Leading Article: Liberalism can cope with the skinheads

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The Independent Online
THE FOUNDATION of liberal democracy is the belief that no one has a monopoly of truth so no one should be allowed a monopoly of power. That is why free speech is not a luxury, nor a playground for intellectuals. It is the system's essential safeguard against abuses of power. It provides a means of ensuring that ideas can be challenged, conflicts managed, power checked and innovation encouraged. Without it, stagnation, corruption and oppression take hold, as they did under Communism.

But what happens when democratic freedoms are misused by people who wish to destroy them? This paper's liberalism has been challenged by Paul Foot and others on the left who believe we should not have published a letter from the British National Party. 'The normal rules of free speech and expression cannot possibly apply to those who aim to deny the most basic rights and freedoms to entire sections of the population,' wrote Mr Foot and others in a letter published on 13 April.

The complaint is rich coming from people who are themselves, some of them, unconvincing champions of plural democracy. But neither Mr Foot's Socialist Workers Party nor the British National Party is politically important. Both represent ideas that have failed. Of the two, the BNP deserves more attention because it has been collecting votes in Tower Hamlets and has links with similar parties that have been gaining ground abroad.

What is important is the question of principle posed by Mr Foot and his friends. It is not new. Hitler rose to power with the help of the ballot box, as did the Czechoslovak Communists in 1948. Vladimir Zhirinovsky may be doing so in Russia. Muslim fundamentalists are testing the limits of democracy in Algeria, Egypt and elsewhere.

Is Britain's democracy now in such peril that it must impose further limits on free expression in order to save itself? As the American jurist O W Holmes observed: 'Free speech is not an absolute value; there is no right to cry 'Fire]' in a crowded theatre.' The scope for freedoms of all types can legitimately vary according to country and circumstances.

In the United States, where the laws are looser, 'political correctness' is stepping in with new informal restrictions. In Britain we already have laws on libel to protect individuals, laws on racialism to protect minorities, laws against incitement to violence and sedition to protect society as a whole. To impose restrictions on specified political groups or new categories of ideas would have dangerous implications.

If the BNP is to be taken seriously it is not because of the ideology it hazily propagates but because it has given voice to grievances that derive from real social and political problems. Its small successes are not the result of too much freedom or press coverage but of the failure of mainstream parties to address these problems.

The lessons from Hitler and North Africa today are not that democracies must renounce democratic principles in order to save themselves but that when they fail to function properly they invite destruction from within. When that point is reached, they may indeed have to choose between surrender or the use of force, but they seldom sink so far unless they have spent too long ignoring the warnings that free speech ought to provide.

The BNP is a small warning. It feeds not only off local issues but also off the creeping sense of malaise and lost confidence that is sapping British politics. If it were to be suppressed there would be less chance of the warning being heard, so corrective action would be delayed, giving the party more opportunity to grow.

Liberalism is not, or should not be, a philosophy of weak-minded tolerance. It is about managing conflict and challenge in a way that keeps the motors of innovation running. In this century it has seen off fascism and Communism. It should be able to cope with a handful of disgruntled skinheads and their misguided followers. But it will do so with more success if it looks at the causes of the problem instead of trying to suppress the symptoms.