Britain is no stranger to liberty. Indeed, many of the same freedoms Americans so cherish saw their inception in the UK. It’s the home of parliamentary democracy and classical liberalism—but that legacy has been fading rapidly over the past few decades as increasingly the British government has taken it upon itself to police words.
Legislation restricting free speech came to a head in 2003, when the Communications Act banned all online posts that cause “annoyance, inconvenience or needles anxiety to another.” And since then, things have only gotten worse.
The Times newspaper revealed in 2017 that the British police had detained and questioned over 3,300 people the previous year for posting “hate speech” online. That was a rise of nearly 50 percent from 2014 to 2015.
The British government busily justifies those arrests by defining hate speech in broad terms—including any verbal comments “perceived” as offensive by self-identifying victims. Coupled with the vague language of the Communications Act, virtually any controversial comment posted on the internet could be incriminating.
One high-profile “hate speech” conviction a few months ago didn’t even involve speech. YouTuber Count Dankula was convicted of a hate crime for publishing a video of his dog performing a Nazi salute—a video he insisted was intended as a joke and not an endorsement of Nazism. He was fined £800 ($1,117).
Back in 2014, Scottish police launched an active social media witch hunt for offensive speech, tweeting: “Please be aware that we will continue to monitor comments on social media & any offensive comments will be investigated.”
The consequences of British freedom’s cultural and legal erosion are dire. “It’s hard to believe this is the home of Milton, Swift, and Mill,” Toby Young, associate editor of the pro-liberty magazine Quillette, told me. Young has himself been a high-profile target of those who actively seek the demise of Britain’s classical liberal credentials. He resigned from a government-appointed role with the Office for Students last year after an angry online mob—opposing his ideas for education reform—leveled old tweets against him.
On campus, speech restrictions have become all too common. According to Spiked’s 2017 university rankings, 63.5 percent of British universities actively censor speech. They do this both by banning external speakers and regulating the types of speech that students themselves are allowed to use.
These extensive regulations are self-imposed, following organically from existing speech restrictions enshrined in British law. Young points to “speech codes and workplace practices enforced by the growing army of ‘diversity and inclusion’ officers, particularly in large corporations and public bureaucracies” as examples of voluntary censorship.
Indeed, a core tenet of today’s left-wing ideology is that there are severe injustices in society furthered by speech, which the government has a chief role in rectifying. This idea has become a sweeping fire that’s burned its way through Britain.
John Stuart Mill wrote about the importance of the competition of ideas in his book On Liberty. “If all mankind minus one, were of one opinion, and only one person were of the contrary opinion,” Mill wrote, “mankind would be no more justified in silencing that one person, than he, if he had the power, would be justified in silencing mankind.” Of course, many of the ideas expressed by those charged with hate speech aren’t good. Yet society can only advance if those are challenged openly, rather than suppressed through imprisonment and fines.
Instead they’re under threat of being silenced. “For those who value intellectual freedom and are proud of Britain’s history as a defender of free speech and a safe haven for political dissidents, the cultural dominance of the puritanical Left is profoundly depressing,” Toby lamented.
The negative reports did succeed in pressuring the government to make it a fineable offense for universities to ban visiting speakers. But this is merely one of the measures that need to be taken up if Britain is to once more become a liberal society. As it stands, the chokehold on free speech has helped create a sad cultural orthodoxy.
Britain made a bold declaration when it voted to leave the European Union—and many Brits are looking for their nation to return to its former glory as a home for liberty. As the days until it decamps from the EU grow ever fewer, Parliament ought to take the opportunity to push for legislation that will roll back the current oppressive speech regime.
Liberal Britain’s decline is tragic because it was self-imposed. Brexit offers the opportunity to reevaluate the UK’s new place in the world and what role liberalism should play in that place. The British must make the most of their renewed autonomy once they leave the EU—by reclaiming the liberal heritage that once made them great.
Tamara Berens lives in the UK and studies at King’s College London. She is a Young Voices Free Society Fellow, and writes about free speech, Brexit, and political activism. You can find her on Twitter @tamaraberens.