Belfast Telegraph

Tuesday 23 September 2014

Lest we forget: free speech is more than a load of poppycock

They started wearing the poppy on the BBC last week, midway through October, nearly a month before Armistice Day. They also ambushed the British National Party leader Nick Griffin.

It was a nice juxtaposition: an organisation which purports to defend free speech then actually used it to set about the destruction of someone that liberal Britain utterly loathes. Moreover, woven throughout whatever passed as discussion on the programme was the assertion that Winston Churchill would not have supported the BNP.

Now if there have been any subsequent doubts in the media about Question Time, they've been on the lines of “why-give-this-man-the-oxygen-of-publicity?” So naturally, every commentator has begun his remarks by pre-emptively — rather pathetically — declaring how much they detest Nick Griffin and the BNP.

It was Nick Griffin who claimed that Churchill, were he alive today, would support the BNP. Oh no he wouldn't, puffed all Griffin's opponents from the conventional parties.

He wouldn't? Which Churchill was this? The imperialist who couldn't be prevented from joining in the Battle of Omdurman, where by his own account he shot several Muslims? Or the imperialist who, 30 years later, led the campaign to deny Indians self-government?

Churchill was the fine fellow who declared that it was “nauseating” to see Ghandi, “a seditious Middle Temple lawyer, now posing as a fakir of a type well-known in the Middle East, striding half-naked up the steps of the Vice-regal palace . . . to parley on equal terms with the representative of the King-Emperor”.

So, would that same creature have welcomed the subsequent transformation of British cities by Indian immigrants? I somehow doubt it, especially as one of his arguments for Britain retaining India was that Britain was an overcrowded island that needed to trade with the subcontinent. Which is not quite the same thing as allowing much of the sub-continent to move into already crowded British cities.

But the appearance of the poppy in early October, the endless recitation of Churchill's name as an icon of modern liberalism, and the perverse form of “freedom of speech” whose sole purpose was simply to destroy Nick Griffin: they all suggest a critical cultural failure to understand the meaning of any of them. For if freedom of speech is merely seen as a means of doing down someone whom you don't like, then believe me that's what freedom of speech will sooner rather than later become.

The poppy is now an uncontaminated and largely uncontested symbol across Ireland. It is worn by people such as myself solely on the weekend of Remembrance Sunday. It has no other dimension or aspect to it.

But Tony Blair's loathsome New Labour introduced early poppy-wearing as a pre-emptive declaration of national piety: as in, “we might be Labour, but we still are proudly British”, et cetera, et cetera. And of course, when a national morality competition is under way, what rival political leader dare refuse to participate? Moreover, it's not surprising that the dilution of Armistice Day into an entire season of meaningless poppy-wearing has coincided with the abandonment by English children of Guy Fawkes night in favour of Halloween.

Both developments were made possible by a general failure of public memory over important cultural events, combined with the creation of rival public rituals by either politicians or by a largely Americanised mass media.

Certainly no politician would have dared to debase the poppy if it still had an authentic currency amongst the broader population. Millions of men once knew that Armistice Day was Armistice Day; and peace only arrived on one day, not over an entire month.

So the modern British poppy is rather like the Christmas tree or the Easter egg. They are artefacts whose origins are so lost in the mists of time that they can easily be turned into tools of the marketing-men, either for commercial or political reasons.

And for New Labour, the symbol of Flanders now provides a useful promotional and populist ploy in the multi-cultural confusion of modern Britain — an uncertain land of poppydom and pappadum, where ‘trick or treat’ has replaced ‘penny for the guy’.

So equally, freedom of speech could well be a casualty of this cultural confusion. For such freedom is not simply a weapon to destroy people you don't like — as demonstrated by the BBC's Question Time and a truly deplorably partisan performance by David Dimbleby. It is the opposite: it is to give people you detest a platform, provided that this freedom is not used to provoke hatred for any group.

And yes, it may insult and |offend people who do not like what they hear; but it must not set about the alienation and victimisation of any group.

This is a lesson we could all learn from. For if we allow freedom of speech primarily to damage people, why, that is like wearing a poppy to celebrate German dead; or celebrating Easter because two thieves were deservedly crucified, or Christmas because the inn was full and the innkeeper was happy.

For if you forget why you do things, then sooner or later you will forget the reason for being what you are.

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