Irreligious freedom

Should the right not to be offended have a place in the statute book?

Despite its recent, ahem, troubles, the Equality and Human Rights Commission is determined to press ahead with what its chair, Trevor Phillips, referred to as its "mission" in an article in Saturday's Guardian. But while setting out his agenda for the autumn, Phillips briefly mentioned one proposal that made me pause. "There will be new work," he wrote, on "hate crime against . . . religion and belief."

Why the hesitation? Who could object to stronger protection from intimidation, physical attack or bullying on these grounds? The problem is that the Racial and Religious Hatred Act 2006 already goes considerably further than that in its references to "threatening" words, behaviour, written material and public performance of a play. As Liberty warned at the time: "Criminalising even the most unpalatable, illiberal and offensive speech should be approached with grave caution in a democracy."

Defenders of the act can point to Section 29J, "Protection of freedom of expression", which makes it clear that:

Nothing . . . shall be read or given effect in a way which prohibits or restricts discussion, criticism or expressions of antipathy, dislike, ridicule, insult or abuse of particular religions or the beliefs or practices of their adherents.

Further evidence of the act's innocent effect may be found in the paucity of prosecutions under the legislation to date, the charging last month of a former BNP candidate with incitement to racial hatred being a rare exception.

But there are two serious points to be made about this. First, the act's seeming toothlessness can hardly be said to be in its favour. If it is supposed to prevent the likes of Rowan Laxton, the head of the Foreign Office South Asia Group (since suspended), from shouting "Fucking Israelis" and "Fucking Jews" while exercising in his gym, as he is alleged to have done this February, then one must hope the prosecution is successful in bringing him to trial this month. (Many feel that his comments should have earned him dismissal and ostracism, but not prosecution. That, however, is an argument for the act's repeal, not in favour of our government producing legislation that turns out to be unenforceable.)

Second, what the act has contributed to, intentionally or not, is a climate in which the boundaries protecting free speech are slowly being pushed back without anyone ever discussing, agreeing, let alone legislating, that they should be moved. Not long before the act was passed, performances of Bezhti, a play by the British writer Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti, were cancelled by Birmingham Repertory Theatre after hundreds of Sikhs protested at its depiction of rape and murder in a Sikh temple.

Worse was the response of Shirley Williams -- a woman whose political life has been at the coalface of liberal causes -- when asked on Question Time in 2007 about the decision to award a knighthood to Salman Rushdie. It was a "mistake", she said, because he was a man who had "deeply offended Muslims in a very powerful way". You didn't have to concur with Christopher Hitchens's view of religion to approve of his rebuke: "I think that's a contemptible statement and everyone who applauded it should be thoroughly ashamed of themselves."

This is the real worry about further "work" in this area: that well-meant legislation on hate crimes ends up giving force to a new right not to be offended that has not, and should not have, any place on the statute book. This may surprise readers who saw my column introducing this blog. Did I not castigate Sebastian Faulks for his comments on the Quran? I do indeed deplore his careless, thoughtless and offensive remarks. I don't think he should have made them. But I would never, ever, deny his right to have done so. So I look forward with interest to the EHRC's plans. When they meet, matters of opinion, belief and the law intersect in the most dangerous way. Great caution is required in policing this.

Sholto Byrnes is a Contributing Editor to the New Statesman
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Theresa May is paying the price for mismanaging Boris Johnson

The Foreign Secretary's bruised ego may end up destroying Theresa May. 

And to think that Theresa May scheduled her big speech for this Friday to make sure that Conservative party conference wouldn’t be dominated by the matter of Brexit. Now, thanks to Boris Johnson, it won’t just be her conference, but Labour’s, which is overshadowed by Brexit in general and Tory in-fighting in particular. (One imagines that the Labour leadership will find a way to cope somehow.)

May is paying the price for mismanaging Johnson during her period of political hegemony after she became leader. After he was betrayed by Michael Gove and lacking any particular faction in the parliamentary party, she brought him back from the brink of political death by making him Foreign Secretary, but also used her strength and his weakness to shrink his empire.

The Foreign Office had its responsibility for negotiating Brexit hived off to the newly-created Department for Exiting the European Union (Dexeu) and for navigating post-Brexit trade deals to the Department of International Trade. Johnson was given control of one of the great offices of state, but with no responsibility at all for the greatest foreign policy challenge since the Second World War.

Adding to his discomfort, the new Foreign Secretary was regularly the subject of jokes from the Prime Minister and cabinet colleagues. May likened him to a dog that had to be put down. Philip Hammond quipped about him during his joke-fuelled 2017 Budget. All of which gave Johnson’s allies the impression that Johnson-hunting was a licensed sport as far as Downing Street was concerned. He was then shut out of the election campaign and has continued to be a marginalised figure even as the disappointing election result forced May to involve the wider cabinet in policymaking.

His sense of exclusion from the discussions around May’s Florence speech only added to his sense of isolation. May forgot that if you aren’t going to kill, don’t wound: now, thanks to her lost majority, she can’t afford to put any of the Brexiteers out in the cold, and Johnson is once again where he wants to be: centre-stage. 

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