Brendan O’Neill

In praise of the Batley binmen

In praise of the Batley binmen
People gather outside the gates of Batley Grammar School (Getty images)
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If you need someone to support your right to freedom of speech, forget the teaching unions. Don’t look to the commentariat. And don’t even bother with the Labour party, many of whose younger, angrier members will often be found in the ranks of cancel-culture mobs calling for someone or other to be erased from polite society for having blasphemed against a trendy new orthodoxy.

No, it’s the binmen you want to turn to. It’s the nation’s fine refuse collectors who will back you up when your liberty to speak is being pummelled.

Consider the case of the Batley Grammar schoolteacher who was suspended for showing his pupils an image of Muhammad during a religious studies lesson. Alarmingly, that teacher is still in hiding, fearing for his life. He has received death threats simply for doing what all good teachers should do: challenge their students to consider difficult moral questions.

The supposedly liberal establishment behaved shamefully in response to the demonisation and harassment of the teacher. Batley Grammar itself, in the face of angry protests outside the school gates, suspended him. The school essentially ‘threw him under a bus’, the teacher’s family said.

The teaching unions stayed almost entirely schtum about the case for ages. ‘It would not be appropriate to make any further comment’ while the school is investigating the incident, said the National Education Union. Not appropriate for a teaching union to comment on the fact that a teacher had received threats to his life and is now, according to his father, ‘devastated and crushed’, an ‘emotional wreck’? 

In which case, why do teaching unions even exist?

The political class wasn’t much better. Tracy Brabin, then the Labour MP for Batley, now the Mayor of West Yorkshire, praised the school for dealing swiftly with this incident that had caused so much ‘offence' and 'upset’. She essentially sided with the protesters who wanted a teacher punished for blasphemy — these days referred to as ‘offence' and 'upset’ — rather than with the teacher and his right to free expression.

But not everyone has turned their backs on this persecuted teacher. Enter the binmen of Bury. Shaming the intellectual elites, these workers have taken a principled stand on behalf of the teacher and his right to free speech in the classroom.

The Bury branch of Unite, which represents refuse collectors, has put forward a motion championing the Batley teacher. The emergency motion, submitted for consideration at the National Conference of Trade Union Councils in June, urges all unions to back the teacher.

The motion points out that England’s blasphemy laws were formally abolished more than a decade ago and insists there should be no ‘dogmatic restraints’ on our right to discuss religious matters, including Islamic matters.

The proponent of the motion is Brian Bamford, secretary of Tameside Trade Union Council and a retired electrician. He says: 

‘This is a motion which has come in from binmen, from ordinary working people… Freedom of expression is very important. I don’t feel guilty in any way for taking a stand on this issue.’

Bamford says an NEU official contacted him and asked him to consider withdrawing the motion. Apparently the official told him the motion ‘risks inflaming what is an extremely sensitive and very complex situation’. An NEU spokesperson said: 'It is a sensitive issue and the NEU did ask for the motion to be withdrawn. With every viewpoint that is expressed our members face yet more public exposure.'

Got that? Binmen and other working-class union members want to express support for a teacher who has been hounded into hiding for a supposed speechcrime, and a teaching union official is reportedly saying to them, ‘Please don’t do this’. This is bonkers.

These binmen have shown us what true solidarity looks like. Their support for the Batley teacher is in keeping with the best traditions of working-class activism. They saw someone being harried and silenced merely for displaying a religious image and they’re not having it. More power to their elbow, and their motion.

They have also shown up what passes for the liberal establishment these days. Too many people in positions of power treat freedom of speech as a negotiable commodity rather than as a core principle of democratic life. Too many turn away — or nod along — as people are shunted out of polite society merely for criticising Islam, or asking questions about transgenderism, or making an un-PC joke.

Many so-called liberals now consider the right not to be offended to be more important than the right to free expression. So when they saw that fuss outside Batley Grammar, they instinctively sided with the right of the protesters to glide through life without ever having their religious beliefs called into question, rather than with the right of a teacher in a pluralistic democracy to use his freedom of expression to challenge and enlighten his pupils.

Thankfully, there are still people, like those Bury binmen – and of course like the Free Speech Union – who understand that no one has the right not to be offended. Who understand that freedom of expression is more important than any individual’s feelings or any religion’s diktats? Binmen for Free Speech — it’s exactly the campaign we need right now.