Brian Monteith: Don’t let politicians near freedom

If there are more votes to be had in a ban, then liberal values go out of the window, writes Brian Monteith
Nick Clegg could not resist defending bans in 'appropriate' places. Picture: Robert PerryNick Clegg could not resist defending bans in 'appropriate' places. Picture: Robert Perry
Nick Clegg could not resist defending bans in 'appropriate' places. Picture: Robert Perry

With the party conference season in full flow, it has been a rather dispiriting time for supporters of an open society who cherish individual freedoms, liberal values of live and let live, and the tolerance of opinions, habits and lifestyles that you might not approve of, but recognise are entirely legitimate for others to hold.

Political parties used to shout from the rooftops about defending our freedoms – but now what we more often hear are plans for the criminalisation of once taken for granted behaviour, together with the buying of votes of one special interest group at the expense of another, whose property rights must be reduced to pay for the bribe.

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Adding to the marginalisation and ever-tighter definition of what we are allowed to call freedoms is the spectre of a political class that believes it is entirely acceptable to stop at nothing to demonise and denigrate not only opponents but colleagues, too. The question of how fit such politicians and their advisers are to be the arbiters of public taste and decency, never mind the more serious task of being legislators, has to be asked.

The Liberal Democrats – a party one would have had to have been alone on a desert island for the last decade to believe is the guardian of liberal values – contributed to the ban-fest when one of its ministers talked up the possibility of a bar to women wearing the niqab in public places.

Presumably ignorant of the fact that a similar law in France had led to disturbances there – and that such intolerance of a piece of clothing will be used as a recruiting sergeant by followers of jihad against the west – Home Office minister Jeremy Browne then called for a national debate on the issue. It was clear from his pronouncement that this was to explore where a niqab ban could be introduced rather than on protecting religious observance and freedom of expression.

Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg, who clearly harbours ambitions as a circus act riding two horses for the rest of his political life – no matter the breed of the horse – could not resist defending bans in “appropriate” places, while leaving hanging the possibility that his arbitrary definition could be extended so that choice was not left to those who manage public buildings or spaces, but set in law.

Not to be outdone, we then had news that the prison service in England and Wales is considering a smoking ban in jails – ending any notion that the coalition is interested in rolling back the previous government’s penchant for introducing bans into the realm of our personal spaces.

This particular penal policy would undoubtedly be seen as a terrific idea by our own public health controllers in Scotland, the Scottish Government having tried already to introduce such a restriction at state institutions such as Carstairs psychiatric hospital. Fortunately, that limitation on personal freedom, which was only likely to make the behaviour of patients even more difficult to manage, was struck down by our courts, but only because the ban overreached legislative competence.

Politicians would, in the future, only need to enshrine such a ban in law and our judges would not be able to protect patients or prisoners.

Readers may not be interested in their rights but it is only a small step to control what inmates can do in their own cells – deemed to be their own personal space – to seek to control what those of us on the outside can do in our own homes.

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Labour, the party that in government was well down the road to identity cards, has not voiced any opposition to any of these policies – and now, in the utterances of its leader Ed Miliband, is unwilling to provide protection for the further erosion of free speech.

When asked about the Football Association’s interest in prosecuting the use of the word “yid” by Tottenham Hotspur supporters, Miliband, himself a Jew, supplied the ambiguous answer that he was against prosecution and was happy to “leave this to the FA to sort out”. I cannot think of a more appropriate circus clown to partner Nick Clegg.

It was hardly the decisiveness that the prime minister was offering when he supported Spurs fans who have mocked the racists by turning the term into a badge of honour.

Comedian David Baddiel had rounded on Cameron for saying that the use of the term “yid” by Spurs fans should not lead to prosecution, but London commentator Toby Young had the sharpest response when he said: “If you prosecute Jews for re-appropriating a racial epithet, won’t you have to prosecute gays for using the word “queer”, not to mention African-American rappers who use the word “n*****r”?”

Over the last 20 or so years, we have become increasingly used to our politicians paying lip service to age-old freedoms – only to erode them through the Orwellian doublespeak of doing it in the name of protecting people’s freedoms.

Thus we have many laws that now restrict what we can say, sing, tweet or write, even though they may be no more than cultural throwbacks that have lost all historical meaning – from nursery rhymes to folk songs – unless we go looking for and trying to prove offence. Thus words that can be said in affection or with pride are now threatened with requiring prosecution.

That such decisions about our freedoms are being made by politicians who have abandoned all moral authority by being willing to condone – or conveniently ignore – the clandestine smearing of colleagues by advisers paid through the public purse exposes the fragility of trusting our freedoms to those who are susceptible to bribing voters.

There is, I suspect, much more to come out about the amoral depravity towards the privacy of people who got in the way of the last government. Nor should we expect it is limited to one party.

Better that we try to give as much protection to the freedoms we have by making it as difficult in law as possible for here today, gone tomorrow, politicians to marginalise them.