Reason Trumps intolerance – for now
Joe Arthur reports from the parliamentary debate on banning The Donald.
If there’s one thing to take away from Monday’s UK parliament debate on banning Donald Trump, it’s that paternalism is alive and well among Britain’s so-called left. The only support for the ban came from certain Labour and SNP MPs, while the Conservatives who spoke opposed it. Though Cameron’s Tories have hardly been stalwart defenders of freedom – the Home Office banned offensive rapper Tyler, The Creator from the country just last year, and have banned others too – in this debate, at least, they played the part.
Labour MP Jack Dromey, formerly on the executive of the National Council for Civil Liberties (now Liberty), proclaimed, without any sense of irony, that Trump – whose plan for a ‘shutdown’ of Muslim immigration sparked the petition to ban him – shouldn’t ‘be allowed within 1,000 miles of our shore’. Tulip Siddiq berated Trump’s ‘poisonous’ ideas, proclaiming it the duty of MPs to ‘protect the public from people such as this’. To whom was she referring? Was it the millions of teenagers who have laughed at videos of Trump shared virally on social media? Or the Muslims who are obviously too vulnerable to be able to confront him with ridicule when he arrives in the UK?
Many expressed pride for the tolerant climate the UK offers towards all people, whatever their creed or colour. Conservative Victoria Atkins, who labelled Trump a ‘wazzock’, lambasted the patronising politics of Siddiq, questioning whether British minds were really so weak that they needed to be protected from the words of a billionaire buffoon. Atkins, a former criminal lawyer, reminded the room that individual autonomy is paramount. The idea that one man’s rhetoric could spontaneously bypass a person’s autonomy and force them to commit heinous acts, she said, was complete nonsense.
Fighting bigotry with censorship is utterly counterproductive, and many MPs pointed out that banning Trump from the UK would only fuel Trump’s campaign. Labour’s Paul Flynn warned of crowning Trump with ‘a halo of victimhood’, while Kwasi Kwarteng decried the potentially ‘spectacular own-goal’ which the authoritarians were proposing. The proud independence of Americans in the face of condemnation is well understood. But the naive belief that banning Trump was a purely British decision, that would have no impact on international affairs, was also worryingly prevalent.
The most depressing contribution of all came from the SNP’s Anne McLaughlin, who claimed, with a straight face, that ‘Enlightenment values’ should lead us to conclude that we should ban Trump. In essence, she was saying the government should promote freedom and tolerance by punishing someone for not upholding them. A complete contradiction in terms.
Noble oppositions to the ban thankfully outweighed the support: Sir Edward Leigh insisted that ‘in a free country, you have the right to offend people’; Tom Tugendhat championed the importance of open debate, and mentioned spiked’s Free Speech University Rankings. Tugendhat spoke out against the politics of panic, reminding the attendees that the office of US president does not give despotic power to the incumbent: Trump’s plans to ban Muslims and close mosques are incompatible with the First Amendment, and would inevitably be opposed by Congress.
Several speakers made clear that challenging ideas in public debate is the best way of exposing intolerant views. Lucy Fraser noted the collapse of the BNP after Nick Griffin’s appearance on Question Time, and the fact that France has the most popular far-right party in Western Europe, despite having the most restrictive laws against speech. Labour MP Naz Shah suggested inviting Trump to the mosques in her Bradford West constituency. And, in other humorous exchanges, some members suggested that we, the British people, should ‘roast the bigot’ and allow Trump to be humiliated at the hands of formidable BBC interviewer Andrew Neil or put on the panel of Have I Got News For You.
What was lacking in the debate, however, was any challenge to the government’s existing powers to ban people on the basis of their beliefs. The home secretary has unilateral power to ban certain individuals from the UK if they are deemed not to be ‘conducive to the public good’. Even the libertarians in the room made no challenge when immigration minister James Brokenshire proudly declared that Theresa May had personally banned more ‘hate preachers’ than any previous home secretary.
One Tory MP decried the very existence of the debate. There were more important things parliament could be discussing, he suggested. But this missed the point. It is precisely the conflict of ideas that allows us to challenge intolerance and allows reason to triumph. Indeed, leaving the debate, I felt satisfied that reason had, for the moment, prevailed.
Joe Arthur is a spiked intern.
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