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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Why it's far too early to declare Ukip dead

The party could yet thrive if Brexit disappoints those who voted Leave.

"Nothing except a battle lost can be half as melancholy as a battle won," wrote the Duke of Wellington after Waterloo. Ukip can testify to this. Since achieving its founding aim - a British vote to leave the EU - the party has descended into a rolling crisis.

Theresa May's vow to pursue Brexit, and to achieve control of immigration, robbed Ukip of its political distinctiveness. But the party's greatest enemy has been itself. Its leader Paul Nuttall did not merely lose the Stoke by-election (despite the city recording the highest Leave vote), he self-destructed in the process. Contrary to his assertions, Nuttall did not achieve a PhD, was never a professional footballer and did not lose "close personal friends" at Hillsborough. Ukip's deputy Peter Whittle pleaded last weekend that voters needed more time to get to know Nuttall. No, the problem was that they got to know him all too well. A mere three months after becoming leader, Nuttall has endured a level of mockery from which far stronger men would struggle to recover (and he may soon be relieved of the task).

Since then, Ukip's millionaire sugar daddy Arron Banks has threatened to leave the party unless he is made chairman and Nigel Farage is awarded a new role (seemingly that of de facto leader). For good measure, Farage (a man who has failed seven times to enter parliament) has demanded that Ukip's only MP Douglas Carswell is expelled for the crime of failing to aid his knighthood bid. Not wanting to be outdone, Banks has vowed to stand against Carswell at the next election if the dissenter is not purged. Any suggestion that the party's bloodlust was sated by the flooring of Steve Woolfe and Diane James's 18-day leadership has been entirely dispelled.

For all this, it is too early to pronounce Ukip's death (as many have). Despite May's ascension and its myriad woes, it has maintained an average poll rating of 12 per cent this year. This is far from its 2014 zenith, when it polled as high as 25 per cent, but also far from irrelevancy. Incapable of winning Labour seats itself, Ukip could yet gift them to the Conservatives by attracting anti-Tory, anti-Corbyn voters (in marginals, the margins matter).

Though Theresa May appears invulnerable, Brexit could provide fertile political territory for Ukip. Those who voted Leave in the hope of a radical reduction in immigration will likely be dismayed if only a moderate fall results. Cabinet ministers who boasted during the referendum of their desire to reduce immigration have already been forced to concede that newcomers will be required to fill vacancies for years to come. Ukip will be the natural vehicle for those aggrieved by Brexit "betrayal". Some Leave voters are already dismayed by the slowness of the process (questioning why withdrawal wasn't triggered immediately) and will revolt at the "transitional period" and budget contributions now regarded as inevitable.

The declarations of Ukip's death by both conservatives and liberals have all the hallmarks of wishful thinking. Even if the party collapses in its present form, something comparable to it would emerge. Indeed, the complacency of its opponents could provide the very conditions it needs to thrive.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.