An issue for Clareification

Controversial cartoons and free speech

It’s been two weeks since the Mohammed cartoons, first printed in September 2005 in a Danish national paper, were reprinted in Clareification, the student magazine of Clare College, Cambridge, and there’s still no word on the fate of the publication’s editor. The unnamed student has left Cambridge for security reasons. Students and staff are not commenting on the disciplinary proceedings underway at college against him but it seems likely the student will either be held back a year or expelled. What he’s guilty of is unclear.

The cartoon, like all bad satire, felt maliciously intended and was a rip-off of a Private Eye gag that stopped being funny around 1983. The issue (a copy of which was difficult to obtain after the senior tutor at Clare ordered them all to be destroyed) was dedicated to religious satire. One part is a lengthy break down of the contradictions of Mark’s gospel, copies of which are being given out for free by the Christian Union as part of their ten day series of talks on Christianity. If someone has said they found this offensive, it’s not been reported.

Mocking Christian evangelism is good sport for atheists and agnostics, who constitute the majority of the student population here. If one is accused of being anti-Christian for this, one can cite the Christian Union’s intrusive zeal for conversion and claim it isn’t their Christianity but their tactics one’s attacking. Even if this pale defense didn’t exist, we’d probably still do it because being anti-Christian or being accused of it (two things between which there is rarely a correlation) doesn’t have the stigma of being held to be hostile to Islam.

The decision on what to do with the editor won’t rest on his right to free speech, proclaimed in a press release by the National Secular Society, or the principle that one shouldn’t offend another’s religion, as the Vice-President of the Cambridge Islamic society implied. It will depend on whether the body that will decide is brimming with cowardice.

The phrase ‘I’m offended by that’ is popular for the awkward pauses it creates and the impression someone’s point of view is a social gaffe it infers. The only considered response to it is – so what? So long as we are all theoretically capable of choosing to believe in any religion at any moment, none of them can be beyond discussion in any form by anyone. Anything said to the contrary is meaningless pandering.

We’ll have to stomach a lot of vulgarity and rubbish to make sure this principle weathers the social tensions we experience. If the decision is taken to expel a student merely for printing something crass, that student will have been by sacrificed by people he doesn’t know to solve a situation no one grasps. If they do this they will be saying ‘we don’t know what anti-Islamism is but we’re afraid of being accused of it’. No one’s offence weighs more than anyone else’s and living with free speech means, from time to time, we will all get offended.

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Theresa May's U-Turn may have just traded one problem for another

The problems of the policy have been moved, not eradicated. 

That didn’t take long. Theresa May has U-Turned on her plan to make people personally liable for the costs of social care until they have just £100,000 worth of assets, including property, left.

As the average home is valued at £317,000, in practice, that meant that most property owners would have to remortgage their house in order to pay for the cost of their social care. That upwards of 75 per cent of baby boomers – the largest group in the UK, both in terms of raw numbers and their higher tendency to vote – own their homes made the proposal politically toxic.

(The political pain is more acute when you remember that, on the whole, the properties owned by the elderly are worth more than those owned by the young. Why? Because most first-time buyers purchase small flats and most retirees are in large family homes.)

The proposal would have meant that while people who in old age fall foul of long-term degenerative illnesses like Alzheimers would in practice face an inheritance tax threshold of £100,000, people who die suddenly would face one of £1m, ten times higher than that paid by those requiring longer-term care. Small wonder the proposal was swiftly dubbed a “dementia tax”.

The Conservatives are now proposing “an absolute limit on the amount people have to pay for their care costs”. The actual amount is TBD, and will be the subject of a consultation should the Tories win the election. May went further, laying out the following guarantees:

“We are proposing the right funding model for social care.  We will make sure nobody has to sell their family home to pay for care.  We will make sure there’s an absolute limit on what people need to pay. And you will never have to go below £100,000 of your savings, so you will always have something to pass on to your family.”

There are a couple of problems here. The proposed policy already had a cap of sorts –on the amount you were allowed to have left over from meeting your own care costs, ie, under £100,000. Although the system – effectively an inheritance tax by lottery – displeased practically everyone and spooked elderly voters, it was at least progressive, in that the lottery was paid by people with assets above £100,000.

Under the new proposal, the lottery remains in place – if you die quickly or don’t require expensive social care, you get to keep all your assets, large or small – but the losers are the poorest pensioners. (Put simply, if there is a cap on costs at £25,000, then people with assets below that in value will see them swallowed up, but people with assets above that value will have them protected.)  That is compounded still further if home-owners are allowed to retain their homes.

So it’s still a dementia tax – it’s just a regressive dementia tax.

It also means that the Conservatives have traded going into the election’s final weeks facing accusations that they will force people to sell their own homes for going into the election facing questions over what a “reasonable” cap on care costs is, and you don’t have to be very imaginative to see how that could cause them trouble.

They’ve U-Turned alright, but they may simply have swerved away from one collision into another.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

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