Friday, 28 August 2009

My journey to Libertarianism: 6

(In which a young bear gentleman from darkest Peru hears the footsteps of the Stasi in 21st century Britain.)

The political event that really shocked me (and yes, it was a political event) took place in November 2003. The Rt Rev Dr Peter Forster, Bishop of Chester, was questioned by Cheshire Constabulary over statements he made to the Chester Chronicle.
(See, for example, here, here, and here.)

In the report on what the Chronicle called his “traditional and controversial views” (there’s an odd combination) the bishop was quoted as saying
Some people who are primarily homosexual can reorientate themselves. I would encourage them to consider that as an option, but I would not set myself up as a medical specialist on the subject - that's in the area of psychiatric health. We want to help them but I don't offer it as a panacea.
Nothing remotely inflammatory there - even though many people would disagree. But a complaint was made to the police, and they launched an investigation to see if an offence had been committed under the Public Order Act 1986. No charge was brought.

But the bishop was visited by the police. And that is significant, because most people will take the view that if saying something publicly gets you a visit from the police, then you are not going to say it.

What was the point of the visit, anyway? What he said was in the public domain - the police could have a look at it and decide whether a crime had been committed. In previous statements he had said it was important to act with compassion towards gays and lesbians. Clearly, he was questioned, not in order to ascertain his views or find out what he had said, but in order to send the message that he should not have said it.

This was confirmed by the Chief Constable, Mr. Peter Fahy, who, far from apologising, said
Cheshire Police, day in, day out, deals with offences against members of minority communities which are generated by hate and prejudice. I think all public leaders need to make sure that comments they make are balanced by that need for all of us to be giving clear leadership on this issue and to make sure that vulnerable groups are protected and that people have an awareness of the needs and the backgrounds of all these various groups.

He has got his own personal view and I'm sure his comments are based on very strong personal religious conviction. But I do think we need to remind ourselves how this translates. The whole issue of diversity comes down to individual members of minority communities often being targeted, feeling under-protected and being victims of crime because of their sexual orientation, their colour or their religious beliefs. I think in a civilised society that is totally unacceptable.
That is simply Orwellian newspeak for “He shouldn’t have said what he said, and if you publicly express traditional Christian views on homosexuality you should not be surprised if you get a visit from the police.”

Free speech was being strangled. And that reminded me of the occasion 20 years earlier, when I was shocked to find that some Liberal Party activists saw nothing wrong with trying to silence the NF/BNP. (see here)

But there were three differences.
1) On that occasion, the action was taken by private individuals; on this occasion it was taken by law enforcement officers.
2) On that occasion, the individuals targeted might have been described as a group of chavs; on this occasion, it was a highly respected (and highly educated) member of the House of Lords.
3) On that occasion, the offensive philosophy was neo-nazism; this time it was traditional Christianity.
If you couldn’t see which way the wind was blowing, you weren’t paying attention. Niemöller’s dictum looked very appropriate.

Yes, the way the bishop was treated wasn’t exactly thuggish - more Brave New World than 1984. But it was still the deliberate stifling of freedom of speech. And who was to say that it might not become nastier?

The big shock for me, however, was not simply what the police did. It was the political reaction. Would the government say something vaguely apologetic? Would the Conservatives seize on the incident to speak out and oppose what New Labour was doing to traditional British freedoms? Would the LibDems speak up as the party of liberty?

But there was no political reaction. Peter Fahy, whose career should have come to an inglorious end, was actually promoted and is now Chief Constable of Greater Manchester. It was clear that the political establishment - particularly Labour, but also the Conservatives (who were, of course, responsible for the Public Order Act 1986) and the LibDems - all believed that there were some opinions that were so dangerous that people should be discouraged from expressing them - and discouraged by using law enforcement officers. If that wasn’t the beginnings of a police state, what was it?

Well, so it seemed to me. Nobody else seemed to think so. At least no-one was saying anything publicly. And I found the silence deafening.


bethyada said...

I have just posted on something vaguely similar (at least in terms of the principles). What gets me, and you mention in your last paragraph, is that most people fail to see how ominous some of these laws and actions are.

I guess people look at an event and say no real harm done; but they lack the foresight to see where this could lead.

And they probably lack an appreciation for how evil men can become.

Young Mr. Brown said...

Hello, good sir.

That was a helpful post on Disregarding the rule of law,.

I particularly liked the lines:

"What is incredibly pernicious is the idea that actions should be criminalised while the investigators of such actions are told to ignore these actions. Such thinking is stunningly foolish for any person, and malevolent for a politician. It utterly disregards the rule of law. It resembles the monarchy of a vacillating king; where men are praised or condemned at his whim."