Free speech in the UK is supposedly guaranteed under Article 10 of the Human Rights Act 1998. The Act specifies that such a right is limited by “formalities, restrictions, conditions or penalties prescribed by law as may be necessary in a democratic society”.
Yet the brutal truth is that in Britain today free speech is a mirage. It does not exist in anything more than theory. People can lose their jobs for holding beliefs which contravene state orthodoxy and we live in a society in which people now seem to believe that they have a right to be protected from the views of others.
I suspect that everybody who reads this journal has at one time or another been offended by blasphemy, by the casual invocation of the name of Christ accompanied by a profane epithet, by suggestions that every priest is a paedophile, by the complete distortion of what the Church teaches, etc. We are expected to bear it without complaint in the name of free speech but unfortunately it is a one-way street.
I have myself recently been subject to a campaign of vilification and distortion in which perfectly restrained remarks which I made have been reported in sensational terms. Rumour is described by Virgil as the swiftest of all evils and the modern way of spreading it is via social media. Many journalists are not happy unless they have created a “Twitterstorm”.
At the end of an interview on Sky I was asked, suddenly, about an article I had written in 2012 about unhappy gay people. I responded by saying that once we had thought it impossible for men and women to undergo gender transition and that therefore it was possible in the future science might allow people to transition their sexuality. I used the expression “science may produce an answer”. It was clear I was referring to people who wanted to change but the phrase was misinterpreted, either carelessly or wilfully, to mean an answer to homosexuality as a whole. I would hold the same view were I an atheist or agnostic but immediately my words were condemned as “religious bigotry” and much worse.
Quite a while ago, when I was prisons minister, there was an uproar over a policy of handcuffing women prisoners between prison and hospital, with the cuffs taken off once treatment was about to start. For women going in to give birth the restraints were removed the moment labour started. I stated clearly enough in the House of Commons that it had never been the policy of ministers or the prison service to keep prisoners cuffed in either labour or childbirth. The press reported the policy sensationally but by and large accurately. Within weeks it was being claimed that I had supported “shackling women in labour” and within months people, relying on their own memories of media reports, believed I wanted it in childbirth too.
Now, it does not take weeks or months for distortion to set in but hours and minutes. Before I had arrived back from the interview I was supposed to have supported “gay conversion therapies”, to regard homosexuality as a disease, to believe science would one day “cure” homosexuality etc. The twitter filled the forests of rumour and hate.
That was but a typical hazard of political life but today the bullies rule the roost. Differ from their opinion and they will do their best to ruin you. A theatre, in which I was due to appear next year, cancelled, while tweeting that I was a “vile” woman. Another in which I was due to appear the next week followed suit but without the insults. A newspaper began ringing round various venues to see if they would cancel too.
Yet all that was on offer in these venues was an evening of light entertainment. I wasn’t even being “no-platformed”, because I wasn’t seeking a platform for anything other than fun and chat.
OK, I don’t need the work at this age, but I do greatly enjoy it and so do the audiences. Fortunately, most theatres are made of sterner stuff.
What it does mean, however, is that free speech is an illusion. Distinguished academics lose jobs, politicians lose office, people such as Roger Scruton lose appointments, entertainers lose venues and millions of ordinary men and women watch every word they say and keep quiet.
When no-platforming became almost an epidemic in universities, those institutions were told they could face financial penalties. Perhaps it is time to extend that beyond academia and at the same time to make sure that in law the right to free speech is strengthened. Seriously strengthened.
“We believe and therefore speak,” proclaimed St Paul. Yes, O mighty saint, but you weren’t living in 21st-century Britain.
Ann Widdecombe is a novelist, broadcaster and former prisons minister. Last month she was elected as a Brexit Party MEP