Freedom of speech

How do you solve a problem like debanking?

As I sat down to write this column, an old friend let me know he’d just been ‘debanked’. That is, he’d received a letter from his high-street bank notifying him it was closing his accounts. ‘Following a review, we’ve made the decision that you will not be able to bank with us any longer,’ it said, not even bothering to put the word ‘difficult’ before ‘decision’. It contained no detail about this ‘review’ or why, on completing it, the bank had decided to close his accounts. The only thing he can think of is that he used to be a high-ranking member of the Brexit party. He was told he

How Ireland lost its craic

So, which country is putting health warnings and calorie counts on bottles of alcohol for the benefit of its citizens? Nope, not Canada or New Zealand. But you’re getting warm… It’s Ireland, the country that gave us Guinness, Jameson, Bushmills and, for those who like that kind of thing, Baileys. That’s right: a health warning just like for cigarettes. But instead of rotting lungs, presumably there’ll be a lovely picture of a liver with cirrhosis. What effect will it have on me? None, dear reader, none. I drink to forget this sort of thing. But that’s the way Ireland is going (actually has gone) for a generation: not so much

Much of the Covid consensus has been proved to be tripe

Three years ago this week marked my first misgivings about the government’s Covid lockdown. Sure, I was late to that particular party – my wife, for example, had been carping viciously for the previous two months. But my rational assessment of lockdown was perhaps tilted by the gentle, bucolic magic of the thing itself. I think I have never enjoyed a more pleasant time. The weather was beautiful, and out in the Kent countryside, where I then lived, one could enjoy it to its full. Wildlife was less shy than usual, perhaps a consequence of the state-imposed quietude. Occasionally city dwellers would infest our country lanes and I had great

I’m on Andrew Doyle’s side – for now

I’ve agreed to interview the author and journalist Andrew Doyle about his new book at the Conservative party conference – on stage, no less – so I thought I’d better read it. It’s about the inexorable rise of the social justice warriors, whom he regards as a danger to the survival of free speech and, by extension, the institutions and traditions that our liberal democracy depends on. My first reaction was one of irritation. The book is called The New Puritans: How the Religion of Social Justice Captured the Western World and it’s annoyingly similar to the title of a book I’ve been working on – Salem 2.0:the Return of

The day I got heckled at Speakers’ Corner

Monday was the 150th anniversary of Speakers’ Corner and, in the hope of drumming up some publicity for the Free Speech Union, I went along to give a speech. Rather embarrassingly, I didn’t actually know where it was. I had been there once before, but that was about 40 years ago, and Google Maps wasn’t much help. Perhaps that was deliberate on the part of the censorious tech giant. You can imagine a group of woke nerds sitting around in Silicon Valley laughing at the prospect of a clueless culture warrior setting up his soapbox in the area they’ve wrongly identified as Speakers’ Corner, letting rip about illegal migrants, then

Will my kitchen be designated a ‘safe space’?

As the father of four children who will be entering higher education in the next few years, I’m worried that my home will shortly start to resemble a university campus. In other words, I’ll be forced to declare my preferred gender pronouns, the kitchen will be designated a ‘safe space’ and the collected works of J.K. Rowling will be burnt on the garden lawn. You may think I’m joking, but a new poll from the Higher Education Policy Institute lays bare just how thin-skinned today’s students are. For instance, 61 per cent of undergraduates say that ‘when in doubt’ their university ‘should ensure all students are protected from discrimination rather

Are cancel-culture activists aware of their sinister bedfellows?

Is there a woke case to be made for freedom of expression? Jacob Mchangama certainly seems to think so. This 500-page door-stopper, which combines a history of free speech with a persuasive case for its defence, is aimed squarely at snowflakes and social justice warriors. Mchangama deals patiently and methodically with all the objections they might make to ‘the first freedom’ and then tries to convince them it’s in their interests to defend it. Take the assumption that untrammelled free speech perpetuates current inequalities, favouring the privileged and penalising the disadvantaged. That view often underpins the efforts of student activists to cancel controversial speakers, believing as they do that anyone

Nicola Sturgeon’s last laugh

I was delighted to discover that the University of Bristol has been advising students how to address those who identify as ‘catgender’. These are people who ‘strongly identify with cats’ or may have ‘delusions relating to being a cat’. Apparently these individuals ‘may use nya/nyan pronouns’. Nya is the Japanese word for ‘miaow’. I am not sure why they should use the Japanese word for miaow, rather than our own perfectly good word, although I understand that a lot of young people are very interested in certain aspects of Japanese culture, such as anime and manga (although not other aspects of Japanese culture such as discipline, deference and fortitude). Perhaps

Why I love to be hated

I’ve never been keen on the idea of popularity. Courting disapproval has been a large part of my career and I find it bracing, like an early dip in a cold sea. I remember back in 2003 feeling put out because the Most Hated People In Britain list featured me at a mere 85, sandwiched between Damien Hirst and Richard Branson. So imagine my excitement this week on reading that the alleged comedian Stewart Lee had dispatched me into his New Year Pedal Bin, a list of his least-favourite people, alongside such chucklesome types as Ricky Gervais, John Cleese, Graham Linehan, Maureen Lipman and Dave Chappelle. I’ve always fancied myself

LSE takes £1.5 million from China

Boris Johnson might insist that the UK will not ‘pitchfork’ Chinese investment but it seems not everyone in government agrees. Liz Truss, the new Foreign Secretary, has made headlines today for saying what many on her back benches believe — that Britain cannot be dependent on China and allow it a role in our nuclear plants or the G7.  That fundamental divide on how to approach Beijing is not merely confined to Westminster, but rather something that extends across industry, civil society and of course, academia. One of the ways the Chinese Communist Party has sought to extend its overseas cultural influence is by Confucius Institutes. They run educational and cultural

Cancel culture on film

As fireplace salesman-turned-Education Secretary Gavin Williamson enters the ‘cancel culture’ wars with his planned campus ‘free speech law’, what better time to investigate the phenomenon as depicted in the movies? There are a surprising number of films that deal with the subject, from every side of the political spectrum, with right-wingers, the left and libertarians all on the receiving end of censorship from the authorities at some point. As always, the focus will be on more recent movies, but first it’s worth mentioning a few older pictures that paved the way for later films. In the 1930s-set The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1969), the titular educator (Maggie Smith) is ejected

Why we should worry about the censorship of the far left

There are many important, principled arguments for free speech. But one of the most convincing is purely tactical. Why empower the powerful to police debate when that power could so easily be wielded against you in the future? The logic of censorship always leads to more censorship, and the authoritarian left is starting to bear some of the brunt of this. Last Friday, the Socialist Workers Party announced it had been booted off Facebook. In a press release, it said Facebook had suspended the party’s main account as well as those of activists and local SWP groups. After a backlash, its main page was reinstated but, according to a follow-up

Scotland’s Hate Crime Bill would have a chilling effect on free speech

Among the encroachments on Milton’s three supreme liberties contained in Humza Yousaf’s Hate Crime Bill is a cloturing of the debate on gender identity and the law. Proposals to remove medical expertise from the gender recognition process have either stalled or been shelved, but not before their radical scope prompted a lively dispute about the ethics of gender identity, sex-based rights and the freedom to dissent. That freedom will be meaningfully reduced in Scotland if the Hate Crime Bill becomes law because it is a piece of legislation that begins from the position that all legitimate debate has already concluded. The Bill creates an offence of ‘stirring up hatred’ against

The proof that free speech in universities is in peril

About 18 months ago, I attended a debate at Policy Exchange, the think tank founded by Nick Boles, Francis Maude and Archie Norman, on whether there was a free speech crisis at British universities. One panellist, Professor Jon Wilson of King’s College London, vigorously denied that any such problem existed. Various people pointed to examples of right-of-centre academics being no-platformed — Charles Murray, Amy Wax, Linda Gottfredson — but that was scarcely conclusive. It was anecdotal evidence, not hard data. The same cannot be said any more. This week, Policy Exchange published a paper by three academics — Remi Adekoya, Eric Kaufmann and Tom Simpson — which proves beyond reasonable

Welcome to the world you created, J.K. Rowling

Why does the most important writer in English, J.K. Rowling, haunt the sewers of the Twittersphere? Why try to deal with the many complexities of transgenderism in a medium that has bizarrely reinvented the brevity of the telegram, but without its Victorian culture of complexity, courtesy and calm? Indeed, Twitter prizes a quite different Victorian moral order, namely that of Jack the Ripper, as the baying muezzins of social media hourly pronounce the end of someone’s reputation in the merciless perpetuity of the internet. This time three years ago, I was a well-known journalist in Ireland, with a modest profile in Britain. On the last weekend of July, on the

The danger of the Facebook boycotts

The printed press is not a natural ally of Facebook. Silicon Valley publishers have hoovered up so much advertising that they are seen by newspapers as a mortal enemy. Facebook chief Mark Zuckerberg has ended up with more power over people’s attention than any press mogul. A slight change in his algorithms can direct millions towards any publication or argument. Facebook might not want to be seen as a publisher (especially one that did so much to enable Donald Trump, for instance) but it has ended up becoming the biggest player in the information wars. So when certain advertisers started to pull out of the social media platform — citing

Will Cambridge University finally stand up for free speech?

When Dr Priyamvada Gopal, a University of Cambridge academic, tweeted ‘White lives don’t matter’ and ‘Abolish whiteness’ in response to a banner reading ‘White lives matter Burnley’ being flown over a Premier League match, it certainly provoked a response. Dr Gopal was quickly inundated with horrific personal and racial abuse, but she stuck to her position, arguing that she was appropriately addressing systemic racial inequality. It wasn’t long before the University of Cambridge weighed in with a strong statement defending Gopal, without explicitly mentioning her. ‘The University defends the right of its academics to express their own lawful opinions which others might find controversial, and deplores in the strongest terms abuse and

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

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

Hatred is in the eye of the beholder

There’s a broad mainstream consensus on both sides of the Atlantic: Trump’s tweet telling four hard-left minority Congresswomen to ‘go home’ to the crime-ridden countries they’re from, when three of the four were born in the US, was racially inflammatory and staggeringly ill-judged.  But the first question that would be raised in the UK if a British politician committed such a gaffe is the last question raised in the US: was that post ‘hate speech’? The First Amendment to the American constitution guarantees five basic freedoms, including freedom of speech, and these principles ought rightly to pertain in other democracies such as Britain. (I’m sorry, but we’ve one-upped the Brits

Academics who dare not speak their names

When I first read about plans for a new academic periodical called The Journal of Controversial Ideas, I got the wrong end of the stick. Fantastic news, I thought, particularly when I saw the distinguished group of intellectuals behind it. They include Jeff McMahan, professor of moral philosophy at Oxford; Peter Singer, the well-known Australian philosopher; and Francesca Minerva, a bio-ethicist at the University of Ghent. An authoritative magazine bearing the imprimatur of these distinguished free-thinkers is a great way to persuade other, less celebrated academics to stick their heads above the parapet and publish essays that dissent from groupthink. Then I spotted an important detail: all the material will