Why we should smash this intellectual forcefield

Jacqui Smith’s desire to protect Britons from extremist foreigners is patronising, impractical and illiberal.

Nathalie Rothschild

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Topics Free Speech

A former Ku Klux Klan grand wizard, a Muslim preacher who endorses suicide bombings and claims 9/11 was a Jewish conspiracy, the leader of an extremist separatist Jewish settler group, a Baptist pastor who pickets AIDS victims’ funerals, Russian skinheads who beat up immigrants and post videos of the attacks online…

These may not be the kind of people you’d invite round for dinner, but should they be banned from entering the UK?

The home secretary, Jacqui Smith, thinks so. Delivering on a promise made last year, the Home Office yesterday ‘named and shamed’ 16 out of 22 people who have been banned from entering Britain since October 2008 on the grounds that their presence is not ‘conducive to the public good’. (The Home Office withheld the names of the other six excluded individuals, on the basis that it is not in the ‘public interest’ to make them known.)

The number of people barred from Britain on the grounds that they might ‘stir up tension’ has risen from an average of two a month to five a month since October 2008. Between 2005 and 2008, a total of 230 people deemed by the government to pose a threat to the public were prevented from entering Britain. About 80 of them were so-called Muslim ‘preachers of hate’; the others included animal rights protesters, anti-abortion activists and neo-Nazis. Hip-hop artist Snoop Dogg and lifestyle guru Martha Stewart have also been denied UK visas because they have criminal convictions.

The government’s ‘least wanted list’, published yesterday, is a curious melange of cranks, violent thugs, racists and controversialists. It is hard to see what the American ‘shock jock’ and Muslim-basher Michael Savage has in common with Muslim preacher and Hamas MP Yunis Al Astal. And what links does former Ku Klux Klan man Stephen Donald Black, who set up the racist and anti-Semitic website Stormfront, have with the American-born Jewish settler Mike Guzovsky, who runs the Jewish Legion? Why should the father and daughter leaders of Westboro Baptist Church, who have claimed that the deaths of American soldiers in Iraq are a punishment for US tolerance of homosexuality, be lumped together with Artur Ryno and Ravel Skachevsky, the leaders of a Russian skinhead gang who are currently in prison?

These people are being held up as representatives of ‘unacceptable attitudes’ by the British government. Smith has said that she decided to make public the names of 16 banned individuals so that people can better understand what sort of behaviour Britain will not tolerate.

In other words, this is a symbolic blacklist, and the clamping down on extremist views is in large part a moral posture, a way of sending a message that the government is tough on ‘hate crimes’. It is also a way of telling the rest of us how we should behave and what it is acceptable to think and believe. But you can’t stop views and ideas from crossing national borders, and if the government was to take the new measure to its logical conclusion then anyone already here who endorses views similar to the personae non gratae on the ‘least wanted’ list should be expelled from Britain, too.

The plan to keep out anyone fostering extremism or hatred is impractical and unworkable. But more importantly, it is extremely illiberal. The government is crossing the line between criminalising deeds and criminalising words. In saying that the ‘privilege of coming to Britain’ should not be extended to individuals ‘who abuse our standards and values to undermine our way of life’, Smith is effectively suggesting that British values include compromising freedom: you are only allowed to say and do what is acceptable according to government decree. The government says it is targeting only those likely to ‘stir up tension’. But ‘stirring up tension’ is the prerogative of any political campaign which aims to protest against government policies, to challenge injustices or to change society. In the name of sidelining some nasty individuals, the government is also taking pot shots at everyone’s liberty to make trouble, challenge the status quo, and create tension.

The war on tension-stirrers is really a displacement activity. Rather than addressing serious political problems at home, such as officialdom’s failure to socialise or integrate certain minorities, the government prefers to point its finger at cranky foreigners, accusing them of wanting to warp ‘our youth’. Uncertain of its own values and outlook, and its ability to convince the public of the New Labour way of life, the government desperately tries to outlaw anyone from overseas who pushes the boundaries of legitimate political discussion.

Our political leaders apparently feel helpless and dumbfounded in the face of ranting bigots. And they are projecting this helplessness on to us, the public, who they see as vulnerable, impressionable and easily offended. Instead of allowing us the freedom to hear and contest ideas in the open, Smith and the rest think it is easier simply to ban extremist views out of existence and to put a forcefield around Britain in the hope that certain ideas will not pollute the nation. That the blacklist published yesterday has been nicknamed Britain’s ‘least wanted’ list signals the government’s resignation when it comes to challenging individuals they deem to be a threat to British society. They don’t want to go after them in a battle of ideas – they simply want to wish them away.

Smith has said that the blacklisted individuals had ‘clearly overstepped the mark’. Most of us do not care much for those who deny the Holocaust, assault immigrants, demonise medical researchers, preach the virtue of massacring infidels or claim that ‘God hates fags’. But it is in all our interests to defend the freedom to ‘overstep the mark’: the right to say, think and believe anything should be the cornerstone of any civilised society.

Nathalie Rothschild is commissioning editor at spiked.

Previously on spiked

Brendan O’Neill looked at the case of Dutch bigot Geert Wilders and wondered whether Abu Izzadeen was guilty of the crime of talking bollocks. Tim Black pointed out that Britain is not a crowded theatre. Amir Butler suggested Britain avoid the Australian error of trying to legislate against hate. Josie Appleton thought deporting clerics would solve nothing. Or read more at spiked issue Free speech.

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Topics Free Speech