In its long history, Britain has faced down worse threats than the fringe cult of death that is Isis. In the 1970s, communists and revolutionary socialists attempted to undermine our democratic state at a time when everything east of Vienna was under the control of the Soviets. Meanwhile, the neo-Nazi National Front grew in strength to 14,000 members and stirred up racial hatred in our inner cities. These were real threats to British values, yet we never attempted to defend our freedoms by making these ideas illegal. We defeated both in the battle of ideas.
Theresa May has decided she will be the Home Secretary to do so. In a much-lauded pitch to be the next leader of the Conservative Party, May went on the offensive. She announced: "I want to see new banning orders for extremist groups that fall short of the existing laws relating to terrorism. I want to see new civil powers to target extremists who stay just within the law but still spread poisonous hatred. So both policies – Banning Orders and Extremism Disruption Orders – will be in the next Conservative manifesto."
The game is given away in the second sentence: May wants to target people who stay within the law. That is, people who say things that are perfectly legal. A Conservative party briefing document sent to the press says the policy will stop “extremists” from speaking at public events, appearing on national TV and even limit their use of social media. The law will no longer apply just to those who promote terrorism (a legal term already so broad it criminalises mainstream political speech) - but will catch those who “spread or incite hatred” on the grounds of gender, race or religion. It will also be aimed at those who undertake “harmful activities” for the “purpose of overthrowing democracy”.
I don’t have much time for the Socialist Workers Party, but I’m not convinced they represent such a grave threat to the Conservative party that they ought to be prevented from speaking in public, or using Facebook. Nor do I like preachers of hate who spout poisonous rhetoric to divide people. But Anjem Choudary ranting on Newsnight has done more to discredit the cause of radical Islamists than a thousand woolly community cohesion festivals or Legs Akimbo style theatre.
To ban ideas we don’t like is to give them credence. To silence Anjem Choudary (a man who commands a following of just 80 people), would be a public statement by the British state that it is frightened of him. We should leave his medieval ideas to wither in the harsh glare of public scrutiny. And can we imagine the international response from Putin’s Russia when the EDL are marched into court just for organising a debate? We stood by Pussy Riot when they were characterised as extremists, now can we ignore our government when it wants to ban people from the public sphere who offend religions?
This draconian legislation will only be possible if the Human Rights Act is repealed. It is expected the Prime Minister will announce a commitment to water down Britain’s commitment to the European Convention on Human Rights tomorrow in his speech. It comes to a sad pass when a convention dreamed up by Conservative hero Winston Churchill (and the draft overseen by a Conservative lawyer David Maxwell Fyfe) is deemed too liberal by the current Conservative incumbents of the Home Office and Number 10.
Only two months ago, the Government’s own independent reviewer of terrorism legislation warned the Terrorism Act 2000 was so broad it could, for instance, criminalise an anti-vaccination blog. In The Independent, I wrote that the impact of the legislation could criminalise us all. Critics said this was hysterical. Now we have even more draconian legislation in the pipeline. We could be witnessing the end of a very British tradition - tolerance of the intolerant
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