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Diary

Dictators’ new argument against free speech

Also in Timothy Garton Ash’s diary: Turkey, Washington, the Garton Ash prize, and reading Browning in Phoenix

23 July 2016

9:00 AM

23 July 2016

9:00 AM

These days, you only need to turn your back for five minutes and you’ve missed another horror. The Turkish coup may have been foiled by incompetence, Facetime and people power, but President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is seizing the chance to consolidate his increasingly authoritarian regime. My friend Ayse Kadioglu, one of Turkey’s brave, embattled liberal intellectuals, compares the bombing of the parliament building in Ankara to the Reichstag fire of 1933 — not in the sense of being a put-up job, but as a pretext for strangling democracy. Our new Foreign Secretary needs to produce more than a rude limerick in response.

In the last fortnight I have made my annual migration from Oxford to Stanford, so out of the Brexit frying pan into the Trump fire. Among the less serious concerns about the Republicans’ presidential candidate is his extraordinary hair. When Trump was questioning whether Barack Obama was born in the US, one wit retorted that the constitution should not let anyone become president whose hair was born in another country.

In Washington, my hosts put me up at the Willard hotel, where Abraham Lincoln stayed and Julia Ward Howe wrote the ‘Battle Hymn of the Republic.’ Its ornate lobby has been restored to its former splendour, with scagliola columns and plush settees. I’m told this lobby gave birth to the term ‘lobbyist’, since this is where people waited to grab the Washington politicians’ attention. On closer examination, however, it seems that the lobbies of the Westminster parliament may claim precedence in lending a name to that dubious profession.


I wade through the swampish heat of a Washington summer to have dinner with an old friend. Glancing out of the restaurant window, we see a long column of Black Lives Matter demonstrators marching to protest at the latest police killing of a black man. Minutes later comes news of the murder of five policemen by a lone gunman in Dallas. What has frustrated the heartfelt efforts of America’s first black president to tighten gun control? Yes, lobbyists — in this case for the National Rifle Association. Shame on them.

Ian McEwan once observed that when you go out to promote your new book you become an employee of your former creative self. It’s different with non-fiction, since you can often learn something from audiences in different places. This has been my experience in talking about my new book Free Speech: Ten Principles For a Connected World (available in all good Amazons). On a panel at the Hoover Institution in Washington, the Obama administration’s assistant secretary of state for human rights, Tom Malinowski, tells us that European governments’ curbing of free speech in the name of countering terrorism and hate speech is increasingly held up to him by representatives of authoritarian regimes to excuse their own behaviour. A big concern I encounter wherever I go is the threat to free speech in our universities. Why is it that American and British students who have grown up in some of the most open, free and diverse societies in history feel the urge to demand ‘safe spaces’ to protect them from speakers they find offensive? Various explanations are offered — overprotective parenting, nanny state, internet echo chambers, identity politics — but it still remains a worrying puzzle.

On the last leg of my journey, I make an involuntary five-hour stopover in Phoenix, Arizona. With the temperature touching 110°F, even mad dogs and Englishmen don’t go out in the midday sun. Fortunately, I have the volume of Robert Browning’s poetry which has accompanied me on my travels for 40 years. It’s one of those beautiful old pocket-size Oxford World’s Classics. The cloth jacket and India-paper pages now bear the traces of Polish snow, Burmese sun and Kosovan mud. Browning is a great poet of love, history, England and Europe. Even his interminable long poems can suddenly sparkle. Sitting in the soulless airport lounge, I chance upon this couplet: ‘New-blown and ruddy as St Agnes’ nipple/ Plump as the flesh-bunch on some Turk bird’s poll!’ Glorious.

Finally berthed in balmy Stanford, I’m delighted to learn that a former student of mine, Annabelle Chapman, is the first winner of The Spectator’s Timothy Garton Ash Prize — and especially so because she writes about Poland and eastern Europe. Nice though it is to have a prize offered in my name, it does make me feel vaguely, well, deceased. I recall a bibulous Spectator lunch many years ago when the question came up if so-and-so was dead. Alexander Chancellor memorably responded, ‘Er, I don’t think he is… completely.’

Timothy Garton Ash is professor of European studies at Oxford University, and a former Spectator foreign editor.


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