Few things unite UKIP and the Liberal Democrats. Fewer still unite those groups plus Tory backbenchers, the far-right ‘Britian First’, the far left Socialist Workers Party, Liberty, and myself. Few things have that power to disrupt the political landscape.
Conservative Home Secretary Theresa May told her party conference this week that, if re-elected, she would introduce Extremism Disruption Orders and Banning Orders. These will essentially be gags, only the Home Secretary will be able to hand them for any reason with no justification or oversight. EDOs for individuals, Banning Orders for groups.
As with Terrorphiles, May is focusing on the threat of Islamic fundamentalism to justify her creation. She will gag anyone who speaks publicly “for the purpose of overthrowing democracy”. The Guardian has dubbed EDOs ‘Extremism ASBOs’ which, given how pointless and ineffective ASBOs have been, makes them almost sound acceptable. I’d rather they be labelled ‘Gobstoppers’ because they’ll silence anyone Theresa May thinks is getting gobby, if by ‘gobby’ you mean ‘saying almost anything’ and by ‘stop’ you mean ‘trample on freedom of speech’.
These powers are specifically designed to stop people (say, hate preachers, anarchists, nationalists) saying things that are not illegal at all. That’s the whole point – if they were already acting illegally then the police would be able to move against them. As it is, these orders will stop those whose speech may encourage listeners to “undertake harmful activities…on the balance of probabilities” that could “spread or incite hatred (or) harassment (or) public disorder”. It’s understandable that Ukip and further-right groups are worrying, but from a certain point of view, so should conservatives.
Elements of their party describe the workless, the working poor or those with criminal convictions as irredeemable scum and blame them for all society’s problems. That feels like inciting hatred to me, just as much as communists agitating against landowners, or anarchists, the state. It’s such a wide, pathetic stipulation that Ian Dunt of Politics.co.uk points out various ‘juicy’ sections of the Bible could be banned, presumably along with anyone who read them aloud or reproduced them in print.
Who decides whether speech may incite antidemocratic acts, what activities are harmful, and how to weigh the balance of probabilities?
Theresa May gets to decide, and her test is to ‘reasonably believe’ in the threat. A court will review the decision, but that’s a very low benchmark to review – in many cases, almost meaningless.
Britain First, who I do not usually quote in support of my views, labelled the powers ‘the end of true democracy’. They correctly analyse May ‘very cleverly using the threat of Islamic extremism to introduce laws that curtail the freedom of expression for everyone.’
However distasteful, if a ‘pro life’ Christian wants to blog about the evils of abortion and contraception, they should be able to do so. If a devout Muslim wants to stand at Speaker’s Corner and urge us to disband the state and create a sharia-directed Islamic theocracy, she should be able to do so. That would consist of activities “for the purpose of overthrowing democracy”, which would presumably be enough for a gobstopper – regardless of whether any of the joggers and tourists of Hyde Park pay the blindest bit of notice.
Nick Griffin was expelled from the British National Party last week. That band of sick racists has seen its fortunes fall and its membership drop almost out of existence – it has lost the European parliamentary seat it once scraped, and most of its council places. Its only media personality has gone – just as Tommy Robinson (Stephen Yaxley-Lennon), former leader of the English Defence League, left the organisation leaderless and denounced far-right extremism. (See excellent analysis of the BNP by Tim Wigmore.) Their cases indicate that extremism does not require gagging of any sort; the public are intelligent enough not to support dangerous causes in large numbers. Giving the likes of Griffin a public platform, such as on Question Time, exposes poor contradictory bigoted arguments to appropriate harsh criticism and ridicule. Moreover, it denies them the martyr status they would otherwise have from being hounded and silenced, a status they could exploit (with justification) to paint themselves as oppressed by the establishment.
David Davis, the MP who lost to Cameron in the most recent Tory leadership contest, has not held back his criticism of May’s proposals: these are “…incredible powers to limit democratic rights…based on the Home Secretary having a reasonable belief – that’s the test, not an evidential test, a reasonable belief – that an organisation will break certain criteria….One of the criteria is a risk of harassment, alarm or distress…I do that in the Tory Party every day. This is really, really serious stuff.”
Add to this the many questions regarding the effective monitoring and policing not only of TV and radio but of the web. With recent moves against extreme pornography and the blunt introduction of opt-out web filters, the Tories have proven themselves astonishingly incompetent at handling internet freedom. The web filters alone have blocked harmless, important sites designed to advise domestic violence victims, those considering self-harm and those suffering from anorexia.
Along with the Lib Dems, figures from the left of the Tory party stopped such measures coming out of the current government. Dominic Grieve QC was Attorney General until the latest ‘lurch right’ reshuffle. Grieve called EDOs “draconian” and pointed out that their use might “fuel resentment…a person would end up being prosecuted for expressing a point of view which the Home Secretary has considered is extreme.” He urged “very great caution”. Shami Chakrabarti, Director of Liberty, argued that May is peddling hypocrisy by sermonising about the need for rule of law in the Middle East while “mocking the Court of Human Rights and proposing to ban non-violent speech and organisations.”
Chakrabarti refers to the Justice Secretary Chris Grayling’s intention to repeal the Human Rights Act and replace it with a British Bill of Rights. The BBR hasn’t had much detail yet, but looks to be designed to allow courts or parliament to ignore European Court of Human Rights decisions. Of course, they can already, that’s why UK prisoners can’t vote. But anyway. By diminishing the influence of the European Charter on Human Rights, there will be no powerful body that a UK citizen can appeal to if they feel the Home Secretary is overriding basic rights – as they probably will be. Grieve labelled the Bill of Rights proposals ‘schoolboy stuff…half baked’, and noted they were incompatible with our treaty obligations with the Council of Europe.
These proposals are much like the IPNAs I fussed about in 2013, the souped-up ASBO powers that the Lords thankfully improved at the very last minute. It’s like PSPOs, which are pretty terrible already. This alone should be reason enough for anyone not to vote Conservative in May 2015. Even if you love their economic patter (I don’t), their promises on migration limits (I don’t), their attempt to bully unions (I don’t) or anything else, if you found this messy article convincing, you should not vote Conservative. Or at least hope the Lib Dems remain a heavy happy clappy millstone around Theresa’s censorshipping neck.