Blair’s crackdown on freedom is an inspiration to tyrants
If you looked behind David Cameron at yesterday’s Question Time, you would have noticed something odd. Several MPs were wearing similar and very garish ties, decorated with the kind of motif you might see on a pavement on a Saturday night. This Jackson Pollock baby-vomit neckwear was, in fact, a sign of respect.
It was to mark the passing of our colleague Eric Forth, the knuckle-dustered and fob-watched libertarian Tory, whose death is being mourned by people more deeply than they might have expected while he was alive.
We suddenly feel the loss of Eric, because we realise that he represents a strain of politician that is in danger of extinction, the man who believes that it is his job to say whatever he damn well pleases, the man who gets into the old crate marked “Free Speech”, lets off the handbrake, revs it up, and then takes it to quite terrifying speeds.
It is with awestruck admiration that I learn how this free-marketeer dealt with a tearful constituent, who told him she could not afford to live in her childhood area. Eric told her to move to a “grottier part of town”. He defended the right of Gerry Adams to speak at British universities, not because he in any way sympathised – far from it – but because he saw that repression of free speech was the action of tyrants.
In his rebarbative cynicism, his mordant clarity, he represented an authentically British school of politics, of a kind that is found hardly anywhere else in the world; and we forget how strange and precious his approach can seem to foreign eyes.
I can’t say I deeply regret the containment in Parliament Square of Brian Haw, the father of seven, anti-war loony who used to bellow at me on my bicycle. Call me finickety, but I thought his posters and general gubbins were a disgrace and spoiled the look of the place; and yet he also, like Eric, represented something dementedly British, and we should remember the impact he must have had on the world’s television audiences as they watched the prime ministerial cavalcade sweep past.
There he was, one of the most powerful men in the world, joint toppler of Saddam, barrelling past in his tint-windowed armour-plated Blairmobile; and yet every time Blair or any of us passed by, the British state was so weirdly generous that it allowed this Haw fellow to yodel his imprecations from his ragged throne; and now his freedoms have been lessened.
In the global village, people will notice, and in a small way it will make a difference. Across the world, Britain still stands for a certain idea of liberty, a particular concept of the relationship between the citizen and the state. The tragedy is not so much that this reputation is being lost, but that we are collaborating in its destruction.
I have been talking to Agnes Callamard, who leads a free speech charity called Article 19, and she tells me that wherever she now goes on her missions, she finds a shocking new phenomenon. She has just been to the Maldives, where the government is engaged in active repression of the press, shutting down radio stations and locking up journalists if they even carry quotations from the opposing MDP. When she remonstrated, she was told that any criticism was a bit rich coming from a British organisation, given that the British Government has just passed draconian new measures against incitement in the Terrorism Bill.
It was the same story in Nepal, where torture has been used regularly against opponents of the regime, and where there are similar restrictions on free speech. “A senior government official told us that they were only cracking down on terrorists, in the way that they do in the UK,” said Callamard.
The same excuse is deployed in Belarus, by the totalitarian government of Alexander Lukashenko, and of course the same logic is used by the Sri Lankans in their crackdown on the Tamil Tigers. In June 2005, the Malaysian Inspector General of Police, Tun Sri Mohamed Bakri Omar, defended Malaysia’s continuing to detain people indefinitely without charge. And how did he justify it? By reference to the Labour proposals to detain suspects without charge for 90 days.
From tyrant to tyrant, from Mubarak to Mugabe, the argument is the same: the UK and the US crack down on those who support terrorists; they pass detailed restrictions on free speech; they outlaw the glorification of terror – why shouldn’t we?
How can we urge governments to allow free speech when we round up a 25-year-old chef, Maya Evans, and prevent her from reading out the names of the Iraq war dead at the Cenotaph?
It doesn’t make it much easier for British organisations to defend liberty abroad when anti-war protesters are arrested for merely eating toast and tea in Parliament Square, or when old socialists are scragged by the police and hauled from the room for heckling Jack Straw.
Of course these analogies are opportunistic and false, and of course there is no real comparison between Britain and Malaysia, let alone Zimbabwe. Thanks to the goodness of the editor of this paper, I can say more or less whatever I want, provided it is not too catastrophic for circulation. But what Blair fails to understand, when he promulgates this endless succession of new and ineffective Criminal Justice Bills, and when he curtails trial by jury and freedom of speech, and when he enacts all the other potential erosions of liberty that we have seen over the past nine years, is that he is handing a perfect pretext to the despots of the world.
This plague of Labour legislation may not much affect the criminals and illegal asylum-seekers of Britain. But the laws give the likes of Mugabe the pleasure of saying, tu quoque: you are up to it as well.
Britain has something far more precious and more important to give the world than the £4.6 billion of overseas aid, and that is the idea of freedom. It is not shortages that cause famine, but tyranny. No tyrant can survive for too long in the face of a free press and a free civil society. The sad thing is that we are losing our moral authority to export our greatest asset.