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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Nightmare journeys, plumbers against the EU and the danger of life in the Labour Bubble

The slogan of the conference was “Straight talking, honest politics” but the real theme was modernisers v Corbynites.

The first full day of Labour conference felt like the universe’s way of backing Jeremy Corbyn’s criticisms of privatisation and unregulated markets. First came the unwelcome discovery that engineering works had left delegates with a choice between a local stopping service to Brighton and the three most feared words in the English language: rail replacement bus. I picked the former, and spent the next two hours staring out of the window at the seemingly endless green fields of the South Downs. (Anyone who complains about Britain being an overdeveloped concrete jungle clearly never gets the train.) Andy Burnham, now shadow home secretary, took the bus – and tweeted at the end of his “nightmare journey” that he was “ready to clap loudly when Jeremy mentions rail renationalisation”.

When I arrived in Brighton, there was another unpleasant surprise: the host of our Airbnb rental was nowhere to be found, and unreachable by phone. As I stood in an alleyway, hammering the door like an estranged spouse in an EastEnders Christmas special, suddenly the “disruptive” sharing economy didn’t look so appealing. Eventually, I gave up and found a hotel.


Lynchian mob

The slogan of the conference was “Straight talking, honest politics” but the real theme was modernisers v Corbynites. With the exception of a few loose cannon on either side, these skirmishes were camouflaged, as the centrists acknowledge that Jeremy Corbyn’s mandate is such that he is untouchable in the short term.

As Ed Miliband’s pollster James Morris observed, this made it feel like a David Lynch production: “everything seems normal, fringes tick on, members upbeat. But there is sadness and rage underneath.”

The most obvious change is that the modernisers have begun to show passion and conviction when articulating both their ideas and their personal attachment to the party. They have dropped the complacency that came with being the establishment, a move which, one MP admitted to me, was long overdue. “Those of us in the centre have a duty to be radical, too,” he observed.

This battle of ideas is exciting (something conference badly needed) but it does mean more arguments and more hurt feelings, because everyone feels there is something existential at stake. At the New Statesman party, Chuka Umunna – a politician whose easy self-assurance sometimes seems borderline robotic – spoke emotionally about a new member who told him at a fringe event she was afraid to speak in case she was “accused of being a Tory”. It’s a widely held but little expressed view, even among MPs.

The challenge now for the centrists is to reframe the battle. At the moment, it feels like a contest between principles (on the left) v competent, compromising, bloodless managerialism (at the centre) rather than a fight between two competing ideologies. “Your ideas won’t win an election” is no substitute for “our ideas are better”.


Bursting bubbles

If I sound grumpy, it’s because being shouted at (both virtually and in the real world) about my status as an emissary of the Evil Mainstream Media is beginning to grate. Inveighing against the “Westminster Bubble” has the benefit of truth – politicians and the media do often have more in common than either does with the average voter – combined with the power of an ad hominem attack. It suggests that the speaker’s opinion is worthless because of their personal circumstances, which removes the need to listen to their words. For that reason, it has become a thought-terminating cliché, used too often by people who are in bubbles of their own.

In Brighton, I did a Radio 5 show where an audience member castigated us for insufficient enthusiasm for the new political dawn whose effects were apparently being felt everywhere. There was simply no polite way to say that Brighton – with its Green MP and its record as the first city to elect a Green-led council – was not an accurate bellwether for left-wing enthusiasm in the nation as a whole. The “Labour bubble” can be just as stifling as the Westminster one.


Sour plumbs

Another bucket of cold water came at my next fringe on how Labour can win back working-class voters. John Healey, now shadow minister for housing, pointed out the scale of the challenge: it needs to win 94 additional seats in 2020 to secure a majority of one, including many where the Ukip vote was larger than the Tory majority.

Polly Billington, Labour’s defeated candidate in the Essex seat of Thurrock, said that immigration and cleaning up the streets were the two issues most raised on the doorstep. She said something else that Labour should reflect on as the debates about EU membership roll on: free movement of people “is great if you want a plumber; it’s less good if you are a plumber”.


The houses that Jez could build

Huge credit is due to Corbyn for seizing upon housing so early in his leadership and appointing a dedicated ministerial team. Labour has not, until now, had an effective counter-offer to Help to Buy and the extension of Right to Buy, nor has it been able to capitalise on the Conservatives’ lack of interest in the problems of private renters.

The area should be an open goal for Labour: the forced sell-off of housing association properties will make council waiting lists rocket, according to Shelter, while more of their budgets will be swallowed by expensive temporary accommodation. All the Tory waffle about the revenue from the sell-off being used to fund more housebuilding is deluded: since 2012, for every nine homes sold off under the reinvigorated Right to Buy, just one has been built or started. In the north-west, 1,264 homes have been sold. How many replacements have been built? Two. 

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide