We expect Claire Fox’s views to be challenging. However, she does a great disservice to the defence of free speech from censorship by her muddled and inaccurate recent article about the BNP. Indeed Claire unwittingly is actually calling for censorship of those who oppose the BNP; and she is mistaking censorship with vigorous, democratic disagreement.
Claire describes action by West Country postal workers who refused to deliver BNP leaflets as, in her own words, “overt censorship”. However, what actually happened here is that a group of manual workers personally found the BNP leaflets offensive and sought to exercise a conscience clause in their contract to opt out of delivering them. In response, according to the CWU trade union, Royal Mail management quizzed individual postal workers about why they were opposed to the BNP, and pressurised them not to use their opt out.
This was not censorship by the trade unionists, this was the exercise of an individual contractual right by each postal workers to express their own personal opposition to the BNP. The chair of their trade union branch made it clear that they were not seeking to subvert the Representation of the People Act — their collective aspiration was to get Royal Mail to sub-contract out the BNP leaflet delivery. The postal workers wanted to collectively underline the pariah status that feel the BNP deserve, and individually to express their opposition by not delivering the leaflets.
Where Claire is mistaken is in confusing the concept of censorship with the entirely different process of robust disagreement with a political viewm to the extent of seeking to place it outside of the socially sanctioned mainstream of debate. Refusing to handle the mail was actually a means for the postal workers to express their own political judgement on the BNP.
The social construction of shared moral and political values is a dynamic process, that has, for example, changed over the last 50 years to create far greater tolerance of diversity; however, some viewpoints are regarded as abhorrent because we judge that promoting those views will lead to social harm. In extreme cases, the criminal law is invoked to prevent advocating certain forms of criminal behaviour; which is a form of censorship, although one with widespread social approval. But many of the behaviours that society disapproves of are not criminal –– for example verbal bullying, and rudeness. Most companies and institutions have codes of practice in place to prevent bullying and to demand courtesy in order to mark out the socially sanctioned limits of behaviour. More informally, individuals who are anti-social are shunned by their workmates and neighbours and find difficulty in making friends. This is not censorship, this is the collective process by which we socially construct the shared expectations of social interaction.
So when Claire Fox quotes Phil Woolas saying in the Daily Mail: “If you are not supporting Labour then … please go out and vote for one of the main parties. If you don’t, the UK will have Euro MPs from the far-Right BNP,” he is not seeking to censor the BNP, he is in fact promoting a perfectly legitimate contribution to democratic debate himself — that the BNP are beyond the pale. By criticising a government minister from seeking to delegitimise the BNP, Claire Fox is actually calling for people to self-censor our own sincere opposition to fascism; and to inhibit society from developing a collective consensus about the shared expectations of which views are compatible with the values by which, together, we define our society.
Claire argues that “to effectively Tipp-ex out one of the options by demonising ‘extremist’ views effectively denies the electorate their free speech”. But affording someone free speech does not mean that other people have an obligation to provide a platform for that free speech, or to hide their own opposition to the views they find abhorrent.
Claire is being disingenuous, because of course the BNP are actually strenuously afforded the same legal opportunities as any other political party. What Claire is arguing against is not censorship of the BNP, she is arguing that people have an obligation to provide the BNP with an opportunity to promote themselves, and that we shouldn’t point out the threat that the BNP represent to tolerant, liberal values.
If the organisers of an election hustings decline to put the BNP on the platform, that is not censorship, rather that is the exercise of the hustings organisers’ own political freedom. Claire Fox argues that there is a principle at stake that all parties in an election should be afforded equal rights to address the electorate; but this would actually censor an opponent of a particular party to express their own political views by excluding that party.
At root, Claire is making a philosophical error. John Stuart Mill argued that each individual should have a private sphere that should be as large as is compatible with the interests of society. Affording political parties that we find abhorrent the same legal status and privileges to free speech as mainstream parties satisfies this requirement that we respect the liberty of those we disagree with. The BNP are afforded that legal equality.
However, this liberty for a private sphere does not imply that it is virtuous for individuals to always exercise that liberty. The fallacy deriving from Hayek is that individuals not only have a right to a private sphere, but that they are morally obliged to remain private and not participate in the collective construction of civic morality. As Margaret Thatcher pithily expressed it, “there is no such thing as society”. This is effectively what Claire Fox is advocating by saying that we should not collectively construct a set of social values by which we judge whether the views of a political party make it a threat to our society.
In terms of political debate, the fact that we consider it virtuous that political parties can put forward whatever policies and social programmes they choose does not imply that there is a moral obligation to treat all political parties as equally worthy of a platform to espouse those views.
Andy Newman is editor of Socialist Unity