A View From Middle England - Conservative with a slight libertarian touch - For Christian charity and traditional belief - Free Enterprise NOT Covert Corporatism

Sunday, March 04, 2012

Free speech and democracy - do we have it all?

Only if there is a fire, but then form an orderly queue!
I'm all in favour of free speech. That is the freedom to say what you like when you like it. However, there are natural limits and then there are unnatural ones. An obvious natural limit is not allowing anyone falsely to cry "fire!" in a crowded theatre. Oliver Wendell Holmes quite rightly flagged that one up and it has been universally agreed ever since by right thinking people. It is also wrong to abuse people like shouting racist taunts or sexual insults at people. Stirring things up by incitement. Incitement is not part of free speech because it follows that those who cause fear and bodily harm try to extinguish the free speech in others. Sort of thing the Nazis did. One sided stuff.

However, it is quite unnatural to say that because one disagrees with someone then that person must be silenced. I don't agree with quite a lot of stuff that's going on in General Synod, but I don't wish to stop people saying what they believe. I don't agree with the Labour Party's policies, but I would not think it right to tell David Miliband to stop saying what he believes. In a democracy, free speech is vital. There are no sacred cows.

This week two people in the public eye, Baroness Tonge and David Starkey, have been pilloried for their views. Jenny Tonge, as she was when a Liberal Democrat MP, has been more or less forced to resign from the party whip in the Lords for daring to suggest that Israel might not exist in years to come. Nick Clegg went ape and then something else, probably self-righteous, and told her to shut up or go. His pristine views on the Middle East trumped her tainted opinions. Thankfully Baroness Tonge is made of sterner stuff. She's left the LibDems and can now speak freely. Free speech is limited in political parties these days. It tends to be "our way or the highway". What was her crime? Probably not kow-towing. But it was really that nobody can ever say that Israel's future is other than rock solid secure. The fact is Israel can only keep going because the United States pays for its upkeep. If the cheques stopped coming, Israel would be like Greece but worse. The Wailing Wall would need to be sound-proofed. Jenny Tonge said that Americans might one day get fed up with pay billions of dollars each year. Well, they might. And what if they did? Israel would be between The Rock and a hard place. No doubt about it. But you can't possibly discuss that, not in the LibDems. So Jenny Tonge was brutally put down, hints of the anti-semite and all the rest.

Now, David Starkey? Yes, well, he upset a few on BBC Question Time last Thursday. Starkey likes being rude. We all know that. But when asked about race, citizenship and multiculturalism, his views were traduced. But he only spoke his views. Then the silencers tried to get at him and denounce him.

It really is quite absurd that certain sections of society are trying to impose their values, their creed and their intolerances on others. We need to be ever mindful of those who seek to undermine free speech. Nick Clegg should try to sound less pompous and more ministerial. Getting the economy straight should be his priority, not worrying about the conversational straitjacket he wishes to put others in.


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