A month after the Magna-Carta-mangling Counter-Terrorism and Security Bill crept onto the statue book, leaked documents seen by the Daily Telegraph over the weekend reveal Home Office proposals which are likely to have significant, if apparently unintended, consequences for free speech in this country.
I haven’t seen the full strategy papers myself, and nor will you. They have been deemed too ‘sensitive’ ever to face public scrutiny, and only a two-page executive summary is due to be published. At this stage, it is worth considering the few choice quotes the Telegraph have dutifully passed on.
The leaked papers make some confident claims about 'British values', with citizenship and even temporary visa applicants required to 'prove adherence to British values and participation in society'. It isn't exactly clear which values they're talking about, but I'm guessing intellectual freedom and open debate aren't among them.
The document then goes onto claim that 'in the past there has been a risk that the government sends an ambivalent and dangerous message – that it doesn’t really matter if you don’t believe in democracy'.
Isn’t one of the advantages to living in a democratic society supposed to be that it doesn’t matter what you believe? We have plenty of legislation dealing with how we behave (including hate-speech laws), but do we really want rules governing our private beliefs? While ostensibly aimed at theocratic sentiments, these measures could easily be abused to attack dissenting viewpoints of any kind. Russell Brand doesn’t think much of democracy. What does Theresa May plan to do about him?
The document continues: 'We need to stand up and be more assertive in promoting our values and challenging the extremists who fundamentally oppose them. This will include explaining our foreign policy, promoting mainstream voices.'
While I would be all for an honest explanation of our foreign policy, I don’t know how excited I am about state-sponsored ‘mainstream voices’. For the government to decide what counts as the mainstream sets a famously dodgy precedent, and challenges what I was brought up to believe was a fundamental ‘British value’: the freedom to think and read what you bloody well like, no matter how 'extreme' or oppositional.
Most disturbingly, universities are due to come under the cosh for hosting speakers deemed to promote ‘extremist views’. The plans ‘will introduce the power to refuse or remove licenses to sponsor visa applications from any institution in the UK which promotes extremist views or knowingly and without challenge hosts extremist speakers.'
British universities depend for a large part of their income on the higher fees paid by overseas students. No university could afford to function without the ability to offer student visas, effectively giving the Home Office veto power over any speaker it doesn’t approve of. While this is apparently aimed at ‘hate preachers’, it could be used to censor any speaker the government deem to hold ‘extremist views’. Britain’s students could soon be denied the freedom to debate with anyone not thought to be promoting 'British values'.
While I was a student, the freedom of information extremist Julian Assange broke house arrest to speak at the Cambridge Union. It was the best-attended talk I saw in three years, and he faced serious, thoughtful challenges from the audience (before receiving a standing ovation). Isn’t this what the debating chamber is for? Isn’t this precisely the role of free speech in a democratic society? It's easy to be blinded by the government's frothy-mouthed wrangling to control controversial ideologies, but in a democracy we need access to the full range of views in order to make up our minds for ourselves.
These leaked documents point out a woeful hypocrisy in the claim that free speech lies at the heart of ‘British values’, a claim we heard so loudly just weeks ago in the wake of the atrocities in Paris. It simply is not the job of democratic governments to gag universities or other institutions. It is up to citizens to challenge views we disagree with, which in a country like ours we are entirely free to do. For now anyway.