Thomas Paine, author of the Rights of Man, lived to the age of 72, an impressive achievement, given the efforts of two world leaders of his time, William Pitt and the infamous Maximilien Robespierre, to secure his execution. Even George Washington, despite Paine’s role in the American Revolution, “carefully abstained from measures designed to save his life” as the first US President came to hate him “because he was a democrat”, according to philosopher Bertrand Russell.
In Britain, Paine was convicted in absentia of “seditious libel”, an offence abolished in Scotland, England and Wales in 2010, long after it fell out of use. Free speech campaigner Lisa Appignanesi suggested Paine would have been pleased that MPs had finally agreed to take a historic step forward for “our right to speak and think freely” while then Justice Minister Claire Ward described sedition as an “arcane offence... from a bygone era when freedom of expression wasn’t seen as the right it is today”.
So the attempt by Spain to extradite ex-Catalan government minister Clara Ponsati, currently a professor at St Andrews University, for sedition in relation to her role in the Catalan independence movement raises some profound questions.
Regardless of the rights and wrongs of that particular case, we should be glad to live in a country where sedition, defined by the Encyclopaedia Britannica as “organising or encouraging opposition to government in a manner that falls short of the more dangerous offences constituting treason”, is no longer an offence and that those who campaign against the state are only prosecuted if they commit criminal acts like violence or intimidation.
The case against sedition was eloquently made by the writer Will Self in 2010: “In amongst the fast-growing leylandii of political correctness... there stands that hoary old oak, seditious libel. This has always been a shape-shifting law, capable of being employed as a cudgel against satirists, incendiarists, malcontents and revolutionaries alike. A mature democracy, with a tradition of open government and freedom of speech, has no need of such ancient Star Chamber inquisitions.”
However, such is the fundamentally hollow message of identity politics pushed by the right-wing populists of the modern world that they may seek to reintroduce such undemocratic laws. Sedition dates back to the 16th century and it is there where it belongs.