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Free Speech Liberalism is Dying in Its Birthplace

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 [1] 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 [2] 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.

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One high-profile “hate speech” conviction a few months ago didn’t even involve speech. YouTuber Count Dankula was convicted [3] 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 [4] £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 [5] against him.

On campus, speech restrictions have become all too common. According to Spiked [6]’s 2017 university rankings, 63.5 percent of British universities actively censor speech. They do this both by banning [7] external speakers and regulating [8] 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 [9] 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 [10].

8 Comments (Open | Close)

8 Comments To "Free Speech Liberalism is Dying in Its Birthplace"

#1 Comment By We The People On January 29, 2019 @ 4:02 pm

There’s a clampdown here, too, both from the left and the right.

The left wing threat to free speech is well known to conservatives.

Less well known is that corrupt right-wing politicians are catering to their big Israel donors by stripping native born Americans of freedom of speech and other civil liberties.

In the middle of the government shutdown, for example, Marco Rubio, instead of focusing on reopening the US government, pushed for legislation to stop Americans from criticizing Israel.

The FBI regularly lists Israel (along with Russia and China) as one of the top national security espionage threats to the US. Now, probably in part because we haven’t imprisoned or executed Israeli spies recently, and we haven’t yet subjected Israeli meddling in our political process to the kind of scrutiny Russia is getting, Israel has become a threat to our basic liberties. And it is conducting similar anti free speech campaigns in Canada and Europe.

#2 Comment By Tom Cullem On January 29, 2019 @ 5:22 pm

This, of course, all traces back to opening the floodgates to immigration and insisting that multiculturalism is the alpha and omega of all societies of all sizes at all times in every corner of the planet (that is, assuming the host country was majority white; when it isn’t, maintaining proud heritage is the goal).

Britain is a ruined country. Modernity doesn’t serve all cultures equally well. Britain’s individual character and values was its real strength. When Tony Blair decided to “rub the establishment’s nose in diversity”, he failed to perceive that he was also pushing the very culture that gave him everything he had off the cliff of history with the sort of ideological certainty that fate and history love turning on its head.

Britain will never regain what it has lost – not least the broad respect for law that was a notable feature of Britain’s character – and what it replaced its lost culture with is inferior.

#3 Comment By Michael Kenny On January 30, 2019 @ 7:53 am

This is silly. EU membership has nothing to do with hate speech laws. Prohibition of hate speech is part of modern European culture and is the “legacy” of the Nazi regime. The Nazis used hate speech to “normalise” hatred of Jews, with the consequences we all know. No one want to see anything like that happen again in Europe, be the victims Jews or anyone else. Essentially, Ms Berens is trying to ram American ideas down our European throats. One might call that cultural racism! For what it’s worth Ms Berens also blogs at the Times of Israel.

#4 Comment By Rossbach On January 30, 2019 @ 11:07 am

“It is intolerable to us that an erroneous thought should exist anywhere in the world, however secret and powerless it may be.”

-George Orwell, 1984

The UK has a policy of perpetual mass Third World immigration (population replacement, really). Such mass immigration precludes assimilation and requires, instead, multiculturalism (now called “diversity”). Multiculturalism, in turn, requires rigid standards of political correctness (now called “civility” or “civil speech”) so that no minority group member need fear “discrimination”. Evidently, the people of Britain to do not consider the loss of their personal freedom to be too high a price to pay for these wonderful benefits.

#5 Comment By prodigalson On January 30, 2019 @ 2:35 pm

Great quote I heard somewhere: “The UK polices everything…except for crime.”

#6 Comment By Mark B. On January 30, 2019 @ 6:52 pm

What a ridiculous turn this article takes when the EU comes up. The EU had/has nothing to do with British laws restricting freedom of speech. The Brits did and do not need Brexit to change those laws. Suggesting otherwise is pure desinformation. And ‘a bold decision to return to the former days of glory’? Man, speaking of moralistic therapeutic nationalism: LOL.

Actually, the Brits are about to discover that their membership of the Eu was exactly what still gave them whatever ‘glory’ was left for them. After Brexit, they will discover their true place in the world the hard way.

#7 Comment By Tom Cullem On January 31, 2019 @ 5:55 pm

@ Mark B. Britain didn’t achieve one iota of “glory” inside the EU, just a profitable membership in a trading bloc with a highly inflated vision of its importance on the world’s economic stage. The EU is and was always meant to be a Franco-German project, which the UK never fir comfortably and was always something of an anomaly. “Glory” was never the point: business was. The UK won about 8% of its positions in the EU.

It is, in fact, Europe that will lose what’s left of what was once a magnificent culture through bureaucratic control, as it coldly engages in cultural erosion and ethnic replacement. The “permanent migrant quotas” a scheme that failed this time, was a classic example of the overreach of control the EU is interested in achieving.

In fact, it is Britain’s courage in sticking two fingers up to the EU in a way no other nation has dared to do, that reminds people why it was the last man standing in Europe in 1940.

The EU is a political entity, like the USSR and the Third Reich and the Ottoman Empire – all of which ended eventually. The EU is papering over its massive problems, mostly flowing out of its own failures, short-sightedness, and imperial mindset.

One day, it too, will be gone. Britain will still be there.

#8 Comment By Mark B. On February 1, 2019 @ 12:57 pm

@ Tod Cullem

We agree about the meaning of glory. Hence my inverted commas. I meant power in geopolitics (glory) and it is my opinion that membership of the EU has given the British the opportunity to punch above their weight in geopolitics the past decades.

We also agree that the EU has the Franco-German alliance at it’s core and that Britain always was something of an anomaly. I prefer the term saboteur once in a while and like you I say ‘good riddance’.

I disagree with you on your swollen language (…magnificent culture, cultural erosion and ethnic replacement, imperial mindset…). While I do think immigration must be controlled, I do not engage in doom scenario’s about Europe’s demise because of it. Because while it creates problems, it also creates vitality and energy. And growth.

Yeah, yeah, WW2. Well, at least you did not mention Agincourt and Wellington. That’s what I mean with moralistic therapeutic nationalism. Speaking of which, the Scots are having a taste of it as well. Are you sure Britain will still be there long after Brexit as Great Britain or the UK as we know it today? Better watch Scotland closely the coming time.

Of course the EU is a political entity. So is the UK. So is the US. And the comparison with the USSR, the Ottoman Empire and espescially the Third Reich is wrong and shamefull. Need I remind you that every member state of the EU is a member state voluntarily and one can get out when one wants (Brexit, remember?) Are you saying that was also the case with Hitler and Stalin?