Tag Archives: liberalism

The illiberal streak in the Liberal Left.

20 Jan

Clause 23. Thou shalt be free to speake unless thou rantest against gypsies on facebooke.

A gran has been fined £300 for a Facebook rant this week. Granted, the subject was gypsies, and granted, she said some pretty unpleasant things. Here is a selection of things she wrote on a Facebook page:

This [sic] scum needs to be moved out now or there will be big problems. […] Pikey filth. They cause trouble wherever they go. They are filthy, conniving thieves who think nothing of conning or robbing old folk.

Pretty abusive stuff, really. But is state-sanctioned prosecution really necessary?

The reply usually is that it is offensive: she has gone out of her way deliberately to upset people, and she should be punished for doing so. But what sort of society is it that punishes people for giving offence? A free society is one which lets its citizens speak uncomfortable truths. Change can only come when we listen to such truths.  If offence is caused, so be it. Imagine for a moment that – this is highly implausible, I know – I were to unleash a savage diatribe against the rich. Imagine I were to write something like this:

These scum need to be moved out or there will be big problems. White, middle-class filth. They cause trouble wherever they go. They are filthy, conniving thieves who think nothing of conning or robbing poor folk.

Imagine if a rightwing government were to fine me £300 for being abusively offensive.  A good thing, no? After all, a fine should deter me from my prejudice and from my upsetting people.

What is the different between these two rants? I can hear the Left mounting their defence now. It is ethnicity, of course. The point is not about offence but ethnic relations. To be prejudiced against an ethnic group is vile; to hurl abuse at the wealthy is mere immaturity. I can accept that. What I don’t accept is the conclusion that we should fine people for offending people, even if they do belong to an ethnic community.

I return to the question. Why fine her? “She is inciting racial hatred.” Claptrap. Are we to believe people will read her rant, then grab the nearest pitchfork and head down for a ceremonial traveller-burning? Phooey. It is more likely that my banker-bashing – call it “inciting rich-based hatred” – will impel a riot that causes the death of one banker. In any far-fetched case, who would be responsible? The rioter, surely, not the writer. If words lead to actions, prosecute the actions, not the words. A pre-emptive measure would punish a crime that hasn’t happened. Which is precisely what “racial hatred” laws do.

Moreover, if she can be charged for inciting racial hatred, then so can I. So can The ArgusI have re-printed word-for-word what she wrote – and what’s more, have backed her. If the crime is in the words, then I am a guilty man.

Ultimately, this is a question of freedom of speech. Fining someone for expressing a view – albeit an ugly view – does nothing but stifle debate and silence dialogue. So evidently foul and disturbing I found this, I was shocked when the people of Brighton told me the fine was “absolutely right”. Having sought their views on the street, I was told, “This abhorrent woman should be fined.” I was told she should’ve been fined more! I was told that she should’ve been locked up!

This from a city that is more wet-liberal than a mackerel in the bath. I would call them bien pensants if they didn’t think so poorly. These are, after all, folks who moan ceaselessly about kettling, about the erosion of liberty, about anti-terror legislation, about 42 days, control orders, eviction notices, about the power to say what you like as coarsely and as freely as possible. Yet all that goes out the window on the mention of gypsy prejudice!

What modern society expects is that no-one is to hold these opinions. So no-one is to allowed to think them, or at least – they can think them, but they cannot express them. Does this conquer prejudice, or does it force it underground? Do state penalties cause one to become enlightened – will £300 imbue one with greater moral reasoning capacities? – or is it possible that the prejudiced will remain just as prejudiced, but slightly more bitter?

Niall Ferguson vs Jeremy Paxman: a tale of two Empires

17 Oct

Jeremy Paxman has recently been grimacing his way through a round of daytime talk shows, in order to promote his new book, Empire. There’s nothing like bemused frowning to boost the book sales, every publisher knows that. After watching Paxman scoff at Alex Jones for a bit, which must have been the highlight of my week – by the way, by “scoff”, I mean “derisively laugh at a One Show host’s existence”, not “stuff Alex Jones’ face quickly into his gob” – he then launched into a defence the British Empire.

Paxman was asked if the Empire was a Good Thing. He refused to answer the question. He said something along the lines of, “You cannot say it is a Good Thing or a Bad Thing, it is just a Thing, and it just happened.” It is a curious answer, an answer worthy of Michael Howard. Yet it is an answer which most historians accept nowadays. Kwasi Kwarteng echoes the sentiment in his new book; as does Niall Ferguson.

Niall is the ultimate advocate of this view. His inventively-named book Empire is the imperial apologist’s Bible. While it condemns the most wicked excesses of imperialism, it revels most in totting up the good the British did. Ferguson writes a list of the Good Things including team sports, the idea of liberty and – at number one – the English language. So, to paraphrase: cricket, the dearth of liberty, and – at number one – irritating, irritating twangs. Unsurprisingly this didn’t persuade me.

Cricket is a god-awful game that was made purposefully Byzantine to make the cretins that play it feel they have some sort of noggin. Its pointless complexity somehow makes cricketers think they are less dunderheaded than footballers, as if cricket is some kind of Hegelian philosophy, some kind of Heisenbergian science, and not a game whose chief aim is, er, to thwack a ball with a bat. In the end, you are alone with a sunburnt neck on a pitch for three hours squatting, in the vain hope the ball to come vaguely near you. In the five-minute period when it does come your way, you either fall over apologising, or it socks you in the testicles. I cannot think of a more preposterous game.

Cricket is not any great accomplishment of mind. Nor is the feat of creating Canadian or New Zealand accents. The rest of Ferguson’s list is similarly ridiculous. The spread of Protestantism will not seem like a major achievement of the British Empire, unless your name is Martin Luther. But the silliest are these: the idea of liberty, and good government.

The former will sound hollow if you were one of the British Empire’s curmudgeonly subjects. In a democracy, it is easy to be a rebel: you mark a cross on a bit of paper and you can kick your rulers out. Empire is no democracy. Empire by definition is run from the centre and pays little attention to the whims and wishes of the periphery. As such, it is slightly more difficult to be a rebel. Sudanese rebels were bumped off because they disagreed with their rulers (and because, y’know, they might have been Muslim). A rebellion in India was averted by killing 379 of the trouble-makers in ten minutes. Assad would be proud of that.

As a consolation, Ferguson says that whenever the British acted despotically, there was always a “liberal critique” from within British society. Innocent citizens may have been shot, but, well, at least their families could read some Orwell. It’s a bit like urging families of massacred Libyans to read Saif Gaddafi’s PhD thesis on democratic institutions. Throughout Empire, Ferguson is keen to point out that it is wrong to compare British imperialists to Nazis or Soviets, because of the idea of liberty at the heart of the enterprise. I suppose that’s an achievement: at least we’re not Nazis.

The evidence Ferguson gives of good government is as follows: a lot of the subjects rallied round the British. Many who fought for the British in the Indian Mutiny and the American Revolution were natives. 1 in 6 of the British Army in World War One were Indian; the figure rises to 1 in 4 in World War Two. This is supposed to be evidence that the natives were grateful to their rulers. I am not convinced. Comrades of the USSR rallied round Stalin in World War Two, even though he was one of the most brutal dictators of the twentieth century. Many came out to mourn his death. Bountiful support does not necessarily mean good government.

Moreover it is often the rebels, not the contented citizens, that have most impact on a country’s politics. The future of Zimbabwe changed forever because of the antipathy of one rebel – Robert Mugabe. While we cannot say the British are responsible for Mugabe’s brutality, it is fair to say that foreign occupation inevitably breeds discontent. This is particularly true in places like Zimbabwe, where there was such a perceived unfairness in how the rulers treated the citizens, and where there was no democratic accountability. These things can only give credence to a Marxist nutjob’s hostility. Perhaps an uprising was only inevitable.

Ferguson’s Empire and Paxman’s Empire are both thoroughly well-written, absorbing, pulse-racing, clear-headed accounts of British imperialism. The latter is clear, concise and full of hilariously sardonic Paxman-isms. The former is simply a masterpiece. What is wrong is not the description, but the ethics. There is no will to say, even on balance, imperialism is a bad thing. Instead, there is a curious condemnation of the sheer ability to make a judgement. This helps no-one.

Where rights are concerned, the Right ain’t concerned

10 Oct

There are two odd things about the Tories’ contempt for Human Rights.  The first is the spectacle of David Cameron, the champion of the virtue of marriage, the man who’d cease to function if he failed to mention family every five minutes, effectively saying family bonds have no worth.  The second is the speed with which Tories can junk the right not to be tortured, having spent the last few weeks arguing that under no circumstances should the rich give up 50% of their income!  So a 50p tax goes against our rights as human beings, but torture doesn’t?  Sounds logical to me.

At the heart of the crazed debate is deportation.  There are good reasons to deport a non-British citizen.  He or she might be an illegal immigrant, or a court might recommend his or her deportation after having served a prison sentence.  In these cases, deportation should be considered.  But this desire to deport should be balanced by certain rights.  One right is absolute; the other isn’t.

The absolute right, safeguarded under Article 3 of the Human Rights Act, is the right not to be tortured.  If there is a good chance that the individual will be tortured when sent back home, this should be outlawed.

The other right, which is limited, is the right to family life.  This is safeguarded under Article 8 of the Human Rights Act.  If there is a child – whose choice of parent is no fault of their own – or the deportee is in a long-term loving relationship, these things should be taken into account.

The presence of a child or significant partner does not constitute an absolute right not to be deported; it is simply considered and balanced against other factors, such as the threat to public safety, the need to prevent crime and rights of other individuals which could be infringed on the foreigner’s staying.  Very often, these factors win out.  In 2010, only 12% of appeals against deportation were successful on Article 8 grounds.  In these cases, the risk to the public would have been judged inconsequential compared to the harm caused to the child or partner.  I would be shocked if a British judge said a terrorist’s family rights outweighed the risk to the public.

So we are not talking about ex-terrorist’s kiddies.  What the Tories are talking about are foreign drug-takers, foreign hit-and-run drivers, and – most importantly – double standards.  Consider this.  If a lad from Essex, British born and bred, were convicted of shoplifting, would we deport him?  Wait, let’s say he was convicted of a more serious crime – he ran over a twelve-year old, flat as a flounder, and sped off.  Given we are zealous as the Tories about public safety, why can’t we chuck him out?  It shouldn’t matter where he’s from; why can’t we send the brute to Bengal, or the beaches of Benghazi, or a borough in Budapest?

Well: why can’t we?  I suspect one reason is because the chap is British; he has a family life here and is integrated fully into the community.  His mum would be distraught.  If he had a child, there would be a substantial amount of suffering, either if the boy were shipped to Bengal or if he were wrenched from his dad.  Either way, the answer is that deep family ties matter.  If a man has formed bonds with his community and family here since the age of four – as one deportee had – this should count for something.  If a man is to leave a grief-stricken partner of many years, judges should at least consider this.  This is all Article 8 demands.

As for Article 3, without it, we could effectively export torture.  A sentence for shoplifting could come with an added surprise of Somalian torture – that is, if you are non-British.  It would be a strange small print to have in the law books.  And not particularly just.  And not particularly British.