hms iron duke

hms iron duke

Wednesday, 30 May 2012

Free Speech: The Dangerous Conceits of Elites

Alphen, the Netherlands. 30 May. John Milton in a famous 1644 speech before Parliament during the English civil war famously said, “Give me the liberty to know, to utter, and to argue freely according to conscience, above all liberties”. There is much debate today about the chronic democratic deficit in the EU, i.e., the failure of political elites to uphold the principles of parliamentary democracy, to listen with integrity to and respond to the reasonable will of a majority of citizens. However, the creeping conceit of political elites is not confined to Brussels. Indeed, it is a phenemenon that is strengthening across Europe, as governments fail to cope with the mess they have created, not least in Britain. Three events have occurred this week in London that reinforce the sense of an elite not just out of touch, but willfully misinterpreting the public mood.

Conceit number one concerns the EU. Justice Minister Ken Clarke said this week that MP’s calling for a referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU were “a few extreme nationalist politicians”. And yet, far from being the preserve of a few wild-eyed political mavericks some 90% of the population in a recent poll demanded a so-called ‘in-out’ referendum on membership of an EU that bears no resemblance to the one last voted for in 1975.

Conceit number two concerns the judiciary. Lord Justice Leverson is heading a ravishingly juicy public enquiry into press malpractice. Or, to decribe it more accurately, why successive prime ministers got too close to ‘The Sun’ king, Rupert Murdoch, and how they are justifying it. This week the Education Minister Michael Gove gave evidence and warned against the curtailing of free speech in the name of press controls. Lord Justice Leverson intervened to lecture Gove rather grumpily that he needed no lessons on the importance of free speech. Apparently he does and so do his legal peers. The whole thrust of English law over the past decade or so has been the promotion of political correctness at the expense of free speech. As Gove pointed out; sooner or later free speech offends someone and that on balance it is free speech that should be given the higher priority unless such speech incites hatred or violence.

Conceit number three concerns England’s now draconian race laws which are specifically designed to curb free speech. This week Jacqueline Woodhouse was jailed for twenty-one weeks for a racist rant on the tube (London Undergound). Anyone who has seen her rant on U-tube and her assailing of fellow tube passengers in the most foul and offensive manner can only conclude that she had it coming. Her comments were both a clear incitement to hatred and violence and utterly unacceptable. However, in sentencing her Judge Michael Snow showed just how detached the judicial elite have become from workaday reality in Britain.

Woodhouse said, “I used to live in England, now I live in the United Nations”. This might not be how the elite may see things but go to any pub, or sit on any bus (something I suspect Judge Snow does not do very often) and you will hear perfectly decent people – black and white - expressing similar concerns, albeit thankfully more modestly. The Woodhouse case raises the most profound question that neither the political or judicial elite seem prepared to confront; where does freedom of speech stop and racism begin?

This week the British Government announced that over the past year a further 500,000 plus people entered Britain. Immigration is still out of control and ordinary people have every right to express legitimate concerns about a fundamental failure of policy. And yet racism laws are being used to suppress dissent. 

Living in the political bubble of modern politics, sharing more in common with their fellow European elite members than their own voters and assailed daily by pressure groups, lobbyists and special interests it is all too easy for politicians to retreat into a kind of politically correct la-la land in which ‘the people’ become the enemy – to be manipulated and kept at distance but rarely represented. This retreat into conceit is as much a danger to democracy in Europe as the drive to distance what democratic accountability there is ever further from the voter in the name of political union.

Can any state be called a democracy if free speech is sacrificed in the name of order? That has been long the refrain of dictators as far back as Aristotle. Milton also warned that, “None can love freedom heartily, but good men; the rest love not freedom, but licence”.

Julian Lindley-French

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