I was called a few minutes ago by LBC, a commercial radio station that broadcasts within the London area. The researcher explained the biggest news story of the day and asked me for a comment. The story is that one Gareth Compton, who is a Conservative representative on Birmingham City Council, had made a joke on Twitter about the Moslem journalist Yasmin Alibhai-Brown. He said: “Can someone please stone Yasmin Alibhai-Brown to death? I shan't tell Amnesty if you don't. It would be a blessing, really.” As soon as she heard about this Mrs Alibhai-Brown announced that she would call the police and have the man charged with incitement to murder. But somebody else had already done so. Mr Compton was arrested, and then released on bail.
I made my comments immediately after hearing about the story, and they are rather scathing. However, I have now checked the news, and everyone else seems to be taking the matter very seriously. Mrs Alibhai-Brown is leading the hunt. “A politician validates the many people who do threaten columnists like me,” she told Sky News. “... what you're saying is ‘it’s ok to hate so much that you kill a journalist and a writer’.” A spokesman for the Conservative Party said that Mr Compton's language was “unacceptable”, and that he had been suspended from the Party while he was investigated. A spokeswoman for Birmingham City Council added: “Any written complaints will be formally considered by the council standards committee to determine if any investigation should be held…. The committee will also be mindful of any criminal investigations concluded by the police.”
Mr Compton has now deleted his tweet and apologised for the remark, calling it “an ill-conceived attempt at humour”.
It is difficult to know where to begin a written commentary on this matter. I suppose the right beginning is to take note of the English contempt of court laws. The news report I read does not say if Mr Compton had been charged with an offence. But he may yet be charged, and, once charges are laid, no one is allowed to make any comment that may prejudice his trial. And so I will not discuss whether Mr Compton did publish the words in question. Nor will I discuss whether publishing them is illegal under the present law of this country. What I will discuss is whether publishing such words should be illegal in a liberal democracy. And I will try to discuss this as moderately and as cautiously as I can.
I say that it should not be illegal to publish such words. In saying this, I am not calling for some libertarian utopia. I am simply asking for a return to the laws that, for many centuries, had policed speech in the England of my birth – in the England, indeed, of my early manhood. I was born into a country where a man could say pretty nearly anything he liked about public issues. He was constrained by the law of obscenity if he wanted to talk about sex, and by the law of official secrecy if he wanted to discuss the confidential workings of government. He might also have been constrained by the law of blasphemy if he wanted to talk about the Christian Faith. Of course, there were also the contempt laws that I have already mentioned. With the exception of the contempt laws, which make sense in any case where a jury might be involved, I will not defend these laws. They constrained speech more than I would have approved had I been old enough to make an informed comment. But, these laws aside, speech was free on public issues.
A man could freely denounce the policing of the Troubles in Ulster. He could praise the Irish Republican Army as “freedom fighters”, and rejoice whenever a soldier or policeman was murdered. He could say, for example, that Lord Mountbatten, who was murdered by Irish terrorists in 1980, was “a legitimate target”, and hope that some other member of the Royal Family – other than the Queen – might be next. Or, if the inclination took him, he could say that black people were sub-human, and that the Jews were “blood-sucking parasites”. He could call a man a “nigger” or – assuming he could prove it – that a man was a “queer” and that he would burn in hell.
On private issues, there were the defamation laws, and the law of confidence. Where threats of violence were concerned, there were the assault laws. For example, if a man said “I know where you live”, or “I know where your children go to school”, or “You’d better watch yourself as you walk home late in the evening”, he might be charged with assault. Words like these, after all, could be taken as threats by any man of reasonable firmness of mind.
Moving back to the public sphere, a man might be charged with a breach of the peace if he turned up outside a synagogue and told a crowd that gentile children inside were being made into Passover cakes.
Now, some of these laws were, as said, absurdly harsh. Others made good sense. But there was never any question that jokes in poor taste might be illegal. I remember reading an article once in The Spectator where Auberon Waugh called on a television producer to be put up against a wall and shot. Some people laughed. Others scowled. There was never any question that the police might be involved.
England is now a country where virtually any words uttered in public can be treated as a criminal offence. Without thinking very hard, I can remember how Nick Griffin of the British National Party stood trial for having called Islam “a wicked vicious faith”. I can remember how a drunken student was arrested and fined for telling a policeman that his horse looked “gay”. I can remember how a man was arrested and charged and fined for standing beside the Cenotaph and reading out the names of the British war dead in Iraq. I remember a case from this year where a pacifist unfurled a banner outside an army cadet training base. “Stop training murderers”, it said. His home was promptly raided by police with dogs, while a helicopter hovered overhead. He was arrested and cautioned.
If I started mentioning the cases where Christian street preachers have been arrested for quoting the Bible, or where Moslems have set the police on people for alleged words or displays, or if I even alluded to the Public Order Act or the various racial and sexual hate speech laws, this article would swell immensely. It is enough to say that anything said in public is now illegal if someone complains to the police, or if the police themselves take against it. And, when something is not illegal, we are all getting used to the idea – second nature in most other countries – that we should “watch ourselves”. Even I find that, if I discuss politics in a coffee bar, I sometimes drop my voice. A few weeks ago, I found myself looking round to see who might be within earshot. So much for living in a free country.
I am willing to believe that Mrs Alibhai-Brown was put in fear of her life by this twitter. But Mrs Alibhai-Brown may not be a woman of reasonable firmness of mind. Some years ago, she appeared to agree with me in a BBC discussion programme that it was only fear of the law that kept white people from rising up and murdering non-whites. Anyone inclined to doubt this claim should listen to the recording. But no reasonable man can regard the twitter as other than a joke.
I could go po-faced here, and say that it was a joke in questionable taste, or that it was “unacceptable”. But a joke is a joke. Often, a joke’s humour comes entirely from its being offensive. In a liberal democracy – which this country plainly no longer is – jokes are not a matter for the police. In a country where everyone in public life has not gone barking mad, jokes are heard and laughed at or ignored. It is only in countries that have turned, or are turning, totalitarian that jokes are taken seriously enough for criminal penalties to be threatened.
I could note that this latest outrage has taken place in a country with a Conservative Government. But there is no point. Labour may be out of power, but the Cameron Government is conservative in name only. We should know by now that all the talk during the general election about rolling back the Labour police state was nothing but talk, and that there is no intention to change anything.
I could put it on the record that, as a libertarian, I believe in freedom of speech, and that every law made since 1965 to censor speech should be repealed at once – the Race Relations Acts, the relevant sections of the Public Order Act, and all the dozens of oppressive laws made by the ex-Communists of the Blair and Brown Governments. I might also mention all the anti-discrimination laws and the obscenity laws. But this is for the record, and I have now put it on the record, and feel there is nothing more to be done for the moment.
No, I think the real villains here are the police. Every so often, The Daily Mail publishes a whining article or letter about how the police are kept from doing a proper job by health and safety laws and by “political correctness”. The implication here is that the police are thoroughly decent people who simply want to get back to protecting life and property in ways that nearly everyone regards as legitimate. I find this a ludicrous opinion. So far as I can tell, the police are the willing militia of an evil ruling class. Many of them are sadistic thugs more to be feared than the criminals they are supposedly hired to catch. Many are corrupt. Most of them have bought wholesale into the new order of things, and use their massively expanded powers with grim delight.
The police behave as they do partly because of the “tough new laws” Home Secretaries have been drooling over for the past quarter century. But it is also because police officers are bad people. Even if police powers could be rolled back to where they were in about 1960, these traditional powers would still be used oppressively. Power is restrained in part by law. Beyond that, it is restrained by common sense and common decency. These are qualities now absent from the police in England, and no changes in law or exhortations from the top can bring them back. Anyone who wants all the policing our taxes buy needs his head examined.
There is no doubt that all those High Tory critics of Robert Peel were right about the dangers of setting up a state police force. It took over a hundred and fifty years to show how right they were. But, when someone is arrested for making jokes about Yasmin Alibhai-Brown, we can see that the line has been crossed that separates a state with police from a police state.