If you burn a Quran, yes, you should go to jail

To defend actions of this sort on the basis of free speech is to miss the point.

If you burn a Quran you should go to jail. Do not pass Go. Do not collect £100.

Sorry if that sounds a bit intolerant. Brashly illiberal. But these happy arsonists who think it's a giggle to torch a religious text and screw the consequences aren't averse to a bit of brash intolerance themselves.

Actually that's not right. It's not that they're averse to the consequences. They're all too aware of them. Social division and disorder are the ends, a box of matches, jerrycan of petrol and Waterstone's discount card the means.

At the weekend the BNP joined the list of those endorsing this particularly pernicious branch of DIY. The Observer was passed a video showing a "Sion Owens, 40, from south Wales and a candidate for the forthcoming Welsh Assembly elections, soaking the Quran in kerosene and setting fire to it".

The reaction from the Welsh police was swift: "We always adopt an extremely robust approach to allegations of this sort and find this sort of intolerance unacceptable in our society." Owens was arrested, charged and subsequently released, though he was informed that "investigations were continuing and that "almost certainly other proceedings will ensue".

Good. Nicking Nazi pyromaniacs is what I want my police to be doing. It's what we all want our police to be doing, isn't it?

Apparently not. According to Alex Massie in the Spectator, "even goons and other dreadful people have rights and these should include the right to burn books in their garden". And the Tory MEP Daniel Hannan believes that burning the Quran "makes you a dummkopf, not a criminal . . . Some other countries fight false ideas with the force of law. We should fight them with truth."

Actually Daniel, we should fight them with both.

Think of a motive

Those who defend Quran-burning on the basis of free speech miss the point. For a start, it's not free. It requires someone to go out, buy a book, buy petrol (not even cheap at the moment, never mind free), light it, film the whole thing and then distribute the proceedings to whatever little clique they call their friends, or more widely on YouTube or some other "social" medium. This is an overt, conscious action, motivated by malign intent. It is not the product of open, free-spirited discourse, but an aggressive, premeditated provocation.

Nor is it actually speech. It's not opening a dialogue or building an argument. Quite the opposite. It's a deliberate act of destruction; the destruction of a dialogue and argument constructed by others. If you don't like Islam, fine. Write a book about why. Don't burn one.

Those who see the heavy hand of the law as a disproportionate response to this act of bibliophobia are themselves losing perspective.

It's not just the action, it's the consequences. We know what Quran-burning leads to. In the past couple of weeks it has resulted in innocent people being murdered and maimed. It's increased the threat to British and western troops serving overseas. It's boosted the Taliban and other terrorist organisations.

If our laws do not exist to prevent people from deliberately engaging in actions and activity that incite others to murder, propagate international terrorism and lay the seeds of civil disorder, what are they for?

We have laws to protect a book's copyright. We have laws to protect the intellectual rights of the person who wrote and published it. But we shouldn't have laws to prevent that book being treated in a manner that leads to half a dozen people being decapitated?

Hannan writes that anyone who burned a Quran would argue that they are "not to blame for any bloody consequences and, in a sense, this is true: any retaliation will be entirely the responsibility of its perpetrators". But the law does not hold to account solely those who perpetrate the final criminal act. That's why it's not just illegal to use a firearm, or drugs, but also illegal to supply them.

Brag all about it

There are always difficulties in drawing a line between rights and responsibilities, but Quran-burning seems a good place to start.

There's an old saying that free speech doesn't extend to running into a theatre and shouting, "Fire!"

Personally, I think it depends on context. I haven't got a problem with someone doing that, so long as there's no one else in there, or it's a production by Tim Rice.

It's the same principle. If you have a desperate urge to put the Quran, or any other book, to the flame, and you do so in genuine privacy, then I suppose there's nothing I or anyone else can do about it, because we won't be any the wiser.

But if you brag about it, or taunt others with it, or use it as a weapon to prosecute your war of intolerance and prejudice, don't be surprised if you suddenly find a few members of Her Majesty's Constabulary on your doorstep.

You know the game that you're playing. Please spare us the crocodile tears when you lose.

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John McDonnell interview: "We’re going to destroy Osborne’s credibility"

The shadow chancellor on the Spending Review, Jeremy Corbyn's leadership and why trade unions will have to break the law. 

When I interviewed John McDonnell in March, before the general election, he predicted that Labour would be the largest party and confessed to a “sneaking feeling that we could win a small majority – because I think the Tory vote is really soft”. As the long-standing chair of the Socialist Campaign Group, McDonnell anticipated leading the resistance inside Labour to any spending cuts made by Ed Miliband. Eight months later, he is indeed campaigning against austerity – but as shadow chancellor against a Conservative majority government.

I meet McDonnell in his new Westminster office in Norman Shaw South, a short walk down the corridor from that of his close friend and greatest ally, Jeremy Corbyn. The day before George Osborne delivers his Spending Review and Autumn Statement, his desk is cluttered with economic papers in preparation for his response.

“The message we’re trying to get across is that this concept of the Tories’ having a ‘long-term economic plan’ is an absolute myth and they’re in chaos, really in chaos on many fronts,” he tells me. McDonnell points to the revolt against cuts to tax credits and policing, and the social care crisis, as evidence that Osborne’s programme is unravelling. On health, he says: “He’s trying to dig out money as best as he can for the NHS, he’s announced the frontloading of some of it, but that simply covers the deficits that there are. Behind that, he’s looking for £22bn of savings, so this winter the NHS is going to be in crisis again.”

Asked what Labour’s equivalent is to the Tories’ undeniably effective “long-term economic plan” message, he said: “I don’t think we’re going to get into one-liners in that way. We’ll be more sophisticated in the way that we communicate. We’re going to have an intelligent and a mature economic debate. If I hear again that they’re going to ‘fix the roof while the sun shines’ I will throw up. It’s nauseating, isn’t it? It reduces debate, intellectual debate, economic debate, to the lowest level of a slogan. That’s why we’re in the mess we are.”

Having abandoned his original support for the Chancellor’s fiscal charter, which mandated a budget surplus by 2020, McDonnell makes an unashamed case for borrowing to invest. “The biggest failure of the last five years under Osborne is the failure to invest,” he says. “Borrowing at the moment is at its cheapest level, but in addition to that I’m not even sure we’ll need to borrow great amounts, because we can get more efficient spending in terms of government spending. If we can address the tax cuts that have gone ahead, particularly around corporation tax, that will give us the resources to actually start paying again in terms of investment.”

He promises a “line-by-line budget review” when I ask whether there are any areas in which he believes spending should be reduced. “My background is hard-nosed bureaucrat . . . we’ll be looking at where we can shift expenditure into more productive areas.”

From 1982 until 1985, John McDonnell, who is 64, was chair of finance at the Greater London Council under Ken Livingstone. After vowing to defy the Thatcher government’s rate-capping policy he was sacked by Livingstone, who accused him of manipulating figures for political purposes. “We’re going to look like the biggest fucking liars since Goebbels,” the future mayor of London told him. McDonnell, who later described Livingstone’s account as “complete fiction”, has since resolved his differences with the man now co-chairing Labour’s defence review.

After his election as the MP for Hayes and Harlington in 1997, McDonnell achieved renown as one of New Labour’s most vociferous opponents, rebelling with a frequency rivalled only by Corbyn. His appointment as shadow chancellor was the most divisive of the Labour leader’s reshuffle. “People like Jeremy even if they don’t agree with him. People don’t like John,” one MP told me at the time. Mindful of this, McDonnell has sought to transform his image. He has apologised for his past praise of the IRA and for joking about assassinating Margaret Thatcher, rebranding himself as a “boring bank manager”. But there are moments when his more radical side surfaces.

He told me that he supports workers breaking the law if the trade union bill, which would limit the right to strike, is passed. “It’s inevitable, I think it’s inevitable. If the bill is introduced in its existing form and is used against any particular trade unionist or trade union, I think it’s inevitable that people will resist. We established our rights by campaigning against unjust laws and taking the risk if necessary. I think that’s inevitable and I’ll support them.”

“Chaos” might be how McDonnell describes Osborne’s position but the same term is now daily applied to Labour. The party is riven over air strikes in Syria and the renewal of Trident and MPs are ever more scornful of Corbyn’s leadership.

While Corbyn has so far refused to offer Labour MPs a free vote on Syria, McDonnell says that he favours one and would oppose military action. “My position on wars has always been that it’s a moral issue and therefore I veer towards free votes . . . We’re waiting for Cameron’s statement; we’ll analyse that, there’ll be a discussion in shadow cabinet and in the PLP [Parliamentary Labour Party] and then we’ll make a decision. I’m still in a situation where I’ve expressed the view that I’m opposed to the bombing campaign or engagement. I think the history of the UK involvement in the Middle East has been a disaster, to say the least . . .This isn’t like the Second World War where you have a military campaign – you defeat the enemy, you sign a peace agreement and that’s it – this is asymmetric warfare. In addition to the risks that are in the battlefield there’s a risk in every community in our land as a result of it.”

Would he want any of the 14 former shadow cabinet members who refused to serve under Corbyn to return? “All of them, we’re trying to get them all back. We’ve got Yvette [Cooper] helping us on a review we’re doing about the economy and women . . . It’s an open door policy, I’m trying to meet them all over these next few weeks.”

Livingstone, a member of Labour’s National Executive Committee, recently called for Simon Danczuk, who revealed details of a private meeting with Corbyn in the Mail on Sunday, and Frank Field, who told me that MPs should run as independents if deselected, to be disciplined. But McDonnell takes a more conciliatory line. “With Simon [Danczuk] in particular and the others, it’s just a matter of saying look at the long-term interests of the party. People don’t vote for a divided party. They’ll accept, though, that within a party you can have democratic debate. As I said time and time again, don’t mistake democracy for division. It’s the way in which you express those different views that are important. All I’m saying is let people express their views, let’s have democratic engagement but please don’t personalise this. I think there’s a reaction within the community, not just the party, against personalised politics. It’s not Jeremy’s style, he never responds in that way. It’s unfortunate but we’ll get through it. It’s just minor elements of it, that’s all.”

McDonnell disavows moves by some in Momentum, the Corbyn-aligned group, to deselect critical MPs. “What we’re not into is deselecting people, what we want to try and do is make sure that everyone’s involved in a democratic engagement process, simple as that.

“So I’ve said time and time again, this isn’t about deselection or whatever. But at the same what we’re trying to say to everybody is even if you disagree, treat each other with respect. At the height of the debates around tuition fees and the Iraq war, even though we had heated disagreements we always treated each other with mutual respect and I think we’ve got to adhere to that. Anyone who’s not doing that just lets themselves down, that’s not the culture of the Labour Party.”

In private, the 90 per cent of MPs who did not support Corbyn’s leadership bid speak often of how and when he could be removed. One point of debate is whether, under the current rules, the Labour leader would automatically make the ballot if challenged or be forced to re-seek nominations. McDonnell is emphatic that the former is the case: “Oh yeah, that’s the rule, yeah.”

McDonnell’s recent media performances have been praised by MPs, and he is spoken of by some on the left as a possible replacement if Corbyn is removed or stands down before 2020. His speech to the PLP on 23 November was described to me by one shadow minister as a “leadership bid”. But McDonnell rules out standing in any future contest. “No, no, I’ve tried twice [in 2007 and 2010], I’m not going to try again, there’s no way I would.”

Despite opinion polls showing Labour as much as 15 points behind the Conservatives, McDonnell insists that the party can win in 2020. “Oh definitely, yeah, you’ll see that. I think this next year’s going to be pivotal for us. We’re going to destroy Osborne’s credibility over the next six months. But more importantly than that, we can’t just be a negative party . . . we’re going to present a positive view of what Labour’s future will be and the future of the economy.

“Over the next 18 months, we’ll be in a situation where we’ve destroyed the Tories’ economic reputation and we’ve built up our own but we’ll do it in a visionary way that presents people with a real alternative.”  

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.