers on the left and on the right and a Parliamentary Select Committee are all agreed both that there is no need for the Counter-Terrorism and Safeguarding Bill and that it is likely, if ever published, to be deeply illiberal. That doesn’t mean, of course, that MPs won’t dutifully file into the voting lobby to support it (especially if it will increase the prison population).
Is there any hope that Mrs May will quietly accept that this policy was misjudged and should be dropped? I earnestly hope so, but I also have to acknowledge that the Prime Minister appears to be wholly incapable of ever accepting that anything she proposed while in the Home Office might not be the best thing since sliced bread.