Lee Rowley is MP for North East Derbyshire, and Co-Chair of FREER.
A few weeks ago we launched FREER, a new initiative focused on promoting the virtues of free societies, free economies, and free markets. As we prepare to leave the European Union, politics offers the greatest opportunities for our country in a generation. Post-Brexit, we want to make the case that staying true to the principles of freedom will make us all happier, healthier, and wealthier.
Over the coming months, FREER will regularly be publishing papers on how we can grasp these opportunities over the next decade, and the key questions that we need to consider to do so. Our first paper came out a few weeks ago, setting out our principles, and how we need to make the case for freedom again for a new generation.
Today, we launch our second paper, and, never ones to shy away from challenging subjects, we are going straight into the lion’s den. Kemi Badenoch shines a light on the challenges that freedom of speech faces in our society, with the growing menace of no-platforming and the tyranny of social media.
The issue of free speech is a fraught one for our time. The right to discuss, debate, and challenge is fundamental. Increasingly, however, it seems that elements of this are being chipped away at or boxed in. Only a few weeks ago, the feminist activist Julie Bindel was prevented (again) from speaking at a meeting. Others such as Germaine Greer and Peter Tatchell, few of whom are aligned with conservativism, have experienced similar challenges.
Despite philosophical differences with speakers such as Bindel, Tatchell, and Greer, almost all of us on the right start from the principle that they should be allowed a platform. Freedom of speech (tempered by the usual caveats regarding incitement to violence, and the like) is absolute. Societies are unable to function adequately, and certainly cannot flourish, unless people can express themselves freely, and unless others have the opportunity to debate and challenge those expressions. The Voltairean enlightenment notion of defending the right of someone to say something even if you completely disagree with it is fundamental to our political tradition.
Yet, it appears that there has been a loosening of attachment to this principle. We may believe that freedom of speech is a self-evident truth, but the reality is that there are others for whom it isn’t quite as absolute.
So we must do battle again over principles. And that battle needs to be joined with thought and consideration, rather than megaphones. It is no good just shouting “political correctness gone mad”, and hoping that the scales will fall from the eyes of those who have challenged us. Rather, we must start by crediting that those with a different view over freedom of speech are, whilst fundamentally mistaken, usually coming from a position of principle themselves. Merely dismissing them as cranks or censors is unlikely to engender any progress in this regard. Instead, we must return to the time-honoured method which has served us well: probe, discuss, pick holes, and, eventually, expose the notion of limiting free speech for the regressive position that it is.
It is against this backdrop that Kemi’s paper is so timely in exploring the origin of this challenge, wider society’s responsibility for it, and the grey area within which much of this debate inevitably takes place. More importantly, there is also much to challenge and think about: that the issue isn’t just in universities, that free speech rights come with responsibilities, and that our “don’t think, feel” culture must share some culpability.
Most importantly, it is Kemi’s personal reflections that hit home hardest. As a working-class boy who grew up in the Midlands in the 1980s, I have little experience of the grotesque conclusions that limitations on freedom of speech can have. Kemi has, and she draws on her background growing up in Nigeria to highlight the privilege we have in the UK to indulge in testing the boundaries of this enlightenment principle.
With that in mind, we in FREER are determined to take up the challenge she sets to broaden the debate on free speech. Over the next few months, we’ll be visiting universities – those crucibles of testing the boundaries – to debate and discuss. That starts with the University of Liverpool tonight, where will be holding a panel discussion on just this subject. If we are going to make the case for freedom, it is incumbent upon us to all join the fight. Kemi has just given us an opportunity to get stuck in.