Monday, March 23, 2009

Introducing Liberty from London

I'm honoured and delighted to be the first international author to grace the Students for Liberty blog. By way of brief introduction, I have several fingers in the pro-Liberty pie, running the Cities of London & Westminster young conservative group, and co-editing the blog TheYoungConservative. In addition, I'm Campaigns Director for Conservative Future, the youth wing of the British Conservative Party, and I was also privileged to attend the 2nd International Students for Liberty Conference in Washington DC last month.

My aim with this weekly column is to give you a flavour of the fight for liberty here in the UK. Britons lack a written document such as the US Constitution, and so our liberty is frequently at the whim and caprice of governments, a fact I seek to highlight in this inaugural post where I call for a global First Amendment. In the UN, EU, etc, we have bodies that could implement such an initiative, if there was but the will.

Yours in Liberty,

Edward Hallam

Sometimes it seems almost as if Liberty is being actively conspired against, the whole world round. These past few weeks have highlighted yet again that even in the allegedly liberal democracies of the West free speech is under unceasing assault.

Last month the democratically elected Dutch politician Geert Wilders was banned from entering the United Kingdom, where he was to address a small meeting in the House of Lords and screen his 15 minute film “Fitna”, by Home Secretary Jacqui Smith on the grounds that his presence “would threaten community security and therefore public security'”. You can draw your own inferences as to what she means by that.

As a Briton and European citizen it’s frankly embarrassing that, if I wished to, I couldn’t hear from a legitimate European politician on my native soil; but I could if I were in America, where he has recently been on a speaking tour (which seems to have passed off without civil unrest.)

Then, just last week, the Canadians seemingly returned the favour in kind, by refusing to permit controversial British MP George Galloway, of the fringe Leftist ‘Respect’ party, into their country, where he was to address a public forum entitled ‘Resisting the War from Gaza to Kandahar’. Galloway is an ardent critic of the War on Terror and Israel; apparently the Canadians deemed his views on their presence in Afghanistan incompatible with his presence on their soil.

I’ve no time for Galloway, or his views, and so it pains me to agree with him, when, commenting on the ban, he said:

This decision … is a very sad day for the Canada we have known and loved – a bastion of the freedoms that supporters of the occupation of Afghanistan claim to be defending.

I wouldn’t adopt his language of ‘occupation’, but I do adopt his sentiment. Free speech is indivisible, even in the current geo-political climate. That someone may be offended by what you have to say is an irrelevant consideration; indeed, if the only permissible speech and opinions were those that no one disagreed with, then they wouldn’t be worth expressing at all.

At an event in London recently veteran Conservative MP Ann Widdecombe made that point that in post-World War II Britain one could legitimately advocate Fascism, even after all the blood and treasure so recently expended defeating that evil. Likewise, during the Cold War one was free to do the same for Communism, the 20th Century’s other great evil.

But the assaults on free speech do not simply begin and end with outright censure. It’s the unequal application of censure which leaves one increasingly exasperated, too.

Consider the case a little over a week ago in which a coterie of Muslims protested against British troops who were parading through the town of Luton, England, having just returned from service in Iraq. They shouted, and waved placards, which branded our troops “butchers”, “killers” and “extremists”. Such behaviour is abhorrent, and deeply offensive to tens of thousands, if not millions, of Britons, but should be tolerated as an expression of free speech – which it was.

By contradistinction, student Paul Saville was recently arrested and charged with causing criminal damage “under the value of £5,000” for the offence of writing, in chalk no less, on a pavement (or sidewalk, if you prefer) the phrase: “Liberty. The right to question it. The right to ask: ‘Are we free?’”, in protest at what he perceives to be the “loss of civil liberties” in Britain. It’s as if authority has no concept of irony. He is currently awaiting trial.

There must be one rule for all, and that rule should be unqualified, unfettered free speech; which is plainly distinct from incitement to, or trying to solicit, violence.

Now, more than ever – indeed, today is the anniversary of Patrick Henry’s great oration “Give me liberty, or give me death!” – we need a global First Amendment.


Richard said...

I look forward to reading your posts!

Donal Blaney said...

Many congratulations on your column, Ed. Always a delight to see a Young Britons' Foundation activist doing so well!