If this Labour government deserves to be remembered for anything at all, it will be for the systematic stamping out of freedoms that have been enjoyed in this country for centuries. Smoking in public is now all but certain to be banned. Habeas corpus has been curtailed by Charles Clarke’s grotesque ‘control orders’. This week in Parliament, Labour simultaneously announced the abridgement of the right to trial by jury, and forced through an almost mediaeval erosion of free speech, in the form of the ban on incitement to ‘religious hatred’. This is a contemptibly bad measure, which has nothing to do with the needs of criminal justice, and everything to do with politics. It is the result of Labour’s pathetic pre-electoral attempt to appease an alienated Muslim community by offering a new protection against ‘Islamophobia’, and it is therefore part of the continuing price we are all paying, in loss of civil liberties, for the Iraq war.
The prevalence of Islamophobia has been much exaggerated, as the EU found when it commissioned a report into the subject in the months after 11 September 2001. Having discovered only a handful of incidents, the report’s author, Chris Allen, himself concluded, ‘There were very few serious attacks, and Islamophobia manifested itself in quite basic and low-level ways.’ The picture has not changed much since then. Race and communal relations are in general far better than they were in, say, the 1970s or 1980s, and in so far as there is a problem of religiously inspired attacks, they are amply covered by existing statute. Not only are there all sorts of prohibitions against all manner of incitements, including the incitement to racial hatred, but we already have a law against the offence of ‘religious aggravation’. The 1986 Public Order Act was amended in 1998 so that a person commits an offence if he displays any writing, sign, or other visible representation which is threatening or abusive or insulting, within the hearing or sight of a person likely to be caused embarrassment, alarm or distress.