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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I'm playing sports again – but things just aren't cricket

I start the new season with red wine stains on my cap, a dodgy shoulder and a burnt nostril.

I’ve put my name up for the first match of the season, playing for that team of redoubtable cricketers, the Rain Men, named after their founder Marcus Berkmann’s book about a team of middle-aged and, er, “mixed-ability” players. The book was first published twenty years ago. Feel free to do some rudimentary maths.

I myself haven’t played for three years. I know this because when I go to get some new contact lenses – I don’t like the idea of running around in glasses, or having a cricket ball lodge them into my eyeballs – I am told I have not bought any since 2013. Yes, that would figure. I couldn’t play for much of 2013, and all of 2014, because two weekends a month I was busy with my children, and the other two I was busy with my lover. A game takes up a whole Sunday – one is committed, including travel and the post-match drink, for about ten hours, and that is too long to spend apart from your loved one, unless of course you are married or otherwise permanently settled and you see them all the time anyway.

In 2015 that restriction was lifted for me, but for some reason I spent that year being too sad to think about playing cricket and also far too unfit. I would occasionally walk long distances and do a few dozen desultory lifts of the dumb-bells in order to achieve even the beginnings of some kind of muscular definition, but in the end the lassitude took over and I thought that maybe the team, however ageing, could do without someone who gets a bit winded when walking down stairs.

Then a brief moment of optimism a couple of weeks ago, combined with a ray of what may possibly have been sunshine, inspired me to rejoin the fold. The team’s meticulously kept records, known among the members as “Sad Stats”, inform me that I have played only eight games for them; when one has played ten, one is eligible for a Rain Men cap, a properly made thing whose design and hooped colours are, in their air of having come from another age, seemingly designed specifically to enrage fast bowlers.

The cap I have says “Antigua, WI”. It’s a battered thing I bought on the island a few years ago, now stained, not sure how, with red wine, but which I will say is my own, fearlessly shed blood, should anyone ever ask. The idea is that, if I wear this cap, some idiot will think I have actually played for Antigua and am thus a force to be reckoned with. However, after a few deliveries, I suspect the opposition has decided that the “WI” stands for Women’s Institute rather than West Indies.

So I start my fitness training a week or so before the match. This involves a walk into town for dinner, followed by a single lift of the dumb-bells before I realise that The Thing That Is Wrong With My Right Shoulder is as bad as it was when it started, about a month ago. What is wrong with it? I can’t move my arm above shoulder height, but I can’t think of any strain I could have put on it. Can you get cancer of the shoulder?

Well, this rules out bowling, except bowling is already ruled out on the grounds that I can no longer bowl, even with a fully rotational shoulder joint. Which in our case we have not got, to quote Henry Reed’s “Naming of Parts”.

In the end, I confine my preparations to a few practice shots with the bat on the back terrace while listening to The Archers. Strangely, the bat seems to have put on a lot of weight since I last held it. I tried practising in front of the mirror in the living room, but as I can only see my head in it, this is not much use except for practising my face. On the terrace, I attempt a pull shot with a fag in my mouth, which clenches so as to make me burn my right nostril really rather badly. A week later, when I actually play, it is still sore to the touch.

As for the game . . . well, it’s an odd one. We manage to eke out a draw, and as for my own contribution, the less said about that, the better. But at least I don’t drop any catches and, even though it causes my shoulder agony, I stop a few balls in the field. The ground itself, however, is right in the shadow of the Didcot A power station, in whose ruins are still at least three bodies of the men who were caught there when it collapsed in February. Throughout the game, lorries tip their burdens of mangled metal on enormous scrapheaps. It puts things in perspective. But look in the other direction, and rapidly backwards and forwards the early bees are assaulting and fumbling the flowers. 

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 19 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Great Huckster