If you don’t protest the forced cancellation of the Britain First conference in Chesterfield, don’t call yourself a supporter of free speech
Let’s skip the near-obligatory paragraph restating for the record just how odious and hateful Britain First are. Britain First’s racism, paranoia, manipulative social media campaigns and grotesque subversion of patriotism are abhorrent; that much really goes without saying.
But something else should also go without saying, yet is not being widely said: no matter how nasty that party’s speech and campaigning activities may be, the decision by Chesterfield council to cancel the venue booking for Britain First’s conference at the last minute is a brazen violation of the dual freedoms of speech and assembly.
From the Derbyshire Times:
A far-right political party has been banned from holding a conference in Chesterfield due to “the risk of public disorder”, it has emerged tonight.
Britain First had booked a Chesterfield Borough Council venue for its seven-hour meeting next Saturday.
But in a letter to the nationalist party’s leader Paul Golding, the council’s chief executive Huw Bowen said: “I am writing to advise you that a decision has been taken to cancel this booking because of the risk of public disorder. Your fee of £379 will be credited to your account.”
And the Huffington Post’s jubilant, gloating report:
The event by the far-right pseudo political group was scheduled for next weekend but was scuppered by local authorities due to “the risk of public disorder”.
In a Facebook post denouncing the move, leader Paul Golding drew parallels between this minor bureaucratic tiff and soldiers fighting and dying for Britain in World War 1.
[..] Chesterfield Council’s decision should no come as a surprise seeing as many previous Britain First stunts have been characterised by violence and disorder.
Yes, of course the comparison to First World War casualties is as hyperbolic as it is insulting to the memory of our veterans. But in no way is the cancellation of a British political party’s annual conference by the authorities a “minor bureaucratic tiff”, as the HuffPost blithely suggests. On the contrary, it is an assault on one of our most fundamental freedoms, the right to free speech and freedom of assembly.
Many will argue that Chesterfield council were right to do what they did, thwarting the meeting of a despised (yet legitimate) political party at such short notice that arranging an alternative venue will be well nigh impossible. Many will say that the risk of public disorder justified the ban, or that cancelling a conference booking is not the same as criminalising the speech itself, and that free speech fundamentalists are making a fuss about nothing. But these are weasel words.
Censorship in modern Britain does not take the form of book burnings or blacklists. The New Age Censors rarely need to ban actual words any more. Sure, a few hot-button words will still see you pretty much automatically excluded from polite society regardless of context, but that’s not how the New Age Censors prefer – or need – to operate.
These days, the New Age Censors shut down debate before it even begins by saying that the speech in question poses a threat to safety – either the mental safety of those whose pre-existing beliefs or feelings might be hurt by encountering contradictory or “offensive” viewpoints, or even the physical safety of the participants and bystanders.
When an Oxford University debate about abortion featuring Brendan O’Neill and Tim Stanley was shut down last year, the censorious student protesters successfully argued that allowing the debate to go ahead would create an “unsafe” environment for students. They wailed that sticks and stones may break their bones, but words might kill them stone dead. And so the debate was cancelled, and everyone was deprived of the opportunity to hear two serious thinkers talk about a hot-button social issue.
That’s how censorship works in modern Britain. Professional outrage-takers (inevitably) find something to be outraged about, and they whip up an artificial storm on social media. They then confront the venue or sponsoring organisation (be it a university, student society, hotel or conference centre) and warn them that allowing the event to go ahead will threaten either the parlous mental stability of anyone within earshot, or the physical safety of innocent bystanders. Sometimes, as with the abortion debate, they even have the temerity to warn of potential violence when it is their own side who are threatening to commit the violence in the first place.
And what is an organisation then to do? If they tell the New Age Censors to take a hike, allow the event to proceed and then anyone so much as trips over their shoelace during the event, they know that they will be held liable for the consequences and have their reputation trashed by a bunch of virtue-signalling activists who are secretly gleeful at the opportunity to make political hay out of any reprehensible public disorder.
So events get banned and privileges revoked. Debates about abortion get cancelled at Oxford, Britain’s top-ranked university. The Conservative Party West of Scotland conference gets cancelled because the small regional branch cannot afford the elaborate private security that would be required to protect their handful of activists from the hateful mob of anti-Tory protesters who promised to picket the event. And now the loonies of Britain First are prevented from driving their armoured Land Rovers to Chesterfield for their Annual Racism Expo 2015. Nobody had to utter a sentence about banning words, ideas or philosophies – it was all done in the name of “reasonable steps” to ensure public safety.
You don’t have to like Britain First or agree with their heinous and ignorant politics to be appalled at the shutting down of their annual conference by a jumped-up local council who decided that their wish to avoid the bad press of hosting a far-right conference in town trumped the universal human right to freedom of expression.
In fact, any free speech advocate worth their salt – as opposed to those fair weather friends who claimed #JeSuisCharlie after the Paris attacks before reverting to their usual “I believe in free speech, but…” evasions the very next day – should be manning the barricades to defend Britain First’s right to hold their annual conference in Chesterfield as scheduled.
Sticking up for speech that you agree with is not the same as supporting the principle of free speech, and too many people only do the former, getting outraged when people they like are silenced or dragged through the courts for thought crime while staying silent when it happens to their political foes. Claiming that #IStandWithBaharMustafa one day while simultaneously whining for the authorities to clamp down on other people whose ideas you find offensive is not supporting free speech. It’s being cheap and opportunistic.
The battle for free speech is won or lost at the margins. Nobody is gunning to ban the kind of bland, focus group approved soundbites that tumble from the mouths of our political leaders – at least not yet. But if we do not defend the speech that is edgy, provocative, offensive or downright hateful, the boundaries of acceptable speech and thought shrink, a few inches at a time.
We may hardly notice the change day to day, but after a few years we may suddenly realise that whole topics of conversation have become “off-limits”, simply because nobody pushed back at each incremental attempt to chip away at acceptable thought. Today it might be Britain First, a group which – thanks to their own odious behaviour – elicits little public sympathy. But what’s to say that next year it won’t be UKIP, a legitimate and respectable political party which speaks for nearly four million voters? What if, ten years from now, the Conservatives find their conference suddenly unwelcome in major provincial cities because of public order concerns?
Preventing Britain First from holding their party conference does nothing to confront or diminish the appeal of their toxic ideas – in fact, it only strengthens their case when they can present themselves as free speech martyrs. The best and only way to see the back of organisations like Britain First is to give them the platform and spotlight that they crave, along with enough rope to hang themselves. And they will hang themselves, just as the BNP imploded after they scored big in local elections and attracted greater media attention, and after Nick Griffin’s much-protested appearance on Question Time.
So someone needs to call these people out – these moralising, anti-free speech censors who invoke the name of public safety in order to suppress any speech that they dislike, as well as the spineless local authorities and institutions who simply roll over and go along with it. Not only do they undermine the already-shaky foundations of our free society with their No-Platforming, Safe Spacing, Trigger Warning-imposing intolerance – their petty tyranny actually fans the flames of those unpleasant causes which they are right to detest.
There is nothing to celebrate in the forced cancellation of Britain First’s annual party conference. The voices of the virtue-signalling anti-racism activists may have won a short-term victory, but it comes at great cost – both to the broader effort to marginalise the far right, and to the parlous state of free speech in modern Britain.
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it’s one of the insidious things people forget about totalitarianism when they trot out things like the ‘first they came for the socialists – I did not speak out because I wasn’t a socialist’ mantra.
In reality, first they go for the thugs and the trouble makers, and you probably thought ‘good’ because you were actively hostile to these people anyway, so you didn’t really bother too much about how they went for them.
I couldn’t agree more. Well said, and thanks for the comment.