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Wednesday, July 14, 2004
Why do government gags now fit us so well?

In one of his many famous letters of advice and counsel to his illegitimate son, Lord Chesterfield warned him off the common practice of mocking and disparaging clergymen at every opportunity. Clergymen are generally no better nor worse than any other man, he explained, and it does not do to condemn all together. Although the letter was written in the 18th Century, there was no mention of any legal consequences that might befall his son should he mock religion. I suppose the notion that expressing an offensive opinion about something as open to interpretation and argument as religion might earn his son such a punishment would have struck Lord Chesterfield as absurd.

But that, of course, was in the early 1700s, before - with a little help from Mr Blunkett - we came to see just how destructive such simple liberties are.

In yesterday's Telegraph, Mark Steyn used his column to issue a warning about the dangers he feels Islam poses to our society. I don't know if he's right or wrong, but I do know he should have a right to make such arguments - a right soon to be denied to us all.

A couple of years back, I mentioned the fatwa against Salman Rushdie and received a flurry of lively e-mails. It was Valentine's Day 1989, you'll recall, when the Ayatollah Khomeini issued his extraterritorial summary judgment on a British subject, and shortly thereafter large numbers of British Muslims were marching through English cities openly calling for Rushdie to be killed.

A reader in Bradford recalled asking a West Yorkshire officer on the street that day why the various "Muslim community leaders" weren't being arrested for incitement to murder. The officer said they'd been told to "play it cool". The calls for blood got more raucous. My correspondent asked his question again. The policeman told him to "F--- off, or I'll arrest you."

Isn't that pretty much how it's likely to go once David Blunkett's new protection for Islam is in place? If you're the "moderate" Imam Yusuf al-Qaradawi, you'll be invited to speak at the "Our Children Our Future" conference sponsored and funded by the Metropolitan Police and the Department for Work and Pensions. But, if you express concern about ol' Mullah Moderate, an Islamic lobby group will file an official complaint about you.

There's nothing entirely new about this situation. For a number of years now, we have seen innocent, decent people arrested, investigated by police and fired from their jobs for stating deeply held views that aren't politically correct. So one can only imagine how draconian the new legislation will be. What freedom of expression is left in this department to be scrapped? This law will finalise the arrangements we are already seeing, removing perhaps for ever any sense in which meaningful legal challenges to such authoritarianism are possible. By removing religious opinions from the realm of argument, the government is ensuring that the liberty enjoyed all those years ago can be counted on to disappear.

Even ignoring all the abstract philosophical thinking behind the value of argument and free speech, am I alone in thinking there is something violently un-English about the events of recent years in these realms? When did we become a nation either of intolerant squealers who cannot abide difference of opinion or thoughtless conformists happy to oblige these fanatics? I always thought of England as a country proud to be a land of eccentrics and controversy, where people who speak out are seen almost as pillars of society and indeed where, as Rebecca Fraser puts it, "our favourite anecdotes concern the mighty being willing to stand corrected by the ordinary man or (in Alfred's case) woman in the street".

Yet in a very short space of time, we seem to have collapsed into total conformity with whatever we are told to think. Just like that, any group of people with the imagination to invent a fake phobia to hurl at those who disagree with them get effective immunity to criticism for all their arguments, and no one raises an eyebrow, nor seems to care that free speech has been rolled up, and that it won't stop here.

I doubt the free-thinking, free-speaking Englishmen of Lord Chesterfield's day would recognise us.

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