Marc Glendening is Head of Cultural Affairs at the Institute of Economic Affairs.
In the cult American Cold War era film, The Invasion of the Body Snatchers, the humans are incrementally being replaced in a small mid-western town by alien replicas. They might look outwardly exactly the same as the originals but their ultimate mission is, of course, to impose a collectively conformist consciousness on Planet Earth.
The question I am now semi-seriously asking myself is this: has Nadine Dorries, together with the rest of the cabinet (with the possible exception of Priti Patel) become mind, if not body, snatched by New Left ideology?
Earlier this week we learnt that her department has accepted a recommendation from the Law Commission to insert into the already profoundly illiberal Online Safety Bill new criminal offences based upon causing ‘likely psychological harm’. Courts will be invited to judge whether communications have had a ‘harmful effect’.
The Law Commission should not be viewed as some detached, academic observer of the legal system. It is, rather, an ideologically partisan organisation, as extensively documented by Joanna Williams.
Its 2020 Consultation Paper on Hate Crime asserted a commitment to both critical race and critical legal theory, two of the most influential contemporary New Left doctrines. The Commission even recommended making private conversations potentially prosecutable, something the SNP has now enacted. It has referred to transgender-scepticism as an ‘absolutist’ and ‘objectionable’ political philosophy.
Under the terms of revised Online Safety Act there will be a ‘knowingly false communication’ offence; one sent with the intention of causing “emotional, psychological, or physical harm to the likely audience.” The Government says it wants to use this to block, as an example, antivaxxers.
This is a very dangerous road to be going down. Once government uses the law to stop the spread of allegedly false information in this area, how else might it be deployed by the police and the CPS?
In a pluralistic democracy, by definition, those in control of the machinery of state need to apply a self-denying ordinance. They must not use their powers to load the dice one way or the other between competing viewpoints. These should be resolved freely in the market place of ideas through the exchanges of the rival interests.
For real liberals, the communication of an opinion, no matter how factually erroneous or offensive to some, can never constitute causing actual harm, as dear old JS Mill established in On Liberty. The articulation of one’s views, including personally directed insults, do not, rationally-speaking, remove the autonomy and agency of another person. Once this key assumption is abandoned then we are well and truly on the proverbial slippery slope towards some form of authoritarianism.
Could it be, then, that people who believe that only women have cervixes end up being prosecuted for spreading ‘false information’? Given the long list of people who have so far been placed on police Non-Crime Hate Incident databases (without any lawful basis), and prosecuted in relation to the transgender issue, this is a likelihood. Indeed, in its latest intervention the Law Commission overtly states that the ‘misgendering’ of trans people could in certain situations constitute causing ‘harm’.
These powers, like all the existing laws relating to so called ‘hate speech’, will always be deployed in a politically asymmetrical way. It will be fine – quite rightly – to massively abuse Tories, TERFS, whites, men and Piers Morgan, but people articulating beliefs considered seriously transgressive according to the ‘Woke’ zeitgeist might well get their collars felt.
By going down this road, the Government is putting into practice the agenda set by Hacked Off, the Media Reform Coalition and other left-wing campaigns who have been demanding extensive state regulation of the traditional media and the internet.
For the New Left, freedom of speech is not something to be celebrated but, following on from postmodernist theory, potentially a source of non-physical yet coercive power. They believe, that it is the principal means by which those groups defined as having ‘privilege’ maintain their power over women, ethnic and religious minorities, and the other supposedly oppressed categories.
There is therefore a dangerous, anti-liberal dynamic at work within New Left ideology. Taken to its natural conclusion, it is incompatible with liberal democracy. Censorship is not seen as something that is necessarily oppressive, but rather, in the hands of right-thinking people, it is potentially liberating. Take this quote from Nadia Whittome, a Labour MP: “We must not fetishise ‘debate’ as though debate is itself an innocuous, neutral act. The very act of debate… is an effective rollback of assumed equality and a foot in the door for doubt and hatred.”
The Conservative Party’s lack of any discernible guiding philosophy is why Government ministers are now effectively ciphers, like those body snatched hillbillies described earlier, for the contemporary left’s drive to re-engineer our culture and language. Many voters in Red Wall seats voting Tory as an act of defiance against the illiberalism of the modern Labour party can now be excused for thinking ‘what is the point?’ when on this, as so many other issues, their newly adopted party is effectively no different.