Three years of the Free Speech Union

The fight against censorship goes on

Artillery Row

Toby Young founded the Free Speech Union in early 2020, and on Wednesday, 1 March a party was thrown to celebrate the organisation’s third birthday. The delicate baby born just before the Covid-19 lockdowns has grown into a boisterous, disruptive toddler that stomps about the political scene breaking things. 

Who needs free speech when you can tell people to shut up?

Over 100 people came to the In and Out on St James’s Square to enjoy the FSU’s success, including Professor Nigel Biggar, whose book Colonialism was effectively cancelled by Bloomsbury when the publisher’s executives decided that “public feeling” was against its publication. The legal profession was well-represented — Francis Hoar acted as counsel in various legal challenges for those damaged by the government’s lockdowns. He was heard to complain that the Covid-19 inquiry under Lady Hallett had granted core participant status to various bereaved family groups and those suffering from long Covid, but had denied it to the hospitality and other businesses which had been pushed into bankruptcy. Other attendees included Matthew Elliott, who led Vote Leave; Matt Ridley, the author of The Rational Optimist; and Adam Afriye MP. The FSU has been remarkably successful in raising funds, and there was a good turn out of donors like Lady Bell, the widow of Bell Pottinger founder Lord Bell of Belgravia. 

Young told the room what his creation had achieved in its short life so far — a paying membership of 11,000; more than 2,000 cases taken on; a staff of 16 including eight full time employees — and talked about his political campaigns. Currently in his crosshairs is the Worker Protection (Amendment of Equality Act) Bill, which has been tabled by Vera Hobhouse MP and is supported by the government. The Equality Act already imposes a duty on employers to stop their workers from being harassed by other employees in relation to a protected characteristic such as sexual orientation, disability or age. Hobhouse’s bill will extend that duty so companies can be liable for third parties’ harassing actions, unless the employer has taken “all reasonable steps” to protect them.

It is almost certain to have a chilling effect on free speech in the workplace, as well as creating additional costs which will have to be passed on to consumers — perhaps good news for HR departments, probably bad news for everyone else. The FSU hopes to see amendments proposed to the bill which will need to have public consultation, thereby delaying its parliamentary progress. It is hoped that the delay will prove fatal. 

Young wanted to share some good news, and Nicola Sturgeon’s resignation received loud applause. Her administration brought into law the Hate Crime and Public Order Act 2021, which created a criminal offence for speech which “was likely to result in hatred being stirred up”. Humza Yousaf, who was then the Edinburgh Justice Minister, told the BBC that free speech had to be balanced with the need to protect vulnerable communities. His disdain for the intrinsic value of free speech does not seem likely to prejudice his chances of succeeding Sturgeon, whereas Kate Forbes’ orthodox Christian views are damaging her campaign.

The news that the video game based on the Harry Potter books had sold over 12,000,000 copies in its first fortnight was cheered by the TERFs and JK Rowling fans. The FSU has friends across the political spectrum, and its patrons include the SNP MP and Sturgeon-sceptic Joanna Cherry KC.

However, those who came to the In and Out last night were predominantly right of centre. Free speech was once a cause of the political left — for example, it was Harold Wilson’s government which in 1968 removed the power of the Lord Chamberlain to licence plays and to refuse a licence where there was nudity or sexually explicit language. Yet the one thing better than free speech is raw political power, and the power to censor overwhelmingly lies with the liberal left. Who needs free speech when you can tell people to shut up, and they will obey you? 

The party moved on from St James Square round the corner to the Red Lion on Duke of York St. Sadly, not everyone could make it. One older supporter expressed his commitment to the cause by getting so drunk that he was incapable of any speech, free or otherwise, and had to be carried to the door by the FSU’s legal counsel Dr Bryn Harris. They did not make it, and the reveller was last seen crashing through a wooden partition. It was a Hogarthian scene. Whether in its next three years, the FSU ends up in prosperous Beer Street or destitute Gin Lane remains to be seen. 

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