Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

Lord Monson: My Lords, barely 48 hours ago I arrived back from India where, incidentally, for part of the time my wife and I were guests of a Muslim family with whom we have been friends for almost 50 years; so not until yesterday did I realise that this debate was taking place today. I congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Knight, not only on her speech but on her immaculate timing. The Motion speaks of the recent developments affecting freedom of speech. I shall confine my remarks, given the time constraints, to the spoken word.

It is true that matters have grown much worse recently under this Government. However, it must be said that the rot started to set in over four decades ago. I was lucky enough to grow up in an era when traditional British freedom of speech was by and large a reality. The same applies to my contemporary, the noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, who is not in his place at the moment; although he may interpret matters differently—we shall soon know. Of course, that was offset by tighter restrictions on other forms of expression: the theatre was still under the absurd and anachronistic thumb of the Lord Chamberlain; films were more heavily censored than today, albeit largely in line with public opinion at that time; and books were sometimes censored, notably Lady Chatterley's Lover, although in practice it was not difficult to find ways and means of getting around the bans.

Provided that they did not shout obscenities in public or encourage others to cause physical harm to persons or property, people could say pretty much what they liked in private homes, pubs, clubs, the workplace or on a soapbox. During my teens, my parents lived not far from Marble Arch, and I used to enjoy going to Speaker's Corner. One heard every sort of rant: communist, Trotskyite, Mosleyite and religious zealotry of every hue. There was plenty of heckling, both witty—the most effective kind—and angry, but no one tried to stop the other person saying his piece. People argued and argued fiercely with their opponents, but they did not try to gag them; and rightly the police stayed well away. Even during the understandable mass demonstrations over the Suez misadventure, neither demonstrators nor counter-demonstrators tried to silence the other.
 
9 Feb 2006 : Column 854
 

Then came the 1960s. By that, I do not mean the physical decade starting on 1 January 1960 but the cultural and sociological phenomenon that ran from mid-1962, I would say, until the end of 1974—although Philip Larkin famously put the start date six months later. Ostensibly, it was a time of glorious liberation, and in some respects that was true. However, unfortunately, nonconformity soon became the new conformity, as far as the younger generation was concerned. Opponents of the Zeitgeist were barely tolerated. Above all, political opponents were no longer to be engaged in intelligent argument but to be silenced altogether, in true Maoist style.

It first became apparent during the demonstrations over the Cuban missile crisis and reached its peak during the Vietnam war. "Uncle" Ho Chi Min was virtually worshipped by most students and by what we now call the chattering classes. Of the well known commentators, only Bernard Levin and Kingsley Amis had the courage to stick up for the South Vietnamese anti-communists, many of whom were later to become the boat people. When the anti-communists booked Kensington town hall to put their case—calmly, to an invited audience—they were besieged by a mob of screaming fanatics and forced to flee.

Next came the Californian eccentricity of political correctness, which, before long, spread throughout the English speaking world—including Australia, of all unlikely places—and which further constrained free speech. So far, the Government cannot be directly blamed for all this, except perhaps for enthusiastically endorsing excesses of political correctness. However, recently we have seen some extraordinary developments—for example, as has been mentioned, the law that severely restricts protests within one kilometre of Parliament, despite the fact that no corresponding restrictions apply to protests outside the White House in Washington, as I have observed. This law caught a woman who was doing nothing worse than reciting the names of the war dead.

Next, the Prime Minister himself, no less, was investigated by the police for remarking, in private, that the Welsh were a pain in the backside. Actually, he used much stronger language that cannot be repeated in the House. The police were similarly diverted from their rightful tasks of chasing burglars and car thieves into investigating, as the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham said, moderate criticisms of homosexual practices made by, among others, the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Chester, the author Lynette Burrows and Dr Iqbal Sacranie, a prominent Muslim—even though the comments were entirely legal.

One cannot help suspecting that senior police officers fear that their chances of appointment and promotion will be lessened unless they pursue new Labour's PC agenda with the utmost zeal, whether or not the law actually dictates it. That is an unsatisfactory, and even dangerous, state of affairs.
 
9 Feb 2006 : Column 855
 

4.23 pm

Lord Soley: My Lords, I also congratulate the noble Baroness on introducing the debate, although I suspect that the agenda might have moved on a little from what she had in mind when she originally tabled the Motion.

I do not share her rather dismal view of the present situation or that of the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham, not least because freedom of expression flows deep in all types of British veins—we ought to be proud of that—and also because I have seen many arguments over individual issues come and go. The noble Baroness, Lady Knight, will recall that when she was a Member of the then government party in the House of Commons and I was on the Opposition Benches, she strongly defended the banning of Sinn Fein from appearing on any radio or TV station anywhere. That was the first time that we had banned the elected representatives of a political party from appearing in the press.

I remember the miners being summoned and arrested for selling copies of the Miner for precisely the same reason, incidentally, as the lady in Downing Street—because there were rules about getting police permission before doing so. I have reservations about that, but that was done for that reason. I simply say—I shall give way to the noble Baroness, if she wishes me to—that such issues come and go, and we can and do deal with them in both Houses of Parliament. That is not the fundamental problem that is challenging us today. That is what I should like to move on to, but I happily give way.

Baroness Knight of Collingtree: My Lords—

Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton: My Lords, were the noble Baroness to intervene now, there would be no time for her to say anything at the end of the debate.

Lord Soley: I thought I was going to get injury time, my Lords.

Religious leaders are leaning over backwards to try to build bridges, but something very important has happened over the past 10 or 15 years. I do not accept the idea of a change of climate so much as a radical shift from a clash between political ideologies—communism on one side, led by China and the USSR, as it was, and on the other western Europe and the United States—to a clash between religious belief systems. These ideologies—they are both forms of ideology to me as a non-religious person—produce an intense belief that people are prepared to fight for and die for. Religious wars are no better than political wars if you get into that ideological struggle. It has been one of my arguments for some time that, when a political ideology declines, a religious ideology often emerges to replace it, and vice versa. There is a lot of evidence for that in various parts of the world at various times.

In the present climate—my noble friend Lord Dubs was right about this—we have to defend freedom of speech very powerfully. That does not mean that you exercise it without thought and consideration for other
 
9 Feb 2006 : Column 856
 
people. I have the freedom to make faces at my neighbour; I do not do it—it would not be sensible to do it. Similarly, if you are going to exercise freedom of speech, you have to ask yourself about the way in which it will impact on the people who may suffer from its consequences.

I was struck by what the noble Lord, Lord Monson, said. He is absolutely right: there were many examples of slight erosions, as they were regarded, of freedom of speech many years ago. That is why I say that it is not new, aside from the ideological clash. In the 1940s particularly, a real problem with freedom of speech was that, if you were from an ethnic minority, you had to suffer abuse—real abuse. The noble Lord talked about being politically correct, but the laws were introduced to protect a minority. Of course, you can define a democracy as the majority will, but if you ignore the rights of the minority, you have a very poor democracy, and I think that that is part of the equation.

If I am right about the clash of religions, it is important that we in the West understand that the argument is largely within Islam. It has to be within Islam. We can talk about what we would like, but in a real sense there is a struggle within Islam, a struggle over modernisation. My strong belief is that the modernisers will win. The vast bulk of Muslim opinion is strongly in favour of freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom of belief, democracy and the rest. If we recognise that, we recognise something important.

The other part of the problem has to do with two events in the past week or so that have made the noble Baroness's debate so important. On one hand, there was the provocation by a group of extremist Islamists carrying placards urging the killing of other people and so on. On the other hand, Nick Griffin of the BNP walked out of court saying that Britain was like Bosnia. Britain will be like Bosnia only if the extremists of that Islamic group or of the BNP actually win. It is our job—our duty—to make sure that they do not.

The police probably did the right thing in not arresting the people carrying placards last week, but I very much hope that they follow this up. There is profound danger if we allow things like that, which provoke the rest of the population and open up the divide on race and religion again. That is what produces real danger for all of us and poses a real danger to freedom of speech, not some of the lesser issues that we can deal with in the normal course of events.


Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page