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Free speech is for losers

Everyone loves free speech when their side isn’t in power

Artillery Row

The SNP’s proposed Hate Crime Bill has received a large amount of national criticism for a piece of legislation proposed in a devolved administration. More than 20 artists, authors and campaigners including allies of Nicola Sturgeon have written an open letter saying that the bill “could frustrate rational debate and discussion which has a fundamental role in society including in artistic endeavour”.

Among the signatories to the letter are Rowan Atkinson and actress Elaine C Smith, who has regularly appeared at SNP rallies. The Free to Disagree campaign set up to oppose the bill counts the Christian Institute, the National Secular Society, a former Deputy Leader of the SNP, and Peter Tatchell among its supporters.

But despite all the anger – which is plainly not just from the usual suspects –  would conservatives not be happily criminalising dissent if they were in power?

In his recent book Small Men on the Wrong Side of History, conservative commentator Ed West believes if his tribe were in charge they would just as easily “marginalise and stigmatise Left-wing views in the way ours are”. He quotes Conan the Barbarian who, when asked what is best in life, answers, “to crush your enemies, to see them driven before you, and to hear the lamentations of their women.”

The new SNP legislation creates new offences on the ‘stirring up of hatred’ against people on the grounds of ‘age, disability, religion, sexual orientation, transgender identity and variations in sex characteristics’. These would criminalise “abusive” speech deemed “likely to stir up hatred” against these groups, with a maximum sentence of seven years in prison. It’s a new blasphemy law in all but name, and it’s an interesting metaphor that the proposed legislation also repeals a centuries-old offence of blasphemy against Christians, neatly signalling the change in management.

Christians and secularists are not condemning SNP proposals for the abstract cause of ‘free speech’

The new law would no longer criminalise taking the Lord’s name in vain but would kick in when the prevailing orthodoxies of the elite are questioned. If it succeeds, challenging the idea that people can genuinely change their gender or arguing that illegal immigration is not a good thing could be criminalised if it ‘stirs up hated’. But haven’t elites always used the law to silence their opposition?

Conservatives of the small ‘c’ variety are far more likely to support free speech at the moment because they are not in power. Free speech is their only weapon against elite orthodoxy. (If anyone imagines the current government and their supporters are really ‘populist’ rather than ‘globalist’ in outlook then consider how deftly the calls to cut immigration and withdraw from foreign treaty obligations has been used to justify signing more trade deals and opening up the borders to more countries.)

The Christian Institute and The National Secular Society have joined forces to condemn the SNP proposals because they both feel corporately threatened – not out of a fuzzy sense of solidarity for each other or the abstract cause of ‘free speech’.

This is not to say that the legislation is good. Societies that embrace free expression and rigorous debate generally make better policy decisions and the provisions in the bill are truly Orwellian. The Catholic Church has raised concerns that ownership of a Bible within your own home could become illegal. But maybe I wouldn’t really care if I didn’t own a Bible? Human nature suggests we’re not really as committed to that apocryphal Voltaire slogan, as we might think.

In the height of the political strife over Brexit last year would Brexiteers really have fought tooth and nail against a law that criminalised the flying of the EU flag? Or would Remain campaigners have turned their fire against legislation that outlawed people “stirring up hatred” against the EU? It’s unlikely. The internal opposition to the SNP’s hate crime law suggests there would have been some pushback from the side that benefited from the legislation, and of course, this bill is happening in Scotland where media scrutiny is far more collusive and tightly knit, even than it is in SW1. But as uncomfortable as it might be to accept, there seems to be a fairly strong relationship between support for free speech and ideological proximity to those in charge – which suggests for many people free speech is just a means to an end.

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