The inalienable right to talk rot

Has the world gone mad? First, two ministers resign because one lent money to the other. Now, the England football manager is sacked because he reveals his religious beliefs to a Times reporter. "GO", proclaimed the Sun's front page. The same day, Glenn Hoddle duly went. The Football Association, reported the Daily Telegraph, "bowed to a wave of public anger" (or, to be precise, telephone calls to FA headquarters that divided 60:40 against Hoddle). A man wearing a Liverpool shirt invaded the Royal Lancaster Hotel press conference to chant "Hoddle is a wanker" and was praised by the Sun for his "big-match grit". The Nationwide Building Society, the England team sponsor, was pleased that "the FA have acted decisively" (which was indeed a rare compliment to that most craven and weak-willed of organisations). Peter Stothard, the Times editor, said it had made "the right decision". So everybody was delighted: journalists had secured a famous scalp, politicians had put themselves in the moral right, football had cleaned up its image, the sponsors had steered clear of unpleasantness, and the whole baying media pack, after the thrill of the hunt and the build-up of hysteria, had celebrated the final, near-orgasmic moment of the kill.

There is a description for all this. It is mob rule. We may have thought that it belonged to other places and other times, but the British media, shamefully egged on by leading politicians, have revived it. Yet politicians are themselves the chief victims of a culture in which any unorthodox or clumsily expressed opinion can become a gaffe, leading overnight to public disgrace and the ruination of a career. Indeed, Tony Blair's own call for Mr Hoddle's dismissal was itself a kind of gaffe, if we are to believe Downing Street's confused version of events.

It cannot be said too often that the right to free speech does not stop at opinions with which we happen to agree. The test of a truly liberal society is its tolerance of views that may seem absurd or abhorrent to the large majority. The road to totalitarianism - the road to a society in which children inform on parents who make "incorrect" comments - begins with prime ministers lounging on lime-green television studio sofas, musing about what does or does not constitute an acceptable opinion. As it happens, Mr Hoddle's belief in reincarnation is shared by tens of millions of people throughout the world, and by a sizeable fraction of the British population. Their views on disability may not be precisely as he expressed them, but they are not so very far away. Is it so much more offensive to describe disability as a result of past errors - an offence that occurred only because Mr Stothard's newspaper chose to report the remarks - than it is to dismiss sincerely held religious beliefs as laughable or wicked?

Mr Hoddle may reasonably have been sacked earlier for betraying, in a recent book, what ought to have been confidential between a coach and his team. But his unusual beliefs have no bearing on his conduct as England football manager, as they would if they included a belief that Jews or blacks were in some sense inferior. Nobody suggested that the last Lord Chancellor was unfit to remake the laws of England because his church believes that the large majority of people will spend an eternity in hell. Nor do many people seem unduly perturbed that Mr Blair himself will send his daughter to a school run by a church that, according to the best theological opinion, puts the late Princess of Wales in the same predicament. Almost anybody's opinions, if probed long enough, can seem ridiculous or distressing.

Mr Hoddle is an inarticulate, unsophisticated man. In that, he is similar to most people who have made a living in professional sport, which requires, at an age when other young people are developing all facets of their personalities, a single-minded dedication to training and physical fitness. Such men would do best to stick to subjects they understand, but they should not be barred from prominent positions if they allow embarrassing opinions to slip out. Nor should a Marxist be barred because, offensively to the bourgeoisie, he advocates the dictatorship of the proletariat. Or a Conservative because, offensively to single mothers, he holds that they get pregnant in order to jump the queue for council flats. Free speech is not an optional extra for a democratic society: it is the bedrock of liberty, without which even the right to vote is largely pointless. It is also indivisible, applying as much to the stupid, misguided and wicked as to anyone else. If new Labour leaders truly wish to claim the best of English liberalism, they need to understand that.

This article first appeared in the 05 February 1999 issue of the New Statesman, The New Statesman Essay - Think, think and think again