In response to the ‘Trojan horse’ schools scandal, in which academies in Birmingham were caught inculcating in pupils something possibly Islamist, education secretary Michael Gove asserted that everyone in British society must start promoting British values. But given that the lustre of God, Queen and Country has dimmed somewhat since Victoria popped her clogs, defining what exactly British values are has proved rather difficult. Which is why UK pollsters ComRes decided to ask the British public what they thought.
And what did the public say? Warm beer and village cricket? Winding roads and red pillar boxes? Monarchy and a sense of humour? No, the overwhelming winner of this contest was free speech. That’s right: at a time when other voguish but nebulous ideas on ComRes’s list - such as equality, fairness and tolerance - are parroted by a seemingly endless supply of quangocrats and hackademics, 48 per cent of those surveyed still opted for freedom of speech as the most important ‘British value’.
It’s a pity, then, that British politicians are seemingly incapable of heeding such a positive public sentiment. Of course, they say they support free speech; and they never shrink from an opportunity to associate themselves with it. But they don’t really believe in it. Free speech is great, they think, just so long as what is being said or expressed is within certain acceptable boundaries.
I’d go further than that: in the mind of Britain’s political class, free speech is never an absolute, never a fundamental, founding freedom upon which other freedoms, from the freedom to associate to the freedom of the press, are grounded. No, free speech has become a mere thing among other things, an idea on the marketplace of ideas, a ‘value’ to be balanced with and traded off against other ‘values’ (the economic nomenclature is telling). That’s why it’s never absolute or universal today; because, as a value, it can be decreased, limited, with some portion of it sold off in return for some other ‘value’, be it a contemporary notion of ‘tolerance’ or ‘respect’ or ‘security’. In the hands of politicians, free speech is exchangeable, swappable, not fundamental or indivisible.
Across the party-political spectrum, politicians always use the same logic and sometimes the same language of ‘balancing’ values whenever they talk about freedom of speech. In 2009, David Miliband, Labour’s then foreign secretary, justified the banning of Dutch anti-Islam politician Geert Wilders on the grounds that ‘We have a profound commitment to freedom of speech, but there is no freedom to cry “fire” in a crowded theatre and there is no freedom to stir up hate, religious and racial hatred, according to the laws of the land’. In other words, a ‘profound commitment’ to free speech needs to be balanced with a seemingly equally profound commitment to protecting people from forms of hatred.