No Prosecution For Matthew Doyle, But Free Speech Is Still Diminished

Matthew Doyle - Facebook - Twitter - Brussels Attacks - Muslim Woman - Arrest - Free Speech - Police

No trial for Islamophobic tweeter Matthew Doyle, but the mere fact of his arrest has served to further chill freedom of thought and speech in Britain

Vindication for “mealy-mouthed” tweeter Matthew Doyle, who will not be prosecuted for inciting racial hatred with silly social media messages after the police realised that they vastly overstepped their authority by arresting a man for speechcrime without first consulting with the Crown Prosecution Service.

The Guardian reports:

Charges against a man accused of posting tweets likely to stir up racial hatred have been dropped, Scotland Yard has said.

Police charged Matthew Doyle, 46, with a public order offence on Friday amid allegations that he tweeted about confronting a Muslim woman to ask her to “explain Brussels”.

But officers admitted later the same day that the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) disagreed with their decision, adding that they did not have the legal power to bring the charges in the first place.

A statement released by police in the early hours of Friday morning said Doyle had been “charged under section 19 of the Public Order Act 1986; publishing or distributing written material which is threatening, abusive or insulting, likely or intended to stir up racial hatred”.

[..] But, late on Friday night, the Metropolitan police released a second statement saying that Doyle was “no longer charged with the offence and will not be appearing at court”.

It said: “Police may not make charging decisions on offences under Section 19 of the Public Order Act. There will be further consultation with CPS.”

So Doyle escapes on a technicality, the police (ever eager to respond to busybody public complaints about alleged thoughtcrime but much slower to respond when real crime occurs and your house is burgled) having brazenly overstepped their authority.

No doubt this is a relief for Matthew Doyle, whose initial tweet suggesting that all Muslims bear responsibility for the Brussels attacks, and subsequent inflammatory defence of that tweet, saw his life briefly put on hold and his flat ransacked by the police in their search for “evidence”.

But is this a victory for free speech?

Absolutely not. The fact that these draconian hate speech laws are on the statue book in the first place is an intolerable, long-standing affront to free speech in Britain. And the fact that the Metropolitan Police in London were able to drag a man from his home and hold him in jail when they did not have the authority to do so without suffering any kind of consequence whatsoever – there is certainly no talk of disciplining the officer(s) involved – is despicable too.

We must understand that the battle for free speech is won or lost at the margins. That often means defending the rights of people with truly heinous opinions on all manner of subjects to express themselves, while abhorring what they actually say. In this case, Matthew Doyle is hardly the world’s number one villain. He tweeted something particularly stupid about Muslims in the aftermath of the terrorist attack in Brussels, but he was light years away from cheering on such attacks himself (as many others do), or urging reprisals on all Muslims for what the Brussels terrorists did.

Under no reasonable definition of the word did Doyle “incite” anything at all, except in the minds of those joyless thought police who hold such a low view of humanity that they constantly fret that the public are mindless lemmings liable to being whipped up into a violent mob if they ever encounter a slightly controversial ideas. No, Doyle’s only crime was to be ignorant, and to broadcast that ignorance on social media.

Look at Doyle’s Twitter account page now, a full five days after his arrest and release. There is nothing new. Doyle has effectively been silenced, stopped from expressing his sincerely held opinions – opinions which he is fully entitled to hold, no matter how silly or wrong they may be – after the full weight of the criminal justice system came crashing down on his head one sunny afternoon:

Matthew Doyle - Twitter Timeline - 28 March

The online disappearance of a man who was until now a fairly prolific Twitter user is quite poignant. It shows a case of public idiocy being responded to not with rebuttal, debate, correction and forgiveness, but rather with vengeful mob justice backed by the power of the state. It shows a free voice, however ignoble it may have been in this case, being frightened into silence.

Prior to his arrest, Matthew Doyle was more than happy to interact and debate with the army of online critics who mocked and argued with him. That is how free speech is supposed to work. Bad ideas are drawn out into the open, debated, dissected and discarded. Maybe Doyle would never have changed his views in response to his Twitter critics, but others observing the dialogue unfold may have done. And in any case, it added to the infinite tapestry of our social discourse.

Following his release, there are no new tweets. Any future opportunity for learning, debate or correction has been lost. And all because some moralising busybodies with nothing better to do thought that the best response to seeing something they disliked on the internet was to report it to the police. And because the police, who prefer to sit at desks scouring Twitter looking for thoughtcrime rather than getting out and tackling real crime, leapt at the opportunity to show their PC tolerance by arresting a man for his beliefs.

You don’t need to throw people in prison to create a chilly, hostile environment for free speech and free thought – although there are plenty of people languishing in British prisons simply for saying, writing, posting or singing the “wrong” things, “offensive” things.

You can suppress free speech in a society just as effectively by the threat of public shaming, harassment by the police and potential prosecution under draconian but arbitrarily applied laws. And in the case of Matthew Doyle, the message has been received loud and clear:

Think the wrong thoughts or write the wrong thing on social media, and we will come for you. We are watching you, all the time. Give offence to anyone, intentionally or not, and they have the right to make a criminal complaint about your speech. And in response, the police will come to your house in the middle of the night, bundle you into the back of a police van, take you away and leave you to fester in a jail cell for a day before grudgingly releasing you. Your arrest will be made public, and your reputation will be forever stained as the person whose ideas and opinions were so heinous that they got in trouble with the law. Good luck with the rest of your life and career.

This is Britain. In the year 2016. And this is what now happens to people who say the wrong thing or express an unpopular idea in public or on social media.

And you dare to boast that we live in a liberal, tolerant country which respects human rights and free speech?

 

Free Speech - Conditions Apply - Graffiti

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Arrested For Thoughtcrime In Britain Following The Brussels Terror Attacks

Matthew Doyle - Facebook - Twitter - Brussels Attacks - Muslim Woman - Arrest - Free Speech - Police

Britain has become an authoritarian dystopia where the police prefer to waste scare resources scouring Twitter for instances of supposed thoughtcrime, rather than tackling real-world crime

Matthew Doyle of Croydon, south London, was not the first person to say something stupid in the aftermath of the Islamist terror attacks in Brussels yesterday, and he will certainly not be the last. But Doyle does hold the dubious honour of being the first person in Britain to be arrested for thinking and saying – or in this case, tweeting – the wrong thing about the Brussels attacks, the latest victim of Britain’s dystopian hate speech laws.

As with most people whose free speech most urgently needs defending, Matthew Doyle does not come across as a remotely sympathetic character.

The Telegraph explains:

A man who tweeted about stopping a Muslim woman in the street yesterday, challenging her to “explain Brussels”, and lambasted on Twitter for his comments, has responded to the criticism today, insisting he is not some ‘far right merchant’.

Matthew Doyle, partner at a south London-based talent & PR agency, posted a tweet on Wednesday morning saying: “I confronted a Muslim woman in Croydon yesterday. I asked her to explain Brussels. She said ‘nothing to do with me’. A mealy mouthed reply.”

He was later arrested.

His tweet referred to yesterday’s bomb attacks on the Belgian capital’s main airport and Metro system that left at least 34 people dead and 198 injured. His comment went viral, being retweeted hundreds of times before he eventually deleted it.

Mr Doyle told the Telegraph he had no idea his tweet would be the “hand grenade” it has proven to be – and that Twitter’s 140 character limit made the encounter sound vastly different to how he thought it went.

Now there is a good case to be made that Matthew Doyle is something of an idiot – in a follow up tweet, he later exclaimed “The outrage I felt was real. I cannot understand why I decided to ask the nearest Muslim I ran into”, which certainly suggests that perhaps we are not dealing with a world class mind here.

Matthew Doyle tweet

And his subsequent tweets veered firmly toward the knuckle-dragging bigot end of the spectrum, when he retorted “Who cares if I insulted some towelhead??”

Matthew Doyle tweet - 2

But let’s be clear – even if we apply the most unforgiving interpretation of Matthew Doyle’s tweet, and his subsequent account of the conversation, it should not be enough to land a citizen of a supposedly free democracy in trouble with the law.

Even if Doyle literally sought out the first Muslim-looking person he could see on the high street, approached them unbidden and asked them to account for the terrorist actions in Brussels yesterday, no country calling itself free should drag that man through the criminal justice system.

It may be incredibly ignorant and offensive to suggest that all Muslims share responsibility for the terrorist attacks in Brussels this week. It may be astonishingly stupid. But stupidity and lack of manners should not be enough to earn someone a knock on the door from the police.

In this case, the initial response of the Twitterverse was (for once) exactly what should happen – society’s self-righting mechanism kicking in against the actions of a conspicuous idiot. Doyle said something irretrievably stupid which was then widely retweeted, and he found himself on the end of thorough, fully deserved mockery from complete strangers online. Many of the subsequent parody tweets effectively (and wittily) exposed the total lack of logic behind Doyle’s sentiments and actions.

So why is confrontation, rebuttal and mockery not enough in twenty first century Britain? Why can we not simply go to bed content that a self-declared idiot has had his idiocy widely exposed, refuted and mocked, without wanting to twist the knife further? Why is it now also necessary to compound his punishment by heaping an arrest, a trial and a possible criminal conviction on top of the self-inflicted public shaming?

As Alex Massie recently lamented when looking at the public’s response to Donald Trump’s comments about Britain, cases like these only prove his how snarlingly authoritarian and illiberal a place modern Britain can be once the sunny, progressive façade is peeled back:

It is always depressing to discover that there are vastly fewer liberals in this country than you might wish there to be. But that discovery should no longer surprise us.

This is the true attack on British and European values, and it comes from within. I am far less worried about the slim possibility that I will find myself standing next to a suicide bomber on my morning commute, and far more concerned that every single day I am apparently rubbing shoulders with people who smile and appear friendly at first glance, but who would not hesitate to bring the full weight of the criminal justice system crashing down upon my head if I happen to one day say the wrong thing (defined by British law as anything which gives them offence).

As a political blogger with sometimes forceful and controversial views, I am less worried that my writings may earn me a punch in the face from a stranger (I couldn’t be less famous, and my reflexes are quick – though I am probably playing with fire when I criticise our national religion, the NHS) and far more worried that someone will read something that I write, take massively overinflated exception to it, and – with a few clicks of a mouse or a quick telephone call – report me to the police, who would then be obliged to investigate me under Britain’s oppressive hate speech laws.

In the age of Islamo-fascist terror, my liberty and wellbeing is far more under threat from the Public Order Act 1986, the Communications Act 2003 and the Racial and Religious Hatred Act 2006 than it is from the terrorist’s bomb or the bullet. Not because I ever incite racial or religious hatred – indeed, I abhor those who do so – but because under the same laws that put Matthew Doyle in a jail cell, my “guilt” would depend entirely on the perception of the supposed “victim”. Anybody at any time can read anything that I write, claim to be alarmed and distressed by the ideas that I express, and have me carted off to prison.

They can do this to idiots like Matthew Doyle. They can do it to political bloggers like me. And they can do it to you. Sitting at your computer right now, you can get yourself arrested and cautioned, convicted and even sent to prison just by typing fewer than 140 characters on your keyboard. In Britain. In the year 2016.

In case the government actually cares, this is how the terrorists really win. They’ll never make Britain part of a radical Islamic Caliphate, but they can certainly help to ensure that we become such a snarlingly authoritarian, freedom-hating society that our country is changed irrevocably for the worse.

And as the freedoms and liberties which distinguish Britain from more benighted parts of the world – including primitive quasi-medieval regimes like the Islamic State – are shot to pieces, it is our own hand on the trigger. No one else’s. We do this to ourselves.

 

Postscript: What remains unclear at this time is whether Matthew Doyle was arrested for the content of his original tweet, his subsequent tweets (some of which were actually far more offensive) or the real-world act that his initial tweet described.

It may seem an arcane detail, but it will be interesting to discover whether the woman accosted by Doyle made the complaint, or whether it was a foot soldier in Britain’s growing army of professional online offence-seekers who took offence on her behalf. I would bet a very large sum of money that it is the latter, and that while the “victim” herself probably shrugged off the incident, Doyle’s prosecution is being urged most strongly by other people who are completely unconnected with the incident and who were not adversely affected in the slightest by his tweet.

 

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Arrogant MPs Want To Turn Political Debate Into Their Own Safe Space

Syria Vote - Trolling - Online Abuse - MPs - 3

 

Being heckled and pilloried by obnoxious online trolls is a regrettable part of the job description for any 21st century MP. But the right answer is to ignore the idiots and move on, not to impose draconian codes of conduct or prison sentences for insulting speech

When Britain is in the midst of debating great issues of war and peace, it is frankly astounding that much of the media seems more concerned with the hurt feelings of Labour MPs threatened with deselection by angry constituents than the consequences of British military action in Syria.

In the aftermath of the Syria vote in parliament, I saw one newspaper headline in particular that represented such an unhinged piece of self-aggrandising hyperbole that it made me do a double-take:

Jeremy Corbyn has made us targets for jihadists - shadow cabinet - Syria vote - ISIS.jpg

Apparently, by failing to assume direct control of the hearts and minds of every single one of his supporters – and physically preventing them from blowing off steam in the aftermath of the Syria air strikes vote in Parliament – Jeremy Corbyn is personally responsible for endangering the lives of those MPs who voted with the government for military action:

Jeremy Corbyn has made his MPs targets for home-grown jihadists in the wake of the vote to back Syrian air strikes, a shadow cabinet minister has warned.

The accusation that MPs are being left open to revenge attacks came as a backbencher made a formal complaint to Labour’s chief whip over Mr Corbyn’s “despicable and deliberate” threats over the Syria vote which he said will lead to “personal violence” against MPs.

In the immediate aftermath of the vote, which saw 66 MPs defy Mr Corbyn to back David Cameron’s plans for military action, Labour Unity, a hard-left organisation linked to the party leader, released a “traitor list” of backbenchers who should be targeted for de-selection.

Mr Corbyn and his allies have been directly accused of “aiding and abetting” the intimidation of Labour MPs by leaking the names of MPs preparing to back the Government in recent days.

This is not a joke. A member of the Labour Party shadow cabinet – a fully grown adult with an important constitutional role to play in our democracy – serious believes that by expressing his scepticism about air strikes on Syria, Jeremy Corbyn has made dissenting MPs vulnerable to terrorist attack. They believed it strongly enough – or hated Corbyn enough – to give these quotes to a national newspaper.

First of all, Jeremy Corbyn needs to identify who this self-aggrandising crybaby is, and kick them so hard out of his shadow cabinet that they end up back in local government debating bin collections and street lighting. Such brazen disrespect of the leader is absolutely intolerable in a serious political party.

Jeremy Corbyn, of course, tolerates self-important asides from whiny, self-entitled members of his own shadow cabinet every single day, which suggests that he has the patience of a saint, whatever his many other flaws. But no leader should expect to be confronted with daily leaks and insubordination of this kind from their own shadow cabinet, particularly scurrilous juvenile fantasies that he is somehow endangering the lives of his colleagues simply by disagreeing with them.

This blog agrees with almost none of Jeremy Corbyn’s socialist platform, but this open defiance of the leader has to stop if the Labour Party ever hope to be taken seriously as a cohesive force in British politics. Right now, the only hope for the Labour centrists is that Corbyn proves himself to be so unelectable in the London mayoral, local and devolved assembly elections that real momentum builds for him to be replaced.

By constantly snarking and running to their media sources in the media every time Corbyn’s leadership style hurts their pwecious wittle feewings, Corbyn will be able to point to all of this insubordination later on, when he is on the ropes, and say that he is failing not due to a popular rejection of his policies but thanks to disloyalty from his own shadow cabinet. This is the last thing that the centrists should want, but in typical myopic fashion they are totally incapable of looking more than one step ahead.

Syria Vote - Trolling - Online Abuse - MPs

But it’s not just the fifth column within Jeremy Corbyn’s shadow cabinet who are at fault. An increasing number of MPs from all parties (but particularly Labour) are speaking out, claiming that robust and sometimes distasteful criticism of their political views and voting records is somehow tantamount to “bullying”.

This has now reached the point where even expressing the view that your MP is doing a bad job and should be deselected as their party’s candidate at the next general election is also being described as “bullying” by some self-entitled and wobbly-lipped MPs.

The BBC reports:

Ann Coffey, who has represented Stockport since 1992 was told: “Get behind the leader or kindly go.”

In response, she said she will “await the assassins to come out of the shadows”.

Assassins? What Ann Coffey is referring to is the great fear now stalking the Parliamentary Labour Party – deselection.

While the Metro reports on the party establishment’s hurt response:

Shadow home secretary Andy Burnham, who voted against air strikes, called on Mr Corbyn to show ‘no tolerance’ of abusive behaviour within the party and said a code of conduct was needed for members’ use of social media.

He was particularly disappointed with the treatment colleague Ann Coffey had received after voting for the strikes.

‘She has served Stockport, her constituents and our party for many years with distinction, and people need to have a look at themselves before they go around throwing threats at people like that,’ he told BBC2’s Victoria Derbyshire Show.

Whether Ann Coffey has served her constituents and her party well or not is beside the point – it is not for Andy Burnham, a fellow MP, to decide on behalf of Coffey’s constituents whether or not she should continue to be their Labour Party candidate, nor to shield her from public criticism.

Syria Vote - Trolling - Online Abuse - MPs - 2

This is a ludicrous state of affairs. MPs are grown adults, serious people who should be capable of participating in the rough and tumble of democratic debate without needing some higher authority to step in and moderate the debate to spare their delicate sensitivities.

Spiked’s Tom Slater agrees, writing:

Let’s get a few things straight. First of all, if you’re over 16 – let alone a prominent politician – you’ve got no right to claim you’re being bullied. Bullying is what happens in the playground. And most kids put up with far worse than a few nasty emails. It’s pathetic. Secondly, being called a ‘baby killer’ isn’t nice, but it’s not abuse or intimidation. It’s political critique – asinine, sixth-formerish, idiotic political critique, but it’s political critique nonetheless. And as for those who have claimed to have received death threats, they’re just not credible. Neil Coyle MP contacted the police, all because someone tweeted three knife emojis to him. Jesus wept.

[..] This is bad news for politics. The war on trolling, we were told, was all about protecting poor, vulnerable people from being hounded out of the public square. Now, 40-plus politicians are using the same language to protect themselves from criticism. In these strange political times, we need more conflict, more argument and, yes, more abuse-hurling. Politicians crying foul when someone disagrees with them – that’s what the ‘kinder, gentler’ politics looks like.

It is bad enough that our universities – supposedly places of intellectual rigour and ‘no holds barred’ debate – are turning into soft cornered safe spaces where delicate snowflake students insist on being protected from ever having to encounter a dissenting or provocative opinion. But apparently the disease has not been contained and has spilled over the borders of academia into the very heart of our democracy, the political sphere.

This is exceedingly dangerous. Angry, safe space-dwelling students are proving themselves more than capable of stifling debate, changing whole curricula and agitating for decent staff to be fired, despite having almost no formal power in the university hierarchy system. How much more damage, then, can elected MPs do to our already-weakened free speech rights when they are the ones setting the political agenda and making the laws that we must follow?

Enough is enough. Being told that one has blood on one’s hands because of a vote for military action may be jarring, unsettling and nasty. But MPs should be able to separate the wheat from the chaff, and engage with those constituents who engage with them respectfully, whilst either ignoring or belittling those who are rude or aggressive.

In fact, Labour MP Stella Creasy herself – usually leading the charge to criminalise Twitter abuse – inadvertently demonstrated how best to handle mean Twitter insults in the aftermath of the Syria vote when she responded to a member of the public who swore at her and called her a witch:

Syria Vote - Trolling - Online Abuse - MPs - Stella Creasy - Twitter - 2

Highlight the idiocy, publicly smack it down and move on. Or simply ignore the haters altogether. That’s all an MP has to do.

This should be the model which all MPs follow, all the time. Engage with the genuine constituents, especially when they are legitimately angry. Ignore those who are gratuitously mean, insulting or belligerent. But only report to the police those who make serious and credible threats of physical harm.

This is how anyone who has ever worked in a private sector customer service job would handle their interactions with the public every single day. Ask any London bus driver if they call the police every time they are demeaned, insulted or “bullied” while at work, and they would laugh in your face. When you work in a tough job like that, you grow a thick skin.

We should expect no less maturity (in the face of occasional public immaturity) from our elected representatives in Parliament.

Margaret Thatcher - Internet Trolling

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ISIS: Adept At Using Social Media, But Couldn’t Even Invent The Wheel

ISIS ISIL Recruitment Social Media Twitter 2

 

As Twitter becomes increasingly adept at blocking and terminating accounts associated with ISIS and Islamist terrorism, their army of supporters and sympathisers have been responding with death threats targeted at Twitter employees.

The Guardian reports:

Isis supporters have threatened Twitter employees, including co-founder Jack Dorsey specifically, with death over the social network’s practice of blocking accounts associated with the group.

In an Arabic post uploaded to the image-sharing site JustPaste.it, the group told Twitter that “your virtual war on us will cause a real war on you”. It warned that Jack Dorsey and Twitter employees have “become a target for the soldiers of the Caliphate and supporters scattered among your midst!”

What is most striking here is the fact that a terrorist state fuelled by a primitive, murderous ideology makes such liberal use of Western technologies and inventions to spread fear and hated, all without noticing the laughable irony of it all.

For in truth, even given a thousand years, the global caliphate longed for by ISIS could never produce anything comparable to a Twitter or Facebook of their own, much as they love to use these American social networks as a tool to recruit the vulnerable and dim-witted.

Such a theocracy could barely master the sorcery involved in creating fire, or invent something as simple as the wheel without external help, because the fundamentalist rejection of enlightenment thinking and embrace of death makes higher thought all but impossible.

Great innovations simply do not flourish in a primitive culture where music is banned, art and antiquities are destroyed, women are subjugated and the pursuit of any knowledge that challenges or contradicts the faith is punishable by death.

There is no reasoning with such a totalitarian ideology. Neither can there be any appeasement, for meeting ISIS half way or attempting to soothe their brittle egos at the expense of our own civil liberties and free speech will never be enough.

There will always be another insult taken, always another demand insisted upon and another death threat made, usually distributed via modern methods of communication that supporters of the Islamic State could never hope to create for themselves.

 

Cover Image: ISIS death threat posted to JustPaste.it

How Can We Teach British Values In School If We Are Afraid To Assert Them Ourselves?

British Values Twitter 3

Just what are British Values?

Well, apparently the concept is sufficiently fuzzy in the minds of some people that we all now need to take time to argue amongst ourselves and reach a common consensus while one of the biggest and most worrying educational scandals in recent years plays out unobserved.

In response to the ongoing scandal of Birmingham schools being compromised by activist governors to deliver covert Islamic religious teaching, the Education Secretary, Michael Gove, made the slightly awkward if well-meant assertion that in future, all primary and secondary schools will be required to “promote British values”.

The Guardian reports:

Michael Gove, the education secretary, has seized on a finding byOfsted that a “culture of fear and intimidation” existed in someBirmingham schools by announcing that the government will require all 20,000 primary and secondary schools to “promote British values”.

These values will include the primacy of British civil and criminal law, religious tolerance and opposition to gender segregation. Gove also suggested girls wearing the burqa would struggle to find their voice and must not feel silenced in the classroom.

In what is being described by ministers as a decisive shift away from moral relativism in the classroom, the education secretary took action after a landmark series of reports by the schools inspectorate into 21 Birmingham secular schools found an atmosphere of intimidation, a narrow, faith-based ideology, manipulation of staff appointments and inappropriate use of school funds.

Unfortunately, the predominant response thus far has not been one of outrage that such a thing could happen to compromise children’s education in the UK’s second city; instead, we have seen race to come up with the funniest self-deprecating anti-British putdown as expressed by the #BritishValues hashtag now trending on Twitter.

When presented with the opportunity to express outrage that local school curricula could be so easily hijacked by fundamentalist members of any faith and ‘turned’ to start promoting beliefs very far from the British values of democracy, equality, non-discrimination and obedience to the law, a majority seem more interested in having an introspective discussion about what modern British values really are (at best), or suggesting through Twitter witticisms that any concern is tantamount to xenophobic intolerance  (more common).

The Huffington Post has collated a selection of what it considers to be “the best” responses, which take an almost uniformly dim view of British culture and history:

British Values Twitter 4

(It should be acknowledged that there have also been some very sensible and thoughtful contributions from others, such as the pianist Stephen Hough).

The hashtag activist comedians and earnest scolds of Twitter currently attempting to look cool by running Britain down on social media are actually revealing a few ingrained British traits of their own – excessive self deprecation and an almost craven desire not to offend or appear controversial – which easily become insidious and harmful when taken to extremes.

There is a gnawing anxiety behind some of the mocking #BritishValues tweets. “Isn’t patriotism so old fashioned?”, they scream. “Let’s list all the bad things that Britain has done so that no-one thinks we’re being boastful”. It may come across as cool, trendy liberalism but look closer and you see that some of it is actually rooted in fear.

Somewhere along the way the idea of expressing pride in Britain, and in British exceptionalism, became interchangeable in the minds of many people with that altogether darker and more insidious disease of racism. To express the former is, in the eyes of many, to come uncomfortably close to embracing the latter. And as a result, people instinctively turn away from patriotism, and instinctively oppose suggestions such as teaching British values at school, mistaking it for something else (and, incidentally, leaving a vacuum that the far right is only too happy to exploit).

And yet there is a serious issue at stake here, with the integrity of children’s education in question. Even the Guardian’s John Harris felt the need to weigh in to the ongoing argument about the fundamentalist Muslim influence in Birmingham schools, reminding his readers that state-subsidised religious indoctrination or interference with the curriculum is wrong whatever the source, and that this is no time for those on the left to bury their heads in the sand:

At the risk of reopening old wounds on the liberal left, for all the noise from those on the right of culture and politics, it is no good crying “witch hunt” and averting your eyes from this stuff. It should have no place in any state school, and most of it is an offence to any halfway liberal principles.

But Harris still felt the need to couch his tortured article in the wider context of a state education system which is failing and falling into disarray under the hated Tory government – the harsh unexpectedness of his gentle reminder that it’s not okay to look the other way and pretend to ignore the fundamentalist corrupting of education for fear of seeming racist or intolerant having to be soothed with a good old swipe at the real enemy, those on the political right.

Efforts to stamp out casual and institutional racism in Britain, while incomplete, have come a long way, even since the 1980s and 1990s. A large part of eradicating the scourge of casual racism has been (quite rightly) to mock it, deride racist thoughts and speech as backward and out of place, and doing everything possible to make racism distinctly uncool. The campaign to eradicate racism from football is a prime example of how successful Britain has been, especially when compared with continental and eastern Europe.

But while there is unquestionably still much work to be done, we must also begin to ask ourselves if one of the side effects has been a growing inability for people to express deeply felt but harmless national pride and patriotism in any but the safest, media-approved settings (such as the 2012 London Olympic Games).

If our generation’s instinctive response when they see criticism levelled at a person or group within a religious or ethnic minority is not to check the veracity and demand action if it is found to be true, but either to flinch and avert their eyes out of shock and unwillingness to believe or to become so embarrassed that their only coping mechanism is to resort to self-deprecating humour on social media, perhaps this is the price that our country has to pay in order to purge itself of the ingrained, widespread, casual racism that was common and socially acceptable for so long. Perhaps.

But being this way makes it much harder for us to deal with the problems facing Britain today, where the pernicious influence of fundamentalists (of all religions) on the young and the lack of assimilation of some cultures into wider British society are real issues that are being only half-heartedly tackled because of the paralysing fear of saying the ‘wrong thing’ or giving the wrong impression.

When asked why it was that Americans are so much more openly patriotic than Brits, the late Christopher Hitchens attributed it to the fact that overt displays of patriotism and love of country in the United States are borne out of the fact that as a nation of immigrants, Americans have no real shared history going back more than a couple of centuries. Therefore, simple acts such as reciting the pledge of allegiance every morning in schools and singing the national anthem before sporting events have, over time, helped to forge that unity within diversity.

But what has always been true of America is now increasingly becoming true of Britain. Immigration into Britain may bring profound economic and cultural benefits, but with each successive year of high net immigration and a lack of assimilation in some quarters, that degree of shared common history is diluted a bit more. And that’s absolutely fine, if other measures are in place to balance it out – like reciting a pledge, offering comprehensive British history as a mandatory subject at schools, or, shock horror, teaching children “British values”.

At the moment, though, these countermeasures are lacking. It should come as little surprise then that certain groups within society do not feel as much desire or pressure to integrate as they rightly should, and that when the door is left wide open in places like Birmingham to influence schools to teach children according to certain subcultural norms, some people will seize the opportunity with both hands.

Unfortunately, in the age of hashtag #Britain, not only does it surprise us when this happens, the thought of condemning or intervening in these events embarrasses us so acutely that we are barely able to have a national conversation without descending to xenophobic conspiracy theorising on one side or accusations of scaremongering on the other, topped off with a sprinkling of nervously self-deprecating Twitter jokes.

As John Harris noted in his article, by this point “inflammatory language and alarmism” have now done their work and made it harder to get to the bottom of what has really been going on in Birmingham’s schools. But there is an equally powerful countervailing force working in the other direction, suggesting that any concern is an unwarranted attack on a minority and misrepresenting any calls for the assertion and teaching of British values as xenophobic, Islamophobic and a direct attack on the principle of multiculturalism. It is not.

If we carry on in this way, we will never succeed in building and maintaining the unified, diverse and tolerant Britain that we all say we want.

 

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