Marc Glendening is the Head of Cultural Affairs at the Institute of Economic Affairs.
Does anyone within the political class really believe in free speech anymore? Most Conservative politicians make vague approving references to it, but do virtually nothing to try and turn back the illiberal tide in this regard.
The Tories thus cannot seize this issue as a much-needed raison d’etre for the party as the upholder of Britain’s liberal democratic constitutional heritage against the institutionalised authoritarianism of the contemporary left. As with the appalling Online Safety Bill, the Tories’ commitment to our right to say, hear, read and view what we choose gets quickly forgotten when competing values come into play.
For example, no Tory home secretary has attempted to seriously reign in the police regarding their politically-motivated harassing of transgender-sceptics and Christians wishing to pray near abortion clinics. The current government, egged on by the likes of Theresa May, Caroline Nokes and Alicia Kearns, is even contemplating resurrecting the idea of making illegal so-called LGBT+ conversion therapy.
Too many Tories have bought into the anti-liberal line that the exercise of words can constitute psychological harm and that this is a justification for state censorship. Once this irrational assertion is accepted, government has total licence to selectively restrict the expression of opinion.
This is why those who really value free speech should think twice before instinctively backing Suella Braverman’s call for a police crackdown on the kind of obscene pro-Hamas rhetoric we have seen on recent anti-Israel demos. While the Government should self-evidently end Prevent-related funding for Islamist sympathetic groups, in a free society we cannot pick and choose who should be allowed to express their beliefs, no matter how obscene they may appear subjectively to us.
However, a distinction does need to be drawn between the haphazard illiberalism of many Tories compared to that of the mainstream left. For what I label the Culture-Control Left (CCL), in a new paper on the growing threat to free speech, the desire to censor is now a fundamental, instinctive aspect of their ideological project.
The CCL, unlike their traditional social democrat and Marxist predecessors who were fixated on bringing about a transfer of economic power, are focused instead on achieving a cultural equality of outcome. This is married to their assumption that western society is characterised by a network of informal ‘power structures’ that are said to keep a range of identity groups – that they have manufactured into existence through theory – marginalised. None of these assumptions are verifiable.
The once arcane thinking of the Frankfurt School, together with postmodernist-derived theories of language, that depicted bourgeois (rather than specifically capitalist) society in its entirety as a site of oppression for the outsider is now the dominant left-wing mindset. Hence the desire to restrict narratives they judge to be sexist, white supremacist, Islamophobic, heteronormative, climate change-sceptical and so on.
This ideology has permeated sections of the big business and wider civil society administrative class, in part because it offers this class greater powers of reward and punishment within their own areas of control.
Communication, rather than control over the means of production, has thus come to be seen as the commanding heights of society. The logic of this is that the greater the degree of state prohibition of nonconformist ideas, the more liberated the oppressed identities will be. This anti-liberal worldview is wonderfully articulated by Nadia Whittome, a Labour MP, referring to the trans issue:
“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.”
Allegations of ‘hate speech’ are the principal propagandistic technique used nowadays to justify restricting dissident opinion.
If words are perceived to be a potential source of coercive power than all human relations are viewed as part of the struggle for social domination between allegedly oppressor and oppressed groups. In other words, a zero-sum game of will to power.
The implication is the state and its approved censors within civil society – HR ‘diversity, equality and inclusivity’ commissars and internet regulators – should have oversight over all communication. The SNP’s recently passed Hate Crime Act even makes private conversations interface that could end in prosecution.
The Worker Protection Bill, a proposed amendment by two Lib Dem parliamentarians to the Equality Act, would make employers legally liable for words within the hearing of, or to, their employees by third parties. This would result in those in authority over restaurants, pubs, stadia, and shops having to try to prevent in a Nostradamus way their customers from articulating certain types of views.
Incredibly, again, this Government was even at one stage contemplating assisting the passage of this private members’ bill.
The objective of transferring cultural power between entire groups involves the state having to restrict the right of individuals to articulate beliefs deemed harmful by the theorisers. The logic of group-based rights, as defined by the CCL, is therefore incompatible with the ethos of liberal democracy, which is predicated necessarily upon the right of individuals to represent themselves politically as unique entities with equal rights to all other citizens.
By contrast, the new left see us, in keeping with pre-Enlightenment corporatist thinking, as the bearers of group-based roles. This is why they are moving towards the idea representation for entire identity groups. In Wales, Labour is planning to pass legislation to ensure that 50 per cent of Senedd members are women. Will political parties be mandated to impose quotas concerning their own candidates?
I contend that we are now in the early stages of a journey towards a post-democratic future. The philosophical foundations that once sustained our citizenship rights are decaying as fast as RAAC concrete.
But where is the political movement today that has the courage to resist Britain’s incremental drift towards authoritarianism by articulating the principled case for free speech, a necessary condition for a society that is politically liberal? Do the Conservatives have the inclination to play this role or will others have to fill the vacuum?