The principles of freedom

Liberty is indivisible. Our commitment to it is not tested by easy cases: a fair trial for a middle-class Anglo-Saxon accused of driving offences; or a fair hearing for a critic of foundation hospitals or top-up fees. We are tested by hard cases: the potential terrorist who threatens to kill hundreds or even thousands; or the playwright whose work seems to insult deeply held religious beliefs. On such criteria, we often turn out to be less liberal than we thought we were. That is true not only of the Birmingham Sikhs who violently and successfully demanded the cancellation of a play that included murder and rape in a temple. Nor is it true only of a Labour government that locks up foreigners without trial and continues to defy the overwhelming verdict of the law lords that it is wrong to do so.

When Madame Tussaud's introduced a nativity tableau that depicted David and Victoria Beckham as Mary and Joseph, Christian outrage was followed by vandalism. Salman Rushdie has spent years under 24-hour police guard because he wrote a novel that seemed, to many Muslims, blasphemous. An apparently terrified Daily Mail once ran a grovelling apology because it had published a pictorial image of the Prophet Muhammad, an act that is forbidden by the Muslim faith. The Dutch film-maker Theo van Gogh was murdered in Amsterdam in November because he dramatised violence against Muslim women. Almost incredibly, an associate editor of Index on Censorship argued that van Gogh had brought his fate on himself. And indeed the left often ties itself into all kinds of censorious knots over what is and is not acceptable language on, say, women, gay people, Muslims or the disabled, while some people in public life are in such a muddle that they seem determined to restrict expressions of Christian faith lest they offend other faiths.

Religion, it may be argued, can touch the core of a person's identity and a community's culture. But religious faith is no more deserving of special protection, even from an artistic presentation that is intended to outrage, than any other set of beliefs. On the contrary, it is precisely because religion is so bound up with a community's culture - and may therefore seem an oppressive force to some members of that community, as it clearly did to Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti, the Sikh author of the play staged in Birmingham - that we should allow artistic expression on the subject to push the boundaries.

None of this is to deny that there should be limits to free speech - as when insults to, say, Islam become generalised insults to Muslims and these, in turn, shade into racism. However, the presumption, if we are truly liberal, should always be in favour of free expression; the hurdle for censorship should be placed high. The same applies to the hurdle for suspending normal civil liberties and imprisoning foreigners without trial. Here again, there is a streak of the tyrant in all of us. Those who now applaud the law lords would be in the forefront of those berating ministers, the police and the security services for inaction if Britain suffered mass casualties in a terrorist attack, and some would no doubt accuse the authorities of deliberately allowing the attack to happen - rather as happened in America after 9/11.

As always in politics, it is largely a matter of trade-offs. If restrictions on liberty in Britain are thought likely to prevent terrorist attacks, they are preferable to bombing other countries where terrorist leaders are said to lurk. If the authorities believe that an individual is dangerous - but lack conclusive evidence that can be presented in public - tagging, surveillance or house arrest are still violations of liberty, but less so than imprisonment. If the best evidence is from telephone taps, let us swallow our reservations and allow it to be presented in open court. If compulsory identity cards can help, let us embrace them. But the basic principle - that everyone is entitled to due process - should stand. Legal safeguards should be suspended only when there is "a state of public emergency threatening the life of the nation", said one judge, Lord Hoffmann. No such emergency was apparent to him. Ministers may say they have seen evidence not available to Hoffmann or to the rest of us , but they said exactly the same about Iraq's WMDs. They and their advisers in the security services were mistaken then, and they are just as likely to be mistaken now. It is in the nature of evidence that is kept away from public scrutiny and, therefore, from informed criticism, that it often turns out to be wrong. Worse, it can lead to lazy policing and therefore put us all in greater jeopardy.

The government, we are told, wants to protect us against people who "hate our way of life". It is strange to do so by undermining one of our society's fundamental principles.

An unsexy New Year

After David Blunkett's resignation, Sir Alan Budd's inquiry into his conduct (see John Kampfner, page 10) and further revelations of Kimberly Quinn's love life, it may seem eccentric to nominate the decline of sex as a likely feature of 2005 (see pages 30-36). But think about it. Barely a decade ago, the idea that royalty engaged in anything other than monthly, marital sex in the missionary position seemed thrilling. Now adulterous and promiscuous royal sex seems unremarkable and dull. We crave news of gay affairs, group sex, sadomasochism, cross-dressing, and so on. The same will now apply to politicians and journalists; indeed, straight sex must be deeply unfashionable if there is so much of it going on at the Spectator. As more boundaries are broken, the only way to keep ahead, as some of our writers argue, is through worship of one's own body. This will certainly be bad news for most of Mrs Quinn's lovers.