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.

Photo: Getty
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Who'll win the Richmond Park by-election?

There are three known unknowns that will decide the contest. 

It’s official: Zac Goldsmith has resigned as the Conservative MP for his Richmond Park seat, and has triggered a by-election there, where he will stand as an independent candidate.

Will it be a two-way or a three-way race?

The big question is whether the contest will be a three way fight between him, the Liberal Democrat candidate Sarah Olney, and an official Conservative candidate, or if CCHQ will decide to write the thing off and not field a candidate, making it a two-horse race between Goldsmith and Olney.

There are several Tory MPs who are of the opinion that, given that latitude to disagree on Heathrow has been granted to two Cabinet ministers, Boris Johnson and Justine Greening, similar leeway should be extended to Goldsmith. It’s win-win for Downing Street not to contest it, partly because doing so would put anti-Heathrow MPs, including Johnson and Greening, in an impossible position. Theresa May isn’t averse to putting Johnson in a tricky spot, but Greening was an early supporter of her leadership bid, so her interests come fairly high up the prime ministerial radar.

But the second reason not to contest it is that Goldsmith’s chances of re-election will be put in a serious jeopardy if there is a Tory candidate in the race. Everything from the local elections in May or the Liberal mini-revival since Brexit indicates that in a three-way race, they will start as heavy favourites, and if a three-way race results in a Liberal Democrat win there will be bloodletting.

Although people are talking up Goldsmith’s personal vote, I can find little hard evidence that he has one worth writing home about. His performance in the wards of Richmond Park in the mayoral election was actually a bit worse than the overall Tory performance in London.  (Boris Johnson didn’t have a London seat so we cannot compare like-for-like, but Sadiq Khan did four points better in Tooting than he did across London and significantly outperformed his general election performance there.) He did get a big swing from Liberal to Conservative at the general election, but big swings from the Liberal candidate to the Tory were a general feature of the night, and I’m not wholly convinced, given his performance in Richmond Park in 2016, that it can be laid at Goldsmith’s door.

If he wins, it’ll be because he was the Conservative candidate, rather than through any particular affection for him personally.

But will being the Conservative candidate be enough?

Although on paper, he inherits a healthy majority. So did Robert Courts, the new MP for Witney, and he saw it fall by 19 points, with the Liberal Democrats storming from fourth to second place. Although Goldsmith could, just about, survive a fall of that magnitude, there are reasons to believe it may be worse in Richmond Park than Witney.

The first is that we already know, not just from Witney but from local council by-elections, that the Liberal Democrats can hurt the Conservatives in affluent areas that backed a Remain vote. But in Witney, they barely squeezed the Labour vote, which went down by just over two points, or the Green vote, which went down by just under two points. If in Richmond Park, they can both damage the Tory vote thanks to Brexit and squeeze Labour and the Greens, they will win.

Goldsmith's dog-whistle campaign for the London mayoralty will particularly help squeeze the Labour vote, and thanks to Witney, the Liberal Democrats have a ready-made squeeze message. (In Witney, Green and Labour votes would have been more than enough to elect Liz Leffman, the Liberal candidate.)

But their good performance in Witney and Goldsmith's mayoral result may not be enough on their own.  Ultimately, the contest will come down to the big question that will decide not just the outcome in Richmond Park but the future of the Liberal Democrats.

Have the voters forgiven the Liberal Democrats for going into coalition?

We know that Brexit can help the Liberal Democrats at the direct expense of the Conservatives. What we don’t know is if Brexit is enough to convince 6,000 Labour voters in Bath to vote tactically to get Ben Howlett out in exchange for a Lib Dem, or for 7,500 Labour voters to back a Liberal candidate in Hazel Grove to defeat William Wragg.

One of the reasons why the Liberal Democrats lost votes directly to the Tories in 2015 was fear: of uncertainty and chaos under an Ed Miliband government propped up by the SNP. That factor is less live in a by-election but has been further weakened due to the fact that Brexit – at least as far as Remain-backing Conservatives are concerned – has brought just as much uncertainty and chaos as Miliband and the SNP ever would have.

But the other reason was disgust at the Liberal Democrats for going into coalition with the Conservatives. If they can’t win over enough votes from the parties of the left, we’ll know that the party still has a way to come before we can truly speak of a Liberal revival. 

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