Lee v. Ashers Baking Company, A Victory Against Compelled Speech

Asher Bakery Belfast gay marriage cake compelled speech

Today saw a victory against compelled speech and authoritarian government, but fewer and fewer voices on the Left are in the mood to celebrate

Today the Supreme Court of the United Kingdom handed down a decision in Lee v Ashers Baking Company Ltd, the UK’s equivalent of the Masterpiece Cakeshop case in the United States (which the UK court actually cited in its ruling).

Both cases came about when plaintiffs claimed discrimination based on sexual orientation after trying to place an order for wedding cakes bearing messages supportive of gay marriage at bakeries owned and operated by traditional conservative Christians, who then refused the orders on the grounds that to produce the cakes bearing the specific messages would violate their deeply held religious beliefs.

From the BBC:

The UK’s highest court ruled that Ashers bakery’s refusal to make a cake with a slogan supporting same-sex marriage was not discriminatory.

The five justices on the Supreme Court were unanimous in their judgement.

[…] The customer, gay rights activist Gareth Lee, sued the company for discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation and political beliefs.

But the bakery has always insisted its objection was to the message on the cake, not the customer.

I have long taken the view put forward many years ago by Andrew Sullivan, that gay marriage should be accepted on the grounds that broadening an institution which promotes stability, permanence, mutual responsibility and (consequently) social capital can only be a good thing, especially at a time when social atomization and selfish, destructive cultural hedonism are doing so much to weaken vital bonds at the community and national level.

I would never advocate (nor tolerate) religious institutions being forced to conduct gay marriage ceremonies against their will, but rolling out the basic template of marriage and making it more widely accessible – especially to one of the only demographics which currently shows any enthusiasm for the institution! – seems perfectly sensible to me.

But even more abhorrent than the idea that the government might compel religious organizations to conduct ceremonies which violated their codes and moral systems is the  prospect of government compelling the speech of ordinary people, making anybody who wishes to participate in the public square affirm certain social dogmas on pain of civil or criminal liability. We have already seen Canada start to go down this road with Canadian Bill C-16, a statutory amendment which adds gender identity and gender expression to classes of individuals protected under Canadian human rights law, and moves perilously close to criminalizing the “misgendering” of people. Thus it is not inconceivable that someone could be held criminally liable in Canada were they to refuse to conform their speech to proclaim that trans women are women and trans men are men.

Compelled speech is the very last thing a healthy liberal democracy should be striving to enact. Thus it is great to see at least one human rights and civil liberties group – one which has not yet fully prostrated itself before the Cult of Social Justice and Identity Politics – celebrate the Ashers Baking Company decision.

From the Peter Tatchell Foundation:

“This verdict is a victory for freedom of expression. As well as meaning that Ashers cannot be legally forced to aid the promotion of same-sex marriage, it also means that gay bakers cannot be compelled by law to decorate cakes with anti-gay marriage slogans,” said human rights campaigner Peter Tatchell, Director of the Peter Tatchell Foundation.

“Businesses can now lawfully refuse a customer’s request to emblazon a political message if they have a conscientious objection to it. This includes the right to refuse messages that are sexist, xenophobic or anti-gay, which is a good thing.

“Although I profoundly disagree with Ashers opposition to marriage equality, in a free society neither they nor anyone else should be forced to facilitate a political idea that they oppose.

“The ruling does not permit anyone to discriminate against LGBT people. Such discrimination rightly remains unlawful.

“Ashers did not discriminate against the customer, Gareth Lee, because he was gay. They objected to the message he wanted on the cake: Support gay marriage.’

It is sad that statements like this now have to be cheered and encouraged rather than taken for granted by civil liberties defenders and free speech advocates, but such are the authoritarian times in which we live – trapped in a pincer movement between what Maajid Nawaz calls the “Control Left” on one side, and reactionary, protectionist nationalists on the other.

Proving that he is one of the few prominent voices on the British Left who remains capable of thinking through the consequences of implementing illiberal leftist identity politics dogma heedless of the ramifications, Tatchell continues:

If the original judgement against Ashers had been upheld it would have meant that a Muslim printer could be obliged to publish cartoons of Mohammed and a Jewish printer could be forced to publish a book that propagates Holocaust denial. It could have also encouraged far right extremists to demand that bakers and other service providers facilitate the promotion of anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim opinions.

Of course it wouldn’t be; we know that the administrators of this illiberal code – including establishment figures as powerful as the former head of the Crown Prosecution Service – would implement any such statutes or case law highly selectively, punishing only the disfavored “white, Christian male” group while refraining from holding other groups to the same draconian standard. But Tatchell is quite right that the argument for compelled speech, taken not even so far as to its logical conclusion but merely a few steps down the road, would swiftly end up censoring and controlling us all.

The real concern is that old-school campaigners like Peter Tatchell are a dying breed. In fact, they are being hunted to extinction by a new generation of social justice warrior activists whose petty accomplishments are nothing compared to someone like Tatchell (who, like him or not, has labored for years and put his body in harms way more than once in advance of his ideals) but who deludedly think they morally outrank him because they are willing to go further in their rhetorical, legal and constitutional attacks on dissenters.

This is a time when conservatives – indeed, anyone not of an ultra-progressive persuasion – need to pick their battles very carefully. Social conservatives may disagree vehemently with the social views of someone like Peter Tatchell, but in this authoritarian age it is not he who seeks to impose his views on others. Indeed, given the opportunity, some social conservatives would be more likely to impose their own views on progressive dissenters than Tatchell would do to them – which should give serious pause for reflection.

At this time the threat to fundamental rights and civil liberties, when the identity politics Left is hell-bent on compelling the speech of private citizens, forcing them to say words or endorse ideas in which they do not believe, old political divisions must be put aside in order to withstand the creeping incursions of authoritarianism into society. There will be time enough to relitigate social issues once we have jointly confronted and dispensed with the band of zealots who would actually put us in prison for thinking the wrong things.

In these fractious times, the sane(r) Left urgently needs shoring up. Because if things continue on their current trajectory, Peter Tatchell’s ideological opponents on the right will miss him when he is gone.

 

Ashers Bakery Belfast

Agree with this article? Violently disagree? Leave a comment.

Follow Semi-Partisan Politics on TwitterFacebook and Medium.

Advertisements

The Real Resistance

Protest Sign - Dump Trump Kill Brexit

The good aspects of this populist insurgency need saving from horrified (and increasingly organized) antidemocratic elites – but also from cynical and incompetent populist leaders who are squandering our last best hope of democratic renewal

I have struggled of late to bring myself to write much about politics. The temptation to offer the odd hot take on Twitter can never be fully avoided, but while I usually find myself with enough time to write only one of every five articles which pop into my mind, these past months I have struggled to generate more than a couple of vaguely original ideas or pieces of commentary in the space of a month.

The reason, I have come to realise, is that for all the furious words being written and opinions expressed, nothing much seems to be changing. Despite a political discourse which has rarely been more shrill, with unbridled hysteria on both sides and nearly every aspect of life being sucked into the black, inescapable vortex that is our ongoing culture war, neither side is making definitive progress. As at the Western Front in 1915, both sides have dug into hardened positions in anticipation of a long, drawn-out stalemate. Both sides double down on their dogma and rhetoric, both sides continue to defend or even embrace the worst elements of their own cause because the enemy does likewise with his; both dehumanise one another and suggest that what was once seen as sincere and legitimate political difference is now irrefutable evidence of moral turpitude.

Both sides feel that they are losing an existential fight; both feel under attack and in retreat. On a superficial level, the progressive left (and here I use the term to describe those who broadly hold socially liberal, secular, intersectional, economically redistributive and de facto open borders political views) have more cause to be alarmed – after all, they have to deal with what they see as the “twin disasters” of Donald Trump in the United States and Brexit in the United Kingdom, as well as rising populism throughout Europe and much of the world.

However, as someone who fits into neither the populist or elitist category but perhaps has greater sympathy for the former, I see only danger, risk and oncoming ruin for the populists. My gnawing fear is that an increasingly inept Trump administration which fails to deliver on even his more decent campaign promises and a botched Brexit leading to economic damage and future ongoing “vassal state” status within an unreformed European regulatory ecosystem may come to represent the dismal high water mark of populist achievement. Such has been establishment shock at the political success of the populists, such is their determination to wrest back control and such is their domination of the main levers of influence and power (media, business and culture) that it is those gathered under the banner of unaccountable supranational and technocratic government who now march with a spring in their step, and those who believe in the nation state, democracy and self-determination who find ourselves endlessly on the defensive.

All of which might not be so bad if the temporarily-displaced elites had learned anything meaningful from their electoral rebukes, engaged in some introspection and returned chastened and humble, with a newfound willingness to consult and be guided by the people they lead rather than continuing to implement their own highly Utopian vision of the future with no consultation or consent. But of course there has been no such introspection, and there is precious little humility to be found among those who lost control of the political narrative in 2016.

President Trump is bad, but the people whose self-serving incompetence in government gave us President Trump in the first place are still very much present, unrepentant and with their credibility intact. Brexit negotiations may be lurching toward disaster, but the people whose uninspired leadership and scant regard for democracy helped give us Brexit in the first place soldier on with reputations intact, peddling the myth that everything was fine before the EU referendum came along, and that Brexit can be thwarted with no adverse societal consequences.

If the people who believe they are morally and intellectually better than Donald Trump voters and Brexiteers want to win, they need to do more than stand laughing or indignant at the sidelines as the worst elements of these camps drive their populist train off the rails; they need to actively come up with something more attractive; a unifying, compelling national vision which amounts to something more than just rolling the clock back to the day before the EU referendum or US presidential election. But instead we see little other than smug self-satisfaction and blind hatred of (or contempt for) those who took the populist side, born of the delusion that populist incompetence in government somehow discredits their basic cause, and that political elites can therefore press on with their own discredited and failed agenda without incurring any negative consequences.

But the populists are by no means innocent. It is very easy to strike a trendy rhetorical pose against unloved ideas and institutions, but much harder to grapple with cold hard reality and propose policy changes which respect democratic input while also standing a chance of lasting success in the real world. One of the hardest things in recent months has been witnessing thinkers, writers and organisations I once broadly respected choosing the path of least resistance, playing to their respective galleries and choosing outraged purity over sullying themselves with necessary compromise.

Thus we see this year’s Orwell Prize for journalism awarded to someone who sniffs out and extrapolates wrongdoing in the EU referendum Leave campaign to the delight of her establishment audience, but shows zero curiosity about malfeasance in the Remain campaign (or the relative impact of each). And thus we are subjected to otherwise-compelling contrarians like Brendan O’Neill of Spiked magazine actively harming the cause of Brexit by ignoring all nuance when it comes to the trade and regulatory relationships under discussion, turning the most momentous issue to face Britain in decades into just another facet of the culture war.

It must be easy to write when possessed of great certainty that one is indisputably morally superior and on the “right” side of history (or at least that one’s actions and side will be recorded as being on the right side of history). I often envy the leftist, identity politics-soaked social justice warriors and their enablers within the political class for possessing such fervor. It is much harder to write day after day when one fears that one’s side will ultimately lose, and that one will be remembered as a cranky obstacle to glorious progress at best, and as something akin to a Jim Crow segregationist at worst. Every tweet or blog post them becomes not a small brick in the foundation of some glorious building for which one can claim partial credit, but rather just another nail in the coffin of one’s own future reputation and ultimate legacy.

And right now, I think the chances of defeat for conservatives, traditionalists, democrats and nation state defenders are very high indeed. In Britain, the UK government’s mishandling of Brexit and the atrophy of our self-governance capability may yet vindicate every hysterical warning about the folly of leaving the European Union’s unwanted, antidemocratic political-union-by-stealth. In the United States, President Donald Trump’s impulsive, often proudly ignorant or counterproductive policies and bigoted rhetoric tarnish the valid causes he supports (like greater immigration control) by mere association, rendering them toxic, while the reputations of some truly awful people are laundered thanks to their cynically ostentatious opposition to Trump.

In all of this, the media is firmly planted on one side, unable to report objectively on issues of concern to so-called populists by virtue of having so few reporters and editors drawn from the relevant social and demographic circles. And virtually every element of our culture, from classical and pop music to television and even corporate culture, are marching to the beat of divisive, intersectional identity politics with its avant garde gender theory and disdain for those institutions which are the bedrock of a stable society. In such circumstances it is small comfort to be right when one’s own side stands on the verge of total defeat.

And yet it is not in my nature to bow down before these forces and declare “I, for one, welcome our new antidemocratic, technocratic, authoritarian and coercive SJW overlords”. I don’t welcome them. Even if things go as badly as in my most pessimistic moments I fear they may, I believe it is still important to stand up and argue in the public square, register dissent, bear witness to what is happening and force the progressive side to defend their ideas on logic and merit rather than wallow endlessly in their feelings.

Conservatives and true liberal democrats, people who believe in government of the people and the right to freedom of speech and thought, should be under no illusion at this time – we are losing the decisive battle. A few standout conservative podcasts, YouTubers and bloggers are no match when the other side has a vice-like grip on the entire culture and is snarlingly intolerant of the slightest dissent to the extent that they willingly throw their own leaders and figureheads under the bus for thoughtcrime infractions.

I hope that this defeat can be reversed, but doing so will require millions of people who currently sit at home quietly shaking their heads at what our political elites and culture-makers are doing but otherwise raising no public objection to stand up and be counted – and quite likely incur social or economic cost – which they have not been called upon to do before.

I have just started reading “The Benedict Option“, a book by an American Christian conservative blogger I much admire, Rod Dreher. The book is a warning to Christians (particularly aimed at but by no means limited to traditionalists) that the demands of their faith and those of our culture and “polite society” are drifting decisively and definitively apart, and that the time may soon come when faithful Christians are forced to choose between practising their faith according to their conscience and maintaining their current social and economic standing.

I see a similar fork in the road coming the way of all conservatives and moderates, religious or not – indeed, anyone who is not a staunchly progressive social justice warrior or otherwise happy to accede to that particular worldview. Already we see businesses and charities seeking to adopt progressive positions on social issues as corporate policy, mandating speech and behavior which would force employees and volunteers to violate their own beliefs or else face disciplinary action. Already we see censorious activist mobs seek to dictate where private companies advertise or sell their product. And already, dissenters are paying the price when they stand up and refuse to go along with these coercive demands.

In a few weeks I shall matriculate at law school in Washington, D.C., where I will spend the next three years earning my law degree. Being on an American university campus, it would be infinitely easier – professionally, socially and otherwise – for me to simply delete my blog and Twitter account, and pretend to anyone who asks (and it will certainly come up; already I have had to give notice of my “preferred pronouns”) that I hold the standard suite of progressive leftist political views which are almost de rigeur for students and within the legal profession. But that would be a lie, and I will not do so. Will professing my religious and political beliefs cost me potential friendships and career opportunities? I would be naive if I thought otherwise. Will I find my own free speech threatened or stifled at times? Quite possibly – I have spent three years documenting on this blog what happens to free speech advocates and identity politics heretics on American college campuses, and it is often not pretty. But so be it.

And so even if it brings less joy than it once did, I will keep writing, speaking and standing up for both the expression and validity of traditional, time-proven values and honest political opinions which were considered perfectly mainstream just a few years ago, but which are even now being recast as fundamentally hateful and ignorant by zealots who would reshape the world with their uniquely totalitarian conception of tolerance.

We all have a duty to take a stand, and this is what I shall do, from my own very marginal and unscrutinized place in history. I encourage others to undertake a brief personal inventory and consider whether there is more that you could do at this juncture with your own time, talents and resources. Because right now, we are losing the war. Worse still, some of the gravest long-term threats we face come from the supposed leaders of our cause, and too few of us are willing to admit this painful truth.

Help is not going to come from outside; we go to battle with who and what we have at hand. Unlike the people who melt down over a presidential tweet or democratic referendum, or who cynically downplay their own immense power and privilege to cast themselves as latter-day victims, it is we who are engaged in the real resistance of our time.

The Resistance - Clenched fist protest - US flag

Support Semi-Partisan Politics with a one-time or recurring donation:

Agree with this article? Violently disagree? Scroll down to leave a comment.

Follow Semi-Partisan Politics on TwitterFacebook and Medium.

Jacob Rees-Mogg vs Leftist Thugs, And Another Depressing Weekend For British Conservatism

The Conservative Party would deserve more sympathy when their MPs are shouted down by leftist thugs if the prime minister herself were not such an enthusiastic suppressor of free speech

By now I assume everybody has seen footage of the impressively unflappable Conservative MP Jacob Rees-Mogg attempting to break up a physical altercation after an event in which he was speaking was stormed by leftist, Momentum-aligned protesters.

This is the kind of scene we have come to expect from American university campuses, where roving bands of masked Antifa-style goons, wearing their intolerance for diversity of thought like a perverse badge of honour, now routinely storm the meetings and public events of student organisations or external speakers they consider to be haram.

University campuses in Britain, by contrast, tend to be far more sedate places with much less visible security. Since we are fortunate enough in this country not to have to pause every couple of months to mourn another deadly mass shooting incident in an educational establishment, our university campuses do not have their own dedicated police forces as is sadly necessary in America. Neither is there some kind of private security guard for every three or four students.

This, however, may need to change if Members of Parliament and other speakers, people routinely invited onto university campuses to give talks or participate in student debates, find themselves pitched into the middle of violent confrontations with balaclava-clad goons whose devotion to the Cult of Social Justice and Identity Politics leads them to shut down the expression of any opposing thought.

On this occasion, the situation was defused before any real violence could take place, but Jacob Rees-Mogg has experience of standing up to aggressive leftist protesters and bravely stood his ground. Other MPs or public figures might understandably be less keen to put themselves in harm’s way while security guards or police are called to quell a developing problem.

And be assured, this will happen again – not because the speakers invited onto campus are becoming any more controversial or provocative, but because those opposed to their presence are becoming ever more sensitive to what they see as heresy – and too often are being indulged in their precious sensitivity by leftist academics, university administrators and politicians. The protesters cannot be reasoned with, and will not engage respectful debate when offered the chance, so the only way to preserve and protect freedom of expression on university campuses is to have a heavy security presence ready to haul out disruptive people who would censor events with their incessant yammering.

Unfortunately, what we saw from the Conservative Party in response to these events at the University of West England was not a muscular defence of free speech and a commitment to ensuring that universities which take public money also take seriously their responsibility to crack down hard on would-be student censors; rather, we saw a whinnying display of self-pitying victimhood:

Brandon Lewis - Conservative Party email - free speech petition

In wheedling tones, the new Conservative Party chairman writes:

Last night, Momentum-supporting thugs broke into a university event and tried to silence Conservatives. Wearing balaclavas, they tried through violence and intimidation to stop the ideas that they disagreed with from being heard. Help us back free speech by signing our petition today.

Momentum, the left-wing campaign group, was set up after Mr Corbyn’s initial victory as Labour leader to keep the spirit and politics of his campaign alive.

Young people have a right to hear all sides of the political debate. So we’ll protect free speech by stepping up our speaker programme – making sure Conservative voices are heard in universities across the country.

Together, we can send a message to Labour and Momentum. Sign our petition today and back free speech.

To whom is this petition addressed? The Conservatives are in power, for pity’s sake. Are we to waste our time signing a petition at the request of the party of government, encouraging the party of government to do something which it could and should have been doing all along? A government which has to pass around tear-stained petitions encouraging their own ministers to do their jobs does not deserve to hold office.

The title of the email is “It’s not ok”, which is exactly the same scolding, infantilising kindergarten phrase used by the Social Justice Left in America to describe behaviours which they deem to be “harmful” or “oppressive”. And so rather than taking the fight to those who would shut down free speech in this country, the Tories instead prefer to flaunt their scars in an appeal for public pity and then ask us to sign a petition calling on them to do something about the very problem over which they have so ineptly presided.

This is untenable stupidity. As Home Secretary, Theresa May did as much as anyone else to suppress freedom of expression in numerous forms, using exactly the same arguments as the Social Justice Warriors – to protect the supposedly weak-minded citizenry from corruption or offence from undesirable sources.

As Brendan O’Neill noted in 2016, soon after Theresa May ascended to the office of prime minister:

May and the student Safe Spacers she’s railing against are one and the same in their belief that bad or eccentric ideas are best dealt with by censorship. May bans a pastor who has a problem with the Koran; students ban secularist critic of Islam Maryam Namazie. May bans Tyler, the Creator for being sexist; 30 students’ unions ban Robin Thicke’s ‘Blurred Lines’ for being sexist.

And both use the Stalinist language of ‘safety’ or ‘the public good’ to justify their speech-strangling antics. Students’ unions claim, with spectacular paternalism, to be protecting the ‘mental safety’ of their student charges; May says she bans people who say weird things because they aren’t ‘conducive to the public good’. It’s almost funny: student leaders fancy themselves as anti-Tory, yet ape Tory intolerance of difficult ideas; May positions herself as a critic of Safe Space nonsense, yet she’s Britain’s Safe-Spacer-in-chief, treating not only students but all of us as infants to be guarded from controversy.

You cannot busily construct a Safe Space at the national level – a dystopian society where people are woken up in the middle of the night and dragged off to jail for placards they create, songs they sing or words they publish on social media – and then be overly surprised or outraged when a gang of young college thugs, raised in a society where it is constantly preached that people have the divine right not to be offended, decides to take matters into their own hands.

As this blog has repeatedly pointed out, the battle for free speech is won or lost at the margins – it is only by defending the vile and unconscionable speech of extremists that a firewall is created to protect mainstream political discourse. Sadly for Britain, the battle for free speech was never even fought at the margins – the government instead chose to unilaterally surrender on all of our behalfs, and restrict speech considered offensive by nearly every designated victim group or professional offence-taker in the land.

Now the barbarians are at the gate, and it is not just “extreme” language or opinion under threat, or even loud-mouthed and controversial provocateurs like Katie Hopkins, but mild-mannered right-of-centre politicians like Jacob Rees-Mogg. And now that the Faith Militant of the Cult of Social Justice and Identity Politics threatens the physical safety of Conservative MPs as they address perfectly respectable student organisations, finally the government is stirring lazily to action, unjustifiably offended that anyone other than the police might seek to enforce the very cultural and linguistic taboos that in their incompetence they allowed to spread unchecked across the land.

Well sorry, but this is too little and too late. The idea that a government led by the same authoritarian zealot who waged war on civil liberties in this country for six years as Home Secretary is suddenly going to bravely fight for freedom of thought and expression on university campuses or elsewhere is utterly risible. Even if she were to totally flip-flop on the issue, devoid of any other ideological backbone as she is, the prime minister no longer has the political authority to take a serious stand on a domestic political issue.

The litany of political failures which can be chalked up to the Conservative Party since 2010 – failures of ambition, vision, intellect, principle and courage – is growing too long to recount in any one blog post or article. But ending up in the same ideological hemisphere as masked thugs who threaten the physical safety of their own MPs surely has to rank near the very top of the list.

Jacob Rees-Mogg - University of West England - Momentum leftist protesters

Support Semi-Partisan Politics with a one-time or recurring donation:

Agree with this article? Violently disagree? Scroll down to leave a comment.

Follow Semi-Partisan Politics on TwitterFacebook and Medium.

Sam Gyimah’s Great Conservative Roadshow

Sam Gyimah - Universities Minister - Conservative Party - Tories

It’s great that Universities Minister Sam Gyimah is embarking on a tour of university campuses to spread and defend the Conservative message in traditionally hostile territory. Now we just need the government to come up with a conservative platform that’s actually worth defending

Sam Gyimah appears to be on manoeuvres. Writing in the Times today, the Minister for Higher Education announces his intention to take part in a tour of higher education facilities and campuses, engaging in a dialogue with students, academics and administrators.

Gyimah writes:

In my new role as universities and science minister, I will continue to visit institutions across the country to meet with vice-chancellors, lecturers and researchers, but also, crucially, to speak directly to students. They are a key stakeholder in the success of our higher education sector – for universities to thrive, their students must flourish.

So many young people feel disengaged from politics and, although some students and I might not always agree, I want them to have a voice and be heard in the corridors of power. I’d like to be thought of as minister for students as much as minister for universities.

Politics should be a dialogue, not a monologue, so I’m looking forward to discussing tuition fees, safe-spaces, access to higher education and our potential post-Brexit, among many other topics, in a robust and honest fashion.

Displaying more gumption than most of Theresa May’s uninspiring Cabinet put together, Gyimah continues:

We must also get out there, outside Westminster, into what used to be ‘no-go’ areas and defend our record whilst showing how we want to do better. We must continue to call out Jeremy Corbyn and prevent him monopolising the student space.

I don’t have all the answers, but I am going into this tour in good faith, ready to discuss the challenges and opportunities in our higher education system. Together, with all those who work tirelessly in it, we will ensure our universities remain the envy of the world filled with students who have the best possible chance of success.

This should be interesting to watch. On the one hand, it is great that we finally have a Tory government minister seemingly willing to mount a bold and unapologetic defence of conservatism before a hostile audience – that much is excellent. But on the other hand, the continuing drift and incoherence of Theresa May’s government makes one wonder what Sam Gyimah can possibly say at these events, what stirring national plan of action or highlights reel of political accomplishments he can present that might make any significant difference to the perception of conservatism among young people.

It’s all very well having the Higher Education Minister inveigh against safe space culture in front of an audience of baying students (though to be honest the time to do that was five or ten years ago, not today) but it counts for relatively little when the government shows no sign of rolling back draconian anti-free speech laws which see people visited by the police in the middle of the night and carted off to custody for saying or writing “offensive” things on social media. What message could be drawn from a pro-Tory stump speech, in this context? “Stop creating your own safe spaces on campus, the government is already hard at work creating a national safe space on your behalf, backed by the awesome power of the law”? Hardly a ringing defence of liberal values.

These qualms aside, one wonders why Gyimah actually volunteered for this thankless mission at all, attempting to preach free speech and liberal enlightenment values to an academic world which increasingly rejects any such notion. No Tory government minister, however charismatic, stands any great chance of reversing the antipathy of many students toward conservatism – it will take determined peers and influencers their own age to do that. So why put oneself through the ordeal of being heckled and used as a foil for leftist establishment posturing when there is so little to be gained?

Perhaps it is expecting too much, but is this a glimmer of a new, muscular and unapologetic conservatism which has been so conspicuously missing under David Cameron and Theresa May? Is it the beginning of a slow motion, unofficial audition for the Tory leadership? And dare one hope that this might be a good thing? True, Sam Gyimah espoused the same kind of bland, reflexive, unthinking pro-EU stance in 2016 as most others within the parliamentary party, but the Tory bench is hardly brimming with sufficient talent that having been on the wrong side of the EU referendum can count as an automatic disqualifier. With the rising profile of Jacob Rees-Mogg and Moggmentum the only other sign that the Tories have an ideological pulse, beggars can’t be choosers.

When it comes to conservative policymaking, this blog has long argued that rather than running off in a million different directions and formulating a bunch of panicked quick fixes to the various slow-burning crises which ail Britain, a more analytical, holistic approach is required – a methodical study of how these national challenges and opportunities are interlinked so as to arrive at a suite of mutually-reinforcing policies which address them as a whole. But when it comes to conservative personalities, the same rule does not necessarily apply.

While it is true that there is much intellectual work to be done behind the scenes, it is also true that British conservatism desperately needs fresh new faces. For reasons both deserved and undeserved, Theresa May’s government has the pallor of death about it, pale and emaciated despite the recent reshuffle. And while throwing a hundred half-cooked policies at the wall to see what sticks (as Tory regeneration efforts risk degenerating into) is a suboptimal approach, throwing a handful of ambitious new Tory MPs at a crowd of sceptical students might be just the kind of proving ground the party needs as it searches for a new generation of leaders.

Let’s watch this space and give Sam Gyimah the opportunity to fill the unforgiving minute with sixty seconds’ worth of conservative apologetics. It can’t do any harm, and maybe in the process of saving student souls from the clutches of Corbyn the lost Tories will finally begin to rediscover themselves.

Conservative Party Logo - Torch Liberty - Tree

Support Semi-Partisan Politics with a one-time or recurring donation:

Agree with this article? Violently disagree? Scroll down to leave a comment.

Follow Semi-Partisan Politics on TwitterFacebook and Medium.

Upset An MP On Social Media? Prepare To Lose Your Voting Rights

Intimidation in Public Life report - Committee on Standards in Public life - Parliament - Britain - UK - online social media abuse

Hurt an MP’s feelings and lose your civil rights. This could be a reality in the prissy, authoritarian, neo-puritanical Britain we inhabit

Having learned nothing from the past three years of populist insurgency, rather than facing up to their shortcomings and accepting the validity of justified criticism (and the inevitability of unjustified criticism) the political class is instead preparing to further insulate itself from public accountability.

A new report published by the Committee on Standards in Public Life proposes punishments such as barring people from voting or removing them from the electoral register as suitable punishments for the “new electoral offence of intimidating
Parliamentary candidates and party campaigners during an election” – which if enforced with the same arbitrary capriciousness as all other UK speech laws would inevitably see many people unjustly stripped of their basic civil rights while other, worse “offenders” who happen to hold officially sanctioned opinions go unmolested.

We in Britain now have a government which would give convicted prisoners the right to vote while stripping the franchise from certain free citizens who commit vague and loosely-defined acts of speechcrime – including hurting the feelings of an MP or Parliamentary candidate.

The report (prefaced with a quote from the late Jo Cox MP, so as to imbue the document with an air of incontestable wisdom and grace) graciously concedes that the existing restrictive framework of draconian anti-free speech laws does not need augmenting to protect the feelings of MPs at this time, but then immediately ventures the possibility of unprecedented new punishments for those accused of speechcrime:

Electoral law can overlap with and complement the criminal law, such that offences with criminal sanctions can also involve sanctions under electoral law. These sanctions are specific to the election process, such as being barred from voting for a certain period, or removal from the electoral register. Such sanctions recognise that these offences, such as undue influence or electoral fraud, are offences against the integrity of the electoral process, and that it is therefore appropriate that individuals face sanctions relating to their own privileges within that process.

[…] However, the Committee considers that the issue of intimidation is of particular significance because of the threat that it poses to the integrity of public service and the democratic process.

During an election period, it would therefore be appropriate to have specific electoral sanctions that reflect the threat that intimidation of Parliamentary candidates and their supporters poses to the integrity of elections. Any such offence in electoral law should be tightly defined, to capture intimidatory behaviour that is directed towards an individual specifically in their capacity as a Parliamentary candidate or party campaigner, which intends unduly to influence the result of the election (for example, by affecting their candidature or inhibiting their campaigning).

[..] the introduction of a distinct electoral offence will serve to highlight the seriousness of the threat of intimidation of Parliamentary candidates to the integrity of public life and of the electoral process, and will result in more appropriate sanctions. We believe that specific electoral offences will also serve as an effective deterrent to those who are specifically targeting Parliamentary candidates and their supporters.

The Committee on Standards in Public Life, a body whose intended purpose was to ensure that elected and non-elected officials uphold standards of behaviour appropriate to those who serve the public in high office, now seems far more interested in passing haughty judgment on whether members of the public are abiding by the new speech codes dictated by our puritanical, thin-skinned rulers.

I would be interested to know which of the Seven Principles of Public Life the committee believes it is defending by proposing new speechcrime punishments which attack so fundamental a civic right as voting – particularly as each of these principles sets a standard specifically for “holders of public office” and not private citizens. The only tenuous link offered in the entire report is this throwaway sentence:

[..] the Committee considers that the issue of intimidation is of particular significance because of the threat that it poses to the integrity of public service and the democratic process.

Ah, that’s okay then. So because the rowdy public is supposedly threatening “the integrity of public service” (presumably by scaring people away from getting involved in politics, because those who are already inclined to get involved in politics of course tend to be shy fauns who take fright at verbal hostility) the Committee on Standards in Public Life can use this as an excuse to regulate the behaviour not of people in positions of power, but of those who seek to express their feelings about people in power.

Of course, MPs are not the only people to find themselves at the receiving end of vitriol on social media, as anybody with even a semi-public profile or the desire to talk about politics on Facebook or Twitter can attest. Twice in recent months I have been at the receiving end of such a barrage, first when a “comedian” chose to misrepresent one of my tweets to his baying audience of pro-EU Remain supporters and again when an SNP MP sicced his Twitter supporters on me for daring to write about the office of Scottish First Minister in less than worshipful terms. None of the hate I received (on those occasions) amounted to the level of death threats, but other private citizens have suffered far worse.

Yet the political class seem to want to carve out a special protection in terms of exempting themselves from harsh criticism while doing nothing for anybody else. As Members of Parliament they already occupy a high-status, well-remunerated position in society, are generally endowed with a level of intelligence which enables them to articulate their priorities and concerns and be taken seriously, and make laws and decisions which impact our present reality and future happiness. Yet many of these same people now seem determined to portray themselves as shrinking violets, vulnerable victims-in-waiting, a discriminated against minority group who require the special and proactive additional protection of the law. This is absurd and insulting to the citizenry they notionally represent.

But in addition to protecting the powerful from the masses, these puritanical proposals also fundamentally misunderstand the problem. As even many victims of social media harassment would likely agree, the really damaging part of online abuse is not the individual insults but their combined, collective effect. One person insulting or mocking you can be laughed off or brushed aside, but this is not so easily done when one’s notifications fill up with a constant wall of such derogatory, negative messages. Indeed, when under attack on social media, at times it can be difficult to step back and remember that the strident opinions of social media moralisers is not reflective of the feelings of the country or society as a whole. At times, I myself have momentarily allowed hate and derision on social media to interfere with my self-esteem, despite my fairly thick skin.

The answer to online trolling and abuse (whether directed at politicians or private citizens) is not to criminalise individual acts of strident, unpleasant or insulting speech, let alone to curtail the fundamental civil rights of individual citizens as punishment for (or deterrence of) something which is in large part a swarm effect, an unpleasant but distastefully necessarily defensible part of our society’s commitment to free speech.

To do so would be akin to criminalising the act of gathering together in crowds because of the risk that somebody might be crushed or trampled, punishing individuals for what in itself is often a very small contribution to a larger group effect. No single individual is usually responsible for a stampede, just as very few individuals commit specific acts on social media which alone trigger substantial distress, and barring such people from voting (one wonders what offence merits losing the franchise while retaining one’s liberty) will not deal with the vast bulk of abuse on social media and consequently the vast bulk of suffering resulting from it.

The issues addressed by the report are real, worthy of discussion, and are already being debated at length. There is no lack of editorialising or scholarship on the impact of social media on public political discourse, and the way in which the semi-anonymity of interacting online brings out a far more vicious side of human nature than is usually visible during face-to-face interactions. These are problems which we need to face up to as a society at a time when we are learning on the go. But the solution is not to announce further new restrictions on freedom of expression, as though filling in gaps in the statute books will in any way compensate for filling in the mental and spiritual void which turns some people (including the highly educated and outwardly successful) into social media trolls.

Furthermore, at a time when the yawning disconnect between the ruling class and many of the people they represent is growing wider and fuelling all kind of populist outbursts (some welcome and others far less so) it is the height of irresponsibility for those in power to publicly toy with the notion of punishing the plebs for insulting their masters by stripping them of their voting rights.

The Committee on Standards in Public Life should cast their haughty, disapproving gaze back where it belongs – on those who debase their political offices or abuse the public trust. Now more than ever is a time for humility and introspection from the ruling class, not a whinnying list of grievances about those who fail to sing their praises.

 

By election - ballot box - Democracy

Support Semi-Partisan Politics with a one-time or recurring donation:

Agree with this article? Violently disagree? Scroll down to leave a comment.

Follow Semi-Partisan Politics on TwitterFacebook and Medium.