Brendan O’Neill

Does Tony Blair think free speech isn’t for everyone?

Does Tony Blair think free speech isn't for everyone?
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Not content with agitating against democracy with his relentless Remainer shenanigans, now Tony Blair appears to be aiming his fire at freedom of speech. Seriously, is there no civilisational liberal value this man doesn’t want to take down?

A new report for Blair’s think-tank, the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change, says hard-right groups should be subjected to censorship even if they are not involved in any kind of violent activity. The report says the government should draw up a list of ‘designated hate groups’ — you mean a blacklist? — and these designated groups should be prevented from appearing in media outlets or engaging with public institutions.

The report mentions four groups in particular: Britain First, For Britain, the British National Party, and Generation Identity England. These are all political outfits. They have constitutions, ideas, policies. Many, many people disagree with these of course. But to censor them – to deprive them of the means to express themselves in public, is an act of extreme political intolerance. It would propel Britain into the realm of tinpot dictators where the state gets to decide what is an acceptable political group and what is not. Goodbye to freedom of speech, freedom of association, and the right to political organisation.

In the Blairites’ dystopian illiberal vision, these groups would be prevented from going on TV and from engaging with social media. They would be blocked by the state from expressing their views in public. This is explicit, brutal censorship. As the Guardian summarises it, ‘legislation would allow for hate groups to be punished before they turn to violence’.

This is pre-crime territory, to borrow a phrase from Philip K Dick’s short story ‘The Minority Report’, which seems to have been one of the fictional dystopias that inspired this terrifyingly illiberal report.

To use legislation to punish people before they have committed a crime, before they have done anything violent, takes us squarely into tyrannical territory where you can have your fundamental rights negated on the basis that you might at some point do something bad, or inspire someone else to do something bad.

But then, in the minds of the authoritarians at the Tony Blair Institute, these ‘designated hate groups’ have done something virtually criminal — they’ve said things Tony Blair and Jacqui Smith, who wrote the report's foreword, disagree with. How dare they. If this report were to be acted upon, it would set a dreadful precedent: it would open the door to the censorship of any group that holds edgy, difficult or, yes, hateful views.

But here’s the thing about freedom of speech: it must apply to everyone. As its name suggests, everyone must be free to express their ideas. If the state bans just one political organisation on the basis that its views are horrible and hateful, then we no longer have freedom of speech; we have licensed speech, where you are free to speak in public so long as you do not offend Tony Blair, Jacqui Smith or anyone else who fancies themselves as a moral guardian of correct-think. The censorship of any political group would instantly make Britain an unfree country.

What authoritarians always forget is that there are two freedoms in freedom of speech. There is the freedom to speak, of course, but there is also the freedom to listen and argue back. There’s the freedom of the speaker and the freedom of the audience. And in a liberal, open society, we don’t invite the state to silence hateful views — we trust the audience, the public, the people, to decide for themselves which ideas are good and which are bad, and to push back against the bad ones.

The foul censorship proposed in this report would silence political activists and infantilise the rest of us, reducing us to the level of children who must have the public square cultivated and controlled on our behalf by the powers-that-be. As with all forms of censorship, it would insult us – the public – even more than it would insult the hard-right people who would end up being censored.

You would think Tony Blair, of all people, would understand the risks involved in outlawing speech on the basis that it might provoke people to acts of violence. This is a man whose own speech, whose own myth-making, contributed to years of unspeakable devastation in the Middle East. None of the groups the Blairites want to censor has done anything even close to as bad as that. But don’t worry, Tony — we won’t censor you, we will argue against you, which is what grown-ups do.