Let Lib Dems commit ‘tweetcrimes’

A Cabinet reshuffle done on a PR whim; an opposition leader stalking a US president in search of credibility… just when you think British party-political life has divested itself of enough political substance for this month, it only goes and empties a little more of itself out. Because get this: the Conservative Party has reported a Lib Dem MP to the police because he expressed a political opinion.

Yes, David Ward, Lib Dem MP for Bradford East, is not sharpest of political tools, but his tweeting over the past 24 hours has been an expression of his political views. ‘The big question is - if I lived in #Gaza would I fire a rocket? - probably yes’, he wrote on Tuesday. And then in a follow-up tweet, he tried on Kennedy cliché for size: ‘Ich bin ein #palestinian - the West must make up its mind - which side is it on?’

It’s not big, and it’s definitely not clever, but it is a genuine expression of Ward’s political views: he thinks Palestinians are being oppressed by the Israeli state (or ‘the Jews’, as he referred to it last year), and he thinks the West needs to come down hard on Israel. So far, so right on.

But what has been astonishing is the response of the Tories. Not only have they, like Labour, sought to make a big deal of Ward’s flight of imaginative sympathy after which he concludes that he, too, would be firing rockets at Israel if he was David Ward born in Gaza, now battling Israel, rather than David Ward born in Lincoln, and now boring in Bradford. No, the Tories have gone one depoliticising step further and suggested that Ward’s mal mots are not only a bit simple; they’re possibly illegal.

Tory minister Grant Shapps set the debate-flattening ball rolling when he declared that ‘No MP should tweet what’s essentially incitement to violence. Completely irresponsible.’ But he was upstaged by the decision of Tory MP Nadhim Zahawi to write to the Metropolitan police chief, Sir Bernard Hogan-Howe. ‘Freedom of speech is an important right, but it is not an unqualified one’, snivelled Zahawi. ‘Mr Ward’s tweets would appear to be prima facie evidence that he has committed the offence of encouragement of terrorism.’

‘Encouraging terrorism’? ‘Incitement to violence’? On Planet Westminster, where words are frequently deemed to be threats, perhaps this makes sense. But in the real world, there is more chance of Hamas tweeting ‘Ich bin ein #LibDem supporter’ than of there being a causal connection between a no-mark MP’s tweets and increased violence in Gaza. The charges levelled against Ward would be almost comical if their implications were not so serious. But so petty, so opportunistic, and so profoundly unpolitical has party-political life become that one brand of politician clearly thinks nothing of using free-speech-destroying terrorism laws to try to silence another brand of politician. It seems that one of the greatest threats to robust and open political debate now comes from politicians themselves.

Tim Black is deputy editor of spiked.

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