It’s not often that Tony Blair agrees with the likes of Priti Patel. When this happens there is likely to be dirty business about, especially for anyone interested in freedom from government interference.
Last month’s report from the grandly-named Tony Blair Institute for Global Change, entitled New Policy Responses to Stop Hate Crime, was no exception. Its suggestions for further restrictions on what we can say about people’s religion are bad enough.
Essentially the argument is that anti-religious speech is just as bad as blatantly racist speech and needs to be suppressed to the same extent; you can gauge its flavour by the statement that “recognising anti-Muslim hatred is not about restricting free speech, but acknowledging the harm that British Muslims are experiencing.”
So too the report’s unqualified approval of the Government’s online harms white paper. But let those wait for another day.
The proposals about so-called hate groups are much more disconcerting. Put bluntly, the report’s complaint that the government does not have enough powers to make life difficult for organisations that promote views we don’t like, and ought – all in the name of giving everyone a fair chance, of course – to award itself some more.
The problem as the Institute sees it is this. Too many groups, such as Britain First or Generation Identity, don’t hold what it regards as “mainstream” opinions (for instance the view that there is no conflict whatever between being British and Muslim, and that the wider political system can be mildly criticised but must in no case be rejected), but nevertheless are annoyingly non-violent. That means they can’t just be summarily banned as terrorist fronts.
The first thing to note is that these measures are envisaged as applying to organisations operating entirely within the law.
Its modest proposal to deal with the difficulty is a “new tier of hate group designation”, which could be proudly announced as the “first of its kind in Europe” (or, put another way, the UK would be able to boast the most restrictive laws on the continent).
Available by Home Office fiat, such orders would be on the fairly vague basis that a group might “demonise specific groups on the basis of their race, religious, gender, nationality or sexuality”, be guilty of “disproportionately blaming specific groups (based on religion, race, gender or nationality) for broader societal issues”, or for that matter be regarded as “aligning with extremist ideologies, though not inciting violence.”
And the result of making the order? The report is short on detail, but speaks in terms of such groups being “not allowed to use media outlets or speak at universities”, and “not allowed to engage, work with or for public institutions”. They would be “suspended from the electoral roll” (an odd phrase showing evidence of over-hasty writing, but meaning presumably de-registration as a political party) and invariably banned from holding any marches at all under the powers given to the police in the Public Order Act.
But this, the report carries on, is really quite mild; group members would graciously be allowed to meet in private, and any offences created to back up the prohibition would be “civil not criminal.”
Oh, and there was also an incitement to virtue. Groups so designated might be given back their privileges, rather like errant schoolboys who showed good behaviour, if they mended their ways and became more enlightened.
Where to start with all this? The first thing to note is that these measures are envisaged as applying to organisations operating entirely within the law. What we are talking about, therefore, is the introduction of powers in the administration to impose severe restrictions on the activities of lawful groups neither violent nor dedicated to criminal activity, and without any need for anyone to be guilty of any crime at all.
And, while falling short of proscription as applicable to terrorist organisations, the restrictions are severe. Preventing a group from taking part in any procession, excluding it from addressing students and banning it from democratic activity as a political party are essentially telling it that it may only operate in private. But matters go even further.
Consider the words “not allowed to use media outlets”. Are broadcasters now to be automatically penalised by Ofcom if they publicise the views of a government-disapproved body? Worse still, have we reached the position reminiscent of an Eastern European dictatorship under which newspapers fall to be punished for publishing material from specified groups?
As for the comforting statement that any offences created would be civil not criminal, don’t be taken in. If this means anything, it is actually a device to make it easier to maintain control by allowing the levying of administrative fines without the need to prove guilt beyond reasonable doubt. Such penalties are just as dissuasive, if not more so, than a spell in a criminal court.
For another thing, just think what might come under the ban. What about a Christian evangelical group known for its views on transgender matters? Could it be driven from public life until it mended its ways on the basis that it demonised a group based on gender? (Before you scoff and say that sort of thing could never happen here, remember the touchiness of the LGBT lobby: a mother is currently facing a criminal trial for alleged misgendering on Twitter).
On the other side, what of pro-choice activists who regularly called out what they saw as the medieval bigotry of the Catholic church on the subject of the rights of the unborn; or or a group of gay rights supporters who regularly attacked the Koran for its uncompromising view on homosexuality? Both the latter could be said to be disproportionately blaming a religious group for what they see as societal ills.
Essentially the argument is that anti-religious speech is just as bad as blatantly racist speech and needs to be suppressed to the same extent.
Again, extremist ideology is said to include the belief that the Christian West should unite against Islam, or a belief by a Muslim that all those who disagree with him are apostates. Does this imply that Mr Blair wants to see a power to bar all access to the media by a group which supports Viktor Orban, or any access to universities by a fundamentalist but entirely non-violent Muslim sect?
Of course you might say that this is just a storm in a teacup. These suggestions only come, after all, from the Blair Institute, which has no official standing and which is run by a man whom many, perhaps with reason, loathe. But things aren’t as simple as that.
The project on which the report has a fawning introduction by ex-Labour home secretary Jacqui Smith, Chair of the Jo Cox Foundation, the favourite good cause of smug left-leaning voters everywhere.
Beside that, the backing of an ex-Prime-Minister-cum-global management consultant will make unpleasant measures like this an easier sell by a home secretary looking for a headline policy. Illiberalities of this kind need calling out loud and long; if we don’t, by keeping silent we merely encourage ministers to push the envelope further to see what they can get away with.
(Andrew Tettenborn is a professor of commercial law at a well-known UK university, who also teaches in Europe and elsewhere. In the 2001 General Election he stood as UKIP’s candidate in Bath)