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Who made the BNP into free-speech martyrs?

It is only because liberal activists have ditched the cause of freedom that the far right can claim it as its own.

Nathalie Rothschild

Topics Free Speech

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A rally in defence of free speech and the right to hold and express any political opinion. A demonstration where freedom of expression will be upheld as a universal right that trumps all other interests. Those are the values being promoted by a group called Civil Liberty, which is holding a protest in Birmingham, England, later this month.

So is this an occasion where defenders of liberty and openness will get together to reverse the growing proclivity for banning, silencing and toning down any view which does not fit into polite society, which is unconventional or which can be deemed to be insulting? It does sound like a welcome clarion call after 13 years of New Labour rule, when free speech has been trampled over by laws like the Terrorism Act 2006, which criminalised ‘glorifying terrorism’, and the Racial and Religious Hatred Act, under which offensiveness effectively became an offence.

Historically, the kind of values Civil Liberty is espousing would indeed have been cornerstones of progressive politics. Yet Civil Liberty is made up of… nationalist right-wingers, who believe they are being sidelined and crushed by a society in the grip of political correctness. It spends most of its time defending ‘victimised’ members of the far-right British National Party and other ‘indigenous’ Brits.

So how can a bunch of right-wingers and BNP sympathisers pose as the defenders of freedom? Because the cause of freedom has been so spectacularly abandoned by other political activists, in particular the left, which has allowed the far right to claim the cause as its own. The reason why Civil Liberty’s followers can claim to be defending free speech, freedom of association and freedom of conscience is because liberals and self-proclaimed progressives have given up on, and even attacked, those freedoms.

By blowing the BNP’s significance out of proportion, obsessing about the ‘rise of fascism’ and treating leader Nick Griffin’s appearance on BBC TV’s Question Time as the end of civilisation as we know it, mainstream liberals have helped the likes of Griffin fuel their image as free-speech martyrs. But more importantly, they have shown, on the one hand, the limits of their own tolerance, and, on the other, how deeply disrespectful they are of people’s right to think, believe, and listen to whatever they want.

Take the campaign, spearheaded by the National Association of Schoolmasters/Union of Women Teachers (NASUWT), to prevent BNP members from working in British schools. This is about banning certain individuals from taking up teaching, not because they lack relevant skills or training, but because their private views are deemed unacceptable and because they are seen as a potentially poisonous influence on children and on society at large.

No wonder, then, that Civil Liberty’s Birmingham rally is being organised in support of the BNP member and former technology teacher Adam Walker, who posted comments on an internet forum during working hours about Islam, asylum seekers and immigrants. The General Teaching Council (GTC) deemed Walker’s comments, published under a pseudonym and using a school computer, to be ‘suggestive of racial and religious intolerance’. Walker was charged with unprofessional conduct.

Discriminating against people who hold ‘the wrong views’, views that go against a particular ethos, is no more legitimate than the exclusionist, racist views of the BNP itself. What gives certain individuals the right to deem certain beliefs, opinions and outlooks as being beyond the pale, dangerous, illegal? And who is to say that your opinions or mine won’t be seen as unacceptable in the future? Accepting the GTC’s charge against Walker – no matter what you make of his views on Muslims and migrants – is to agree that the powers-that-be should have the authority to exclude people from public positions on the basis of their beliefs and thoughts.

Even a brief survey of the kind of words, opinions and behaviours that have either been banned or have come to be regarded as socially unacceptable shows that no one can presume to be safe from censorship these days. Across commercial, governmental, political and public spheres, an array of ideas and attitudes are being forced out by formal and informal regulations and pressures.

In what Mick Hume has labelled today’s ‘You Can’t Say That’ culture, it is generally believed that the gaffe-prone and those with unconventional views – whether on race, politics, religion, climate change or civil liberties – should be silenced, muffled or banished from polite society rather than openly argued against, agreed with, ridiculed or celebrated.

Far from defending people’s right to hold and express any view they want, so-called progressives have backed the ‘You Can’t Say That’ culture – and they have done so in the name of liberalism, in the name of safeguarding tolerance and diversity and protecting what they regard as a sensitive and impressionable public from unhealthy views and lifestyles. Anyone who stands up for the right to believe whatever you want, to speak your mind, to listen to any views, to read any books and observe any art, tends increasingly to be regarded as an irresponsible, dangerous extremist.

Freedom has become a dirty word, regarded as a harmful cause that only weirdoes would organise a demonstration around. It has been devalued and cast off as a luxury that a decent, responsible society cannot afford. And it is this – the mainstream and left-wing disdain for freedom – which has allowed the right to pose as warriors for liberty. It’s a strange state of affairs indeed when self-proclaimed progressives are acting like censorious reactionaries and right-wing extremists are posing as freedom-lovers. It’s time we claimed freedom back.

Nathalie Rothschild is commissioning editor of spiked.

Previously on spiked

Brendan O’Neill demanded that we reclaim Voltaire. Frank Furedi said people shouldn’t be punished for their beliefs. Mick Hume noted how, when all else fails, the elite goes after the BNP. Elsewhere, he said it shouldn’t be an offence to belong to the BNP. Nathalie Rothschild asked: ‘Who’s afraid of the BNP?’ Or read more at spiked issues Education and British politics.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Free Speech

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