Wednesday, 24 June 2015

The Threat of Extremism

It was once said that “Freedom of speech means freedom for those who you despise, and freedom to express the most despicable views. It also means that the government cannot pick and choose which expressions to authorise and which to prevent.” I was reminded of this during a recent debate at the District Council on its revised safeguarding policy.

The policy does an excellent job of tackling the increasingly complex and developing landscape in relation to the council’s safeguarding responsibilities towards vulnerable children and adults. The well-publicised failings of councils such as Rotherham have highlighted how easy it has become – especially when government has become so fragmented – for appalling abuses to go undetected. 

But within this draft was a very curious recommendation with no obvious connection to safeguarding. It would oblige local authorities to ensure “publicly-owned premises are not used to disseminate extremist views”. Schools are to be put under a similar obligation.

It’s easy to believe in freedom of speech for those with whom we agree. A mark of a truly liberal society is one that extends those same freedoms to those with whom we would profoundly disagree. To challenge repugnant ideologies, they must be heard and tackled head on with reasoned argument. Those with long memories will remember the Thatcher government’s ban on broadcasting Sinn Fein representatives. It made this country a laughing stock and strengthened worldwide support for the Republican cause.  

We should not take on those guilty of illiberalism using their same tools of oppression. We should not seek to silence those who oppose the right to freedom of speech.  

The proposal is ill thought-out. What is “extremism”? A lazy shortcut to describe those whose views fall outside the “conventional”, but in no way threaten? I have in the past used public premises to call for the renationalisation of the railways – a policy supported by 70% of Britons. Our MP – now a government minister – branded this an “extreme” left-wing proposal. Does that make me an extremist? Am I to be silenced?!

As our government hurtles headlong towards mass surveillance (a policy from which even the US government now resile) and abandoning the Human Rights Act with no clear idea of what is to replace it, we should be careful of so easily giving up hard-won freedoms.