Ministers’ mixed messages on freedom and rights

By Savi Hensman
October 1, 2014

The UK government may limit free speech for law-abiding members of minority communities in order to defend British values such as free speech and respect for minorities, home secretary Theresa May has threatened.

The Home Secretary was speaking at the Conservative Party conference. Earlier speakers had pledged yet more cuts, which will further undermine economic and social rights. Her talk raised grave concern about the protection of political rights.

Prejudice and narrow-mindedness can be found among people of all religions and none and should indeed be challenged. Yet the measures she outlined left many worried, including senior figures in her own party.

She attacked Liberal Democrats for their stance against mass electronic surveillance, calling them “outrageously irresponsible, because innocent people are in danger right now. If we do not act, we risk sleepwalking into a society in which crime can no longer be investigated and terrorists can plot their murderous schemes undisrupted.”

"We utterly reject the allegation that the blocking of the Communications Data Bill has put lives at risk,” the Liberal Democrats – who are in coalition with the Tories – stated afterwards. "Police already have the ability to obtain data in urgent cases where lives are in danger.”

They accused her of “peddling misinformation in a vain attempt to get the so-called ‘Snooper’s Charter’ back on the table.”

In her speech, May also declared that “I want to see new civil powers to target extremists who stay just within the law but still spread poisonous hatred,” announcing banning orders and ‘extremism disruption orders’.

But laws already exist against hate speech and abusive and insulting words and pictures aimed at harassing others. This raises questions about how loosely the ‘non-violent extremism’ she targets might be defined, as well as the level of evidence required before someone’s freedom is severely restricted.

“All British people – including British Muslims – are free to practise their faith,” she claimed, but living in a pluralistic society brings responsibilities as well as rights. “You don’t just get the freedom to live how you choose to live. You have to respect other people’s right to do so too. And you have to respect British values and institutions. The rule of law. Democracy. Equality. Free speech. And respect for minorities.”

Government ministers’ respect for equality has not been obvious during the conference. Earlier, chancellor George Osborne announced further social security cuts to some of the poorest, including working families hit by soaring rents and low pay. Ernst and Young recently warned that middle-income earners face three more years of falling wages – in all a “lost decade” of real wage growth.

Yet in May the Sunday Times announced that in the past five years, amidst the economic crisis, the combined wealth of Britain’s thousand richest people doubled to £519 billion.

It would appear that free speech too is under threat, in ways that may provoke anger and weaken the rule of law.

New measures could "simply fuel resentment", warned former attorney general Dominic Grieve. "If there is to be any restriction on the freedom of expression outside the criminal law – we have to tread very carefully," he told the BBC.

Many in Britain will assume that it is only their neighbours who might be targeted – until they are affected themselves. Unless public awareness of what is as stake increases, hard-won liberties and advances may be lost.


© Savitri Hensman is a widely published Christian commentator on politics, welfare, religion and more. An Ekklesia associate, she works in the equalities and care sector

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