How the woke left learned to love Big Brother
The British left’s silence on state censorship is shameful – and revealing.
The British left – or what passes for it today – briefly pretended to care about free speech this week. Which was kind of cute. It was all sparked by Tory leadership no-hoper Rishi Sunak’s bonkers suggestion that people who ‘vilify’ Britain should be put on the Prevent anti-radicalisation programme, alongside all the Islamists and fascists. ‘Who are the real snowflakes?’, thundered one left-wing commentator. ‘Fascism creeps ever closer’, warned Richard Murphy, a one-time adviser to Jeremy Corbyn, as he wondered out loud if he might soon end up in ‘some camp of Sunak’s choosing for “re-education”’.
Such principled expressions of horror, over an insanely authoritarian policy that almost certainly will never be implemented, might have had a bit more weight had the exact same people not studiously ignored a very real incident of state censorship – and attempted re-education – that went viral last week. I’m referring, of course, to Hampshire Police’s arrest of 51-year-old army veteran Darren Brady, all because he posted an offensive meme, which arranged four ‘Progress Pride’ flags to resemble a swastika – a clumsy commentary on the authoritarianism of the contemporary LGBT movement.
The details chillingly echo Richard Murphy’s tweeted fever dream. Reportedly, the police had visited Brady 10 days before they tried to arrest him, informing him that he had committed an offence by posting the flag meme. They offered him a deal: pay for a £60 ‘community-resolution course’ and they’d downgrade his offence to a ‘non-crime hate incident’, which would still appear on an advanced background check. Brady refused and contacted Harry Miller, leading campaigner against thoughtpolicing, who was present at the arrest and spent a night in the cells himself for trying to obstruct the cops. Going by the footage, now seen around the world, the (several) officers who attended Brady’s home had no idea what offence he was supposed to have committed, saying only that he had ‘caused anxiety’.
So, state censorship? Yep. Threats of re-education? Yep. The police showing up at someone’s door for no other crime than expressing an opinion? Big yep. Just because it was done in a Keystone Cops sort of fashion doesn’t make the treatment of Brady any less sinister. And yet there hasn’t been a peep of protest from the left-leaning intelligentsia. The armed wing of the state is going about harassing and arresting people purely for upsetting someone on the internet. And yet the people who pass themselves off as liberal, progressive, radical even, are clearly not the tiniest bit bothered about it.
Brady isn’t an isolated case, either. Britain is fast becoming a warning to the Western world about ‘caring’ censorship, about trying to quite literally police ‘hurtful’ speech. According to one investigation, nine people a day are arrested in the UK over offensive things they post on the internet. On top of that, more than 120,000 people have had so-called non-crime hate incidents recorded against their name. These alleged incidents needn’t be investigated or even be credible to be recorded. So much so that an Oxford professor once managed to get a hate incident recorded against then home secretary Amber Rudd, for a speech she gave about immigration that he later admitted he hadn’t even listened to, let alone witnessed in person.
There has been significant pushback against all this in recent years, the absurdity of it all brought into sharp relief by the police’s failure to get a grip on violent crime. But the problem remains deeply entrenched. Tory ministers have repeatedly slammed the thoughtpolice, but have done nothing to stop them. The government’s Online Safety Bill, alongside other censorious provisions, plans to change the notorious Section 127 of the Communications Act, which criminalises ‘grossly offensive’ online speech, only to replace that prohibition with a ‘harmful communications offence’, criminalising those who send a message that is intended and likely to cause ‘serious distress’. This is more of an exercise in rebranding than reform.
What’s more, non-crime hate incidents continue to be recorded despite a series of successful legal challenges against them. Harry Miller, who in 2019 was visited by the police over his own gender-critical tweets, successfully took the cops to court. A High Court judge ruled that Humberside Police unlawfully intervened in Miller’s freedom of expression when they logged his tweets as a hate incident, called him up to ‘check his thinking’ and showed up at his place of work. The Court of Appeal later ruled further in Miller’s favour, slamming the existing College of Policing guidance on hate incidents as unlawful. But the judges didn’t rule out the practice per se – and so they stagger on.
Last week, the College of Policing issued new guidelines in response to these rulings, insisting that ‘non-crime hate incidents should not be recorded where they are trivial, irrational or if there is no basis to conclude that an incident was motivated by hostility’. The guidelines also seek to exempt those who are ‘commenting in a legitimate debate’ and ensure that, when they are recorded, incidents are recorded ‘in the least intrusive way possible’. But this of course still gives the police a wide latitude to interpret what speech is and isn’t trivial, irrational, baseless or legitimate. As ever with freedom of speech, the question is ‘who decides?’, and the answer is the same police who thought investigating Miller’s gender-critical Twitter limericks was a legitimate use of their time and resources.
The rise of Britain’s thoughtpolice is not just about the letter of the law. Indeed, non-crime hate incidents were introduced by the College of Policing in 2014 – in response, it says, to the recommendations of the Macpherson report. And so tens of thousands of people have been quasi-criminalised without an act of parliament being passed. The job of policing speech, especially that which is presumed to offend minorities, is a role the police have embraced with gusto. Desperate to overcome a history of discriminatory behaviour they have ended up not only cracking down on genuine bigots – which would be illiberal in itself – but also those merely airing views that dissent from the elite orthodoxy on issues like gender or immigration.
We saw that in Brady’s viral arrest. The officers weren’t at all clear on what law they were supposed to be enforcing. The point was that someone had been ‘caused anxiety’ by an anti-woke meme and so something had to be done about it. Last year, officers from Merseyside Police set up an electronic billboard outside an Asda, declaring that ‘being offensive is an offence’. After a backlash, superintendent Martin Earl had to put out a statement ‘clarifying’ that this isn’t actually the case. This authoritarian freelancing on the part of the cops shows how entrenched censorious woke orthodoxy is within the British state, even the more traditionally politically incorrect section of it.
Which brings us back to the deafening silence of the left. Leftists insist there is no free-speech crisis. They dismiss cancel culture as a myth, while tacitly supporting it. They call it a right-wing confection, even though gender-critical feminists are one of the primary targets of it. They argue No Platforming on university campuses isn’t censorship because only the state can censor. Meanwhile, they completely ignore the vast apparatus of state censorship that has emerged in recent years – a system which has, quite possibly, given the endlessness of the internet and the broad scope of our speech laws, led to more Brits being criminalised for speech than ever before.
The reasons for this blind spot are as obvious as they are pathetic. These supposed radicals are quite comfortable with police officers harassing people so long as those people hold the ‘wrong’ views. This is why they only ever complain about censorship on the rare occasions one of their own is targeted by it. This is utterly misguided, of course. As Thomas Paine put it: ‘He that would make his own liberty secure must guard even his enemy from oppression; for if he violates this duty he establishes a precedent that will reach to himself.’ The left’s complacency speaks to how tame and in line with the establishment many supposed leftists are today. They don’t fear censorship or re-education. They already love Big Brother, which is perhaps the most damning indictment of all.
Tom Slater is editor of spiked. Follow him on Twitter: @Tom_Slater_
Picture by Getty.