Permission to speak Mrs Blair?

It may be trite to point out that recent events have opened the eyes of a bemused political elite; but it’s only a matter of time before the temporarily extended Overton window, is slammed in the faces of the dissenting hoi polloi. MPs that seek re-election in 2020 are cognisant that they must maintain their politically correct veneer to future proof their public image. So, they resist the temptation to reflect the current national mood by lowering their guard and speaking candidly.

Cherie Blair is untroubled by the inconvenience of such electoral dependency. So, when Evan Davis interviewed her on Newsnight, she had no qualms about discussing the free speech stifling agenda of her husband’s time in office, as she raised concerns that since then “we’ve given permission to people to say things, which [she] thought we’d stopped giving permission to say“. The “we” that she refers to being those with the power to write laws, as she continued to reference regulations that both New Labour and the EU had imposed, before explaining that “I’m not saying these laws necessarily change what people think, but what they do do is create a public space where things that are unacceptable are not said, and what seems to be a shame at the moment is that things that are unacceptable are being said”. I take issue with this, for two reasons…

First of all, the idea that we are not free to choose our own words but require “permission” from the government demonstrates a frighteningly authoritarian attitude towards the relationship between the state and the people. One of master and slave rather than free citizen and electoral representative. My words are just that; mine. As the owner of the mind that thought them up, and the mouth that spoke them or hand that wrote them, I take full responsibility for the consequences of expressing them. If I inadvertently cause offence and lose credibility among my peers, that is my problem. They remain my words, and I do not grant permission for Cherie Blair, or anyone else, to either choose them on my behalf or censor them in any way.

Secondly, while she is obviously disappointed that technology has not advanced enough to allow the Thought Police to control what goes on inside our heads, she was brazen about the ideological intent of creating the kind of ‘safe space’ that we see across university campuses and other public arenas today. Her choice of language when referring to the views that she would seek to ban from open discussion is telling. Apparently, some beliefs are simply “unacceptable” and should never be expressed. As acceptability is entirely subjective though, does anyone have the right to pass that judgement on your behalf?

Her words were unchallenged by Davis, offering a clear indication that we are numb to the state-enforced restrictions of everyday life. He also chose to ignore the hypocrisy as she waxed lyrical about our “open-minded and tolerant” society. The veiled caveat being that our minds should only be open to the thoughts that she judges to be acceptable, and our tolerance reserved for those that she deems worthy of sympathy. A pretence that reveals the patrician mentality of a woman that lives by the mantra ‘do as I say, not as I do’.

It is clear that the Blairs, and their network of friends in high places, are becoming increasingly worried about the spread of unauthorised opinions. They blame the uncontrollable Internet for a contagion of ideas, freely exchanged without prior approval. Rather than giving up though, they intend to find a cure by launching a new institute of Fabian propaganda to combat “the growing global forces of populism”, which they disparagingly view as ‘the tail wagging the dog’. The notion that politicians should listen to and respect the views of the citizens they represent, is beyond them.

So, despite the sense that proponents of free speech may be gaining ground in the battle of 2016, now is not the time for complacency, because we are definitely losing the war. At last week’s PMQs, Theresa May was asked to confirm that it is acceptable to speak openly about the highly controversial subject of Christmas. Incredibly, the (not so) Independent described her affirmative answer as “dog whistle” politics. This, just a week after Charles Walker MP was compelled to ask for clarification of the rules, after being confused by the treatment of Louis Smith, an Olympic gymnast that has received death threats and a ban from his sport, for poking fun at Islamic prayer while drunk at a private wedding reception. As he pointed out in the preamble to his question, while some are expected to “turn the other cheek”, others are awarded the special privilege of protection from anything that has the potential to offend. When did “sticks and stones”, a concept that we are all taught as children, stop being relevant?

Very few people would condone deliberate attempts to cause upset or to intimidate; but the ability to speak freely is essential for democracy to function properly. As Noam Chomsky put it, “if you believe in freedom of speech, you believe in freedom of speech for views that you don’t like. Goebbels was in favour of freedom of speech for the views he liked. So was Stalin.” And so too, it seems, is Cherie Blair!

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Photo from Cherie Booth. Creative Commons 2.0 Licence. No alterations made.