The UK EU Referendum and the decline of democracy in a time of social media, safe spaces and postmodern relativismPosted: June 19, 2016
The 2016 UK referendum campaign on EU membership has not been a happy time for democracy, even before the tragic murder of Jo Cox. There have certainly been decent and principled protagonists involved with both the Remain and Leave campaign who have drawn upon issues and data to form solid arguments (and I think here the role of Jeremy Corbyn, perhaps the ultimate politician driven solely by issues, has been underestimated). But to a very high degree, the campaign has not been like this, and has been saturated with cheap populist pandering, lies and misinformation, conflation of the EU with only tangentially-related issues (such as that of refugees from the Middle East), and above all, a type of campaigning which appeals on an emotional rather than rational level, by stoking fear, playing to tribal identity (including racism and xenophobia), crudely dismissing opponents’ positions without proper argument, and so on.’Experts’ have been summarily dismissed and denigrated, facts have been little-appreciated and understood, and the whole campaign has played out in sitting rooms, offices, bars and cafés amongst large numbers of voters who I would wager know very little about the actual nature or workings of the EU, the policies and voting records of their democratically elected MEPs, which of the EU horror stories reported by the tabloid press are fact, which fiction or gross distortion, and so on.
This is all a very great shame, as this campaign should have provided an opportunity for a new level of public education about the EU, its history, and operations, and indeed about Britain’s relationship to continental Europe as a whole. I realise that it is over-idealistic to expect all or even most of the population to make highly intelligent, rational and educated decisions based on issues rather than personalities, but the referendum campaign has sunk to new lows in this respect.
Many have not unreasonably questioned the wisdom of holding a referendum at all on such an issue, in the knowledge that it would likely be determined more by prejudice than any more mature politics. I have little doubt that it was called because of David Cameron’s needing to temper a split down the middle of the Conservative Party, just as Harold Wilson did the same in 1975 when his own party and cabinet were deeply split on the same issue. But I am hesitant about saying that referenda on major constitutional issues are wrong; if one accepts the validity of those referenda on devolution (and independence) in Scotland and Wales, for example, it is hard to argue against giving the British people a chance to vote on this.
However, I think we are now living in the worst possible time for such a campaign, and a low point for cynical dismissal of all politicians (at least those who have ever held any power or office) and democratic debate in general. And I wish to suggest a few hypotheses about some factors which have brought about this situation.
The last decade has seen the growth of social media, especially Facebook and Twitter. As a regular user of both, I would be the last person in a position to start arguing that these are a bad things, but I do see some major problems they engender. Facebook is ubiquitous, especially amongst younger generations; Twitter is particularly favoured by journalists, media types, many politicians, and others, which gives it a different general political complexion. Online communications are not so new – many used online messageboards and chatrooms before either Facebook or Twitter were created – but these more recent sites create a means by which many people’s whole lives are partially spent, and documented, online, to be seen by others, who often provide solace by expressing their approval. But of course, on Facebook in particular, one gets to choose who is in one’s circle (Twitter is much more public, a likely reason why it is used less often by those who simply wish to communicate with their friends). That in itself is not so different from some of the wider world, though it is hard to avoid coming into contact with strangers and those who might look at the world in a quite different way, unless one lives a relatively hermetic existence. That is not the case on Facebook; one can inhabit a realm entirely populated by like-minded people. In the face of cyber-bullying (much easier from the safety of a computer screen or smartphone than face-to-face bullying), many increasingly choose to do this. This is more than understandable, but with it comes the problems of creating an ‘echo chamber‘, whereby one puts out views and opinions mostly in order to have them echoed by others (at least this can be the result, if not the intention), and gain self-esteem by being regularly ‘liked’.
In itself, this phenomenon might not be so bad, except for when it blinds some to the possibility that the wider world might be quite unlike the comfort zone they inhabit on social media. Worse, it can generate a good deal of in-group/out-group hostility, leading to disdain, dismissal or even hatred towards anyone who breaks with a narrow consensus. This is how group bullying works in general (and mirrors wider prejudice and ostracisation of minority groups), but the relative safety of social media makes the bullying easier for the bullies, and arguably even more devastating for the victims (perhaps especially in the case of Twitter storms against those who have made some careless, ignorant, or mildly bigoted remarks there).
As the new Vice-Chancellor of Oxford, Louise Richardson, recently argued on a radio interview, a new generation of students have grown up spending their formative years within the echo chambers of social media, and these are the ones now demanding trigger warning, safe spaces and the likes (I would extend Richardson’s arguments to include many older adults too). Whilst it is perfectly reasonable for individuals to ask for some protection from hatred, highly personalised attacks, harassment and bullying, I fear many have lost a sense of the distinction between these and proper argument and robust debate, or rational critique (even if severe) of work, when applied fairly (i.e. not applying radically different standards to different work or individuals because of other motivations).
In many ways I do believe that many students and academics are attempting to demand that their working lives resemble the type of pampered realm to which they have become accustomed on social media, or simply from surrounding themselves with crowds of acolytes and other true believers. This is especially detrimental to academia and education in general, which should provide spaces where all types of positions and arguments can be presented and properly debated, and which can militate against easy complacency and unexamined positions. Lecturers should challenge students, students should challenge lecturers, members of each group should regularly challenge each other, and the frameworks of the institutions should ensure that this can happen. Safe spaces and trigger warnings are the very opposite of this, as are highly emotive or rhetorical modes of argument or teaching. Obviously not all students, or lecturers, necessarily have the emotional or intellectual maturity to cope with proper debate and challenge when they start out in these places, but I believe it is imperative that they learn to develop such maturity. Other factors can work against this though; one is the simple narcissism of some students and lecturers, in the latter case countenancing no dissenting viewpoints or literature, and seeking to personally demean or undermine anyone who thinks otherwise; such individuals are invariably extremely poor teachers, rarely interested in learning, only in being adored. Another is the growth of corporate academic culture, by which top-down directives are issued for management, and the wider culture rewards all types of conformity, in flagrant contradiction of the principles of academic freedom. Also, I see many academics organising into narrow factions, only containing those who agree or at least share a range of basic assumptions, with the same techniques of ostracisation of dissenters to be found in social media. This is another form of bullying which I have experienced and witnessed far too often.
This may seem a big tangent, from an academic too focused upon the type of environment in which they work. This may be the case (I would mention that I do also inhabit a very different – if equally problematic – realm as a professional musician), but I think when even the most hallowed spaces for free debate and argument are becoming corrupted in this manner, then this bodes very ill for other areas of public life. If those in academic life cannot separate issues and personalities, what are the chances of the wider public being able to do the same?
But the type of ideal democratic debate I have been outlining does require a belief in the very possibility of facts and rational debate; a belief which some who identify as ‘postmodern’ do not hold. On a feature earlier this year on BBC Newsnight, the reporter suggested that US Republicans had been having a ‘postmodern moment’ with the rise of Donald Trump, who ultimately does not care that much about facts, nor really hides the fact. It may seem very surprising to link a right-wing demagogue like Trump to postmodernism, and I would hesitate to do so, but I do see reasons why the phenomena may not be unrelated.
In the postmodern realm (about which inevitably I generalise a little), truth says more about the power held by those proclaiming it, ‘subject positions’ (which, as Terry Eagleton has argued, are the nearest contemporary thing to older ideals of ‘authenticity’) matter more than the cogency of arguments presented, ‘facts’ are mostly an illusion, rational debate is little more than an ideological conceit of the privileged, and ultimately arguments are better judged on political allegiance than any supposedly more disinterested criteria. These are the extreme positions, for sure, not all of which are held (or held in such a fundamentalist fashion) by all of those identifying as postmodern, but they are not imaginary. In certain modified forms, I would not disagree that some of these positions have value; some ‘facts’ are somewhat spurious, but have been accepted because certain people have propagated them, whilst certain narrowly ‘rational’ approaches to debate can have a dehumanising effect through the ways in which they are framed (with associated rhetoric, for example that of ‘collateral damage’). But I would challenge these in the name of better conceptions of facts, rationality, and so on, not in order to dismiss the concepts in general. Experts should be challenged, including by political campaigners in a referendum such as this one, but in order that they are required to substantiate and explain their expert views and conclusions, not because anyone else can lay an equal claim to expertise.
As Richard Evans pointed out in his book In Defence of History, when a position appeals purely on the basis of the politics it espouses, there is little if any chance of ever being able to convince someone of a different political persuasion, for that requires some appeal to wider knowledge beyond allegiances. I would say the same applies to appeals to identity; most fatally, the very legitimation of identity as a criterion of political value has ultimately emboldened most the right-wing Leave campaign, enabling them to appeal to a sense of national belonging and identity, with a concomitant fear of and hostility towards foreigners, amongst white working-class and older people (see this pertinent article by John Harris).
Modern democracy is a deeply flawed system in many ways. It has developed in line with the modern Western nation state, and no-one has yet really found a workable system which is not enclosed within the borders of such nation states (ironically, the European Parliament might be one of the better attempts at so doing). The late historian Tony Judt (in interview in the volume Thinking the Twentieth Century) pointed out that with the fall of the Hapsburg monarchy, Jewish people in Austria faced a new threat as a minority within mass democratic society, after having received some degree of protection Emperor Franz Joseph II. Democracy within a nation state will always be problematic for minority groups within that nation state, for simple numerical reasons, when there is some degree of conflict. And beyond this, it is no easy task to convince an electorate, especially one undergoing difficult economic and other conditions, to factor in the interests of other non-citizens (here including other Europeans, migrants and refugees) when this is presented as being against their own self-interest.
But I do not believe these problems cannot be at least mitigated, with a properly operative media representing a genuine plurality of opinion, a high degree of education about the political process and issues at schools, a functioning public sphere (for which a different type of social media can play an important role), and an acceptance that ‘democracy’ is a wider concept than simply putting some Xs in boxes from time to time, and involves a degree of engagement and respect for all types of groups in society. I wish I could say I see this happening in the UK, but am currently pessimistic. There is a growing level of generalised disenchantment with the political process and politicians in general, declining turnout at elections, especially amongst the young (though the Scottish Referendum was a marked exception), and a wider culture which is increasingly anti-intellectual and even tribal. Unelected and unaccountable celebrities, media personalities and even industry leaders seem to garner more respect than those who regularly submit themselves to electoral ratification.
The writer Edward Bernays, father of modern propaganda and public relations, realised the much greater potency of campaigns which operate on an emotive or atavistic level than those involving rational decisions (Bertold Brecht would have agreed, but drawn very different conclusions). Bernays’ ideas, and their application in PR, advertising, politics and more have been explored and chronicled in Adam Curtis’s documentary The Century of the Self. In the process, powerful tools have been developed which feed into an increasingly irrationalist political sphere. Extreme relativists, those cocooned in social media and echo chambers, and many of the advocates of safe spaces, should all consider whether they are playing a part in forfeiting the possibility of any alternative.
The loss of all but one Labour seat in Scotland to the SNP appears to have sent shockwaves down the political establishment, as if Scotland were a much larger part of the United Kingdom – in terms of population and seats – than it actually is. It’s time for some perspective in terms of figures:
There are currently 650 seats in the whole of the United Kingdom. 18 of these are in Northern Ireland and are generally uncontested by the major parties in the mainland. This leaves 632 for England, Scotland and Wales. Of these, 533 are in England, 59 are in Scotland, 40-in Wales. England has nine times the number of seats of the next largest region.
In 2015, the breakdown of seats in the three constituent parts of the mainland were as follows:
Total: Conservatives 330, Labour 232, SNP 56, Lib Dems 8, UKIP 1, Green 1, Speaker 1
England: Conservatives 318, Labour 206, Lib Dems 6, UKIP 1, Green 1, Speaker 1
Scotland: SNP 56, Labour 1, Conservatives 1, Lib Dems 1
Wales: Labour 25, Conservatives 11, Plaid Cymru 3, Lib Dems 1
Labour continue to have a clear commanding lead in Wales; there is not at present any sign of Plaid Cymru making major advances comparable to the SNP, though of course this situation may change. The Conservatives, however, have an overall majority in England of 107 seats. Were Labour to recapture 20 seats in Scotland (which would now be a significant gain), say, they would still be a long way from denting the Conservatives majority in England.
But Labour have achieved this before. Consider these results in England alone:
1945: Labour 331, Conservatives 159, Liberals 5, Labour Independent 1, Independent Conservative 1, Common Wealth 1, Communist 1, Independent 3
1950: Labour 251, Conservatives 242, Liberals 2, National Liberals and Conservatives 4, Conservatives and Liberals 2, Conservatives and Natural Liberals 2, Liberals and Conservatives 1, National Liberals 1,
1951: Conservatives 259, Labour 233, Liberals 2, Conservatives and Liberals 2, Conservatives and National Liberals 2, Liberals and Conservatives 3, National Liberals and Conservatives 5
1955: Conservatives 279, Labour 216, Liberals 2, Conservatives and Liberals 2, Conservatives and National Liberals, Liberals and Conservatives 3, National Liberals and Conservatives 5
1959: Conservatives 302, Labour 193, Liberals 3, Conservatives and Liberals 2, Conservatives and National Liberals 6, Liberals and Conservatives 2, National Liberals and Conservatives 3
1964: Conservatives 255, Labour 245, Liberals 3, Conservatives and National Liberals 4, National Liberals and Conservatives 2, Speaker 1
1966: Labour 285, Conservatives 216, Liberals 6, Conservatives and National Liberals 2, National Liberals and Conservatives 1, Speaker 1
1970: Conservatives 292, Labour 216, Liberals 2, Speaker 1
February 1974: Conservatives 267, Labour 237, Liberals 9, Independent Labour 1, Social Democrat 1, Speaker 1
October 1974: Labour 255, Conservatives 252, Liberals 8, Speaker 1
1979: Conservatives 306, Labour 203, Liberals 7
1983: Conservatives 362, Labour 148, Liberals 10, SDP 3
1987: Conservatives 357, Labour 155, Liberals 7, SDP 3, Speaker 1
1992: Conservatives 319, Labour 195, Lib Dems 10
1997: Labour 329, Conservatives 165, Lib Dems 34, Independent 1
2001: Labour 323, Conservatives 165, Lib Dems 40, Independent 1
2005: Labour 286, Conservatives 194, Lib Dems 47, Respect 1, Independent 1
2010: Conservatives 297, Labour 191, Lib Dems 43, Green 1, Speaker 1
2015: Conservatives 318, Labour 206, Lib Dems 6, UKIP 1, Green 1, Speaker 1
In five of the eight elections since 1945 in which Labour won a majority nationwide, they also won an overall majority in England. The exceptions are 1950, when the Conservatives together with associated conservative parties had a total of 252 to Labour’s 251 in England, and Labour’s overall majority in the country was just 6 seats; 1964, when Labour had a nationwide majority of only 5, excluding the Speaker; and October 1974, when Labour had a nationwide majority of only 4. Attlee in 1945 and Blair in 1997 and 2001 won commanding three figure overall majorities in England alone; Wilson in 1966 had a respectable majority of 59, and Blair in 2005 also had a perfectly serviceable majority of 45.
Furthermore, in 1945, 1997 and 2001 Labour had an overall majority in the whole of the country on the basis of its English seats alone; in 1966 it would have scraped one from its seats in England and Wales (317 out of 630). 2005 was different, however; then the total of seats in England and Wales was 315, which would still have made it the largest party by a comfortable margin, but not able to command an overall majority in the UK if the SNP had performed like they did in 2015.
Labour can win, and win decisively in England; being able to do so is key to their winning a comfortable overall majority in the country again.
My predictions from January for the election results turned out to be significantly out; but then so did almost everyone else’s, including those of Iain Dale and Peter Kellner which I cite in the above link. One small consolation, in predictive terms, is having forecast a bigger collapse in the Liberal Democrat vote than many others did; it always appeared to me that with the loss of the major tactical vote which had doubled the Liberal Democrat representation in Parliament in 1997 from what it had previously been, the party would fall away to less than 20 seats, though it is still shocking to see them fall to 8.
But in the midst of an emotional aftermath and a large amount of disappointment and disillusionment for many on the left following the unexpected result, have a look at the actual results in terms of votes and percentages, compared to 2010:
Conservatives: 10,806,015, 36.4% in 2010; 11,334,920, 36.8% in 2015.
Labour: 8,609,527, 29.0% in 2010; 9,344,328, 30.4% in 2015.
Liberal Democrats: 6,836,824, 23.0% in 2010; 2,415,888, 7.9% in 2015.
UKIP: 919,471, 3.1% in 2010; 3,881,129, 12.6% in 2015.
SNP: 491,386, 1.7% in 2010; 1,454,436, 4.7% in 2015.
Greens: 265,243, 0.9% in 2010; 1,154,562, 3.8% in 2015.
Plaid Cymru: 165,394, 0.4% in 2010; 181,694, 0.6% in 2015.
Turnout: 29,687,604, 65.1% in 2010; 30,691,680, 66.1% in 2015.
So in 2015 there was a very small increase in both Conservative and Labour votes. UKIP and the Greens had the biggest success in votes terms, both quadrupling their numbers (though UKIP started out from a much bigger base and are a very much more significant force); the SNP trebled theirs. The Liberal Democrats had by far the worst result of the above, falling to almost one-third of what they had before. Plaid Cymru achieved a very small increase.
But then look at the results in Scotland:
Conservatives: 412,655, 16.7% in 2010; 434,097, 14.9% in 2015.
Labour: 1,035,526, 42.0% in 2010; 707,147, 24.3% in 2015.
Liberal Democrats: 465,471, 18.9% in 2010; 219,675, 7.5% in 2015.
SNP: 491,386, 19.9% in 2010; 1,454,436, 50.0% in 2015.
UKIP: 17,223, 0.7% in 2010; 47,078, 1.6% in 2015.
Greens (Scottish Greens): 16,827, 0.7% in 2010, 39,205, 1.3% in 2015.
Turnout: 2,465,722, 63.8% in 2010; 2,910,465, 71.1% in 2015.
The Conservatives slightly upped their number of votes, but fell in terms of proportions by about one-eighth; Labour fell drastically, to almost half of their percentage votes, and the Liberal Democrats even more so. The SNP had a massive rise to two-and-a-half times the percentage their received in 2010, and interestingly the Greens doubled their vote, and UKIP did even better (doing better than the Greens by all measures in Scotland).
So if we therefore look at the votes for the five major national parties in England and Wales alone, we get the following figures:
Conservatives: 10,393,360, 38.2% in 2010; 10,900,823, 39.2% in 2015.
Labour: 7,574,001, 27.8% in 2010; 8,637,181, 31.1% in 2015.
Liberal Democrats: 6,371,353, 23,4% in 2010; 2,196,213, 7.9% in 2015.
UKIP: 902,248, 3.3% in 2010; 3,834,051, 13.8% in 2015.
Greens: 248,416, 0.9% in 2010; 1,115,357, 4.0% in 2015.
Turnout: 27,221,882, 65.2% in 2010; 27,781,215, 65.6% in 2015.
So here the patterns are similar to those for the UK as a whole, except for the fact that Labour gained 3.3% in England and Wales (compared to just 1.4% in the whole UK) and the Conservatives 1% (0.4% in the UK). UKIP and the Greens’ increases were both larger in England and Wales compared to the UK as a whole.
In terms of seats, in 2015 Labour gained 10 seats from the Conservatives, but the Conservatives in turn gained 8 from them, a net gain for Labour of just 2. Labour won 12 from the Liberal Democrats, but the Conservatives won 27 (their net gain in the election of seats from any other parties was 29). The Liberal Democrats had previously had a strong presence in Scotland with 11 seats; with all but one of these falling away.
Without the loss of 40 seats in Scotland, Labour would have a total of 272, 16 more than in 2010; without the huge gains from the Liberal Democrats, the Conservatives would have had 304, just 2 more than in 2010. Labour fell because its gains from the Liberal Democrats (12 seats) and Conservatives (2 net) were too modest to match their losses to the SNP (40 seats). The Conservatives lost no seats to the SNP at all and scraped a majority primarily through winning seats from the Liberal Democrats.
So the pattern appears as follows: in England and Wales Labour upped its vote by 3.3%, respectable but nothing like enough to make a real difference, largely through the collapse of the Liberal Democrat vote, but this benefited the Tories much more, either through directly taking votes or the collapse of an anti-Tory tactical vote. Labour were thrown back immensely above all by their drastic fall in Scotland. The Conservatives are very far from having won over a decisive section of the UK population; they have around 8% more than Labour in England and Wales, but have not hit 40% of those who vote. They are in a similar position to Harold Wilson after the October 1974 election, and a worse one than John Major after the 1992 election.
But for Labour, consider the percentages of the vote they have received in elections since 1964:
After the massive losses in 1983, Neil Kinnock was able to get the party almost to their 1979 levels by 1992. Ed Miliband has achieved considerably less than this. Tony Blair did not achieve the share of the vote of Harold Wilson in the 1960s (or even when Labour lost to the Conservatives in 1970) but benefited from a Conservative Party which had moved considerably to the right and lost a significant vote to the Liberal Democrats, who were also prepared to help Labour defeat the Conservatives through tactical voting. These factors have now changed; few would now appear to vote Liberal Democrat tactically against the Conservatives, and David Cameron has just about managed to convince wavering voters that the party is less toxic than it was during the Blair years.
Labour have not lost their key base of around 30% of the vote which translates into somewhere between 200 and 250 seats – though inevitable boundary changes will hurt the number of seats they can gain with the same votes. To win again, they need to regain a significant amount of their seats in Scotland (which may be the biggest challenge) and also make some inroads into that Conservative 8% lead in England and Wales. The apparent difficulty seems to lie in the fact that these aims seem mutually incompatible. However, I do not believe that the Scottish vote represents a significant move to the left and would ask how many would have voted for the SNP if they had the same programme except for the demand for independence, or any other rhetoric about being ‘Scottish’ or ‘national’; their performance might then be more comparable to that of the Greens. A situation of full financial autonomy, and its economic consequences (let alone those of full independence) might change the view of a great many Scottish people towards nationalism, though either such move would be very difficult to undo. Personally I find it extremely sinister when 50% of the people of an area unite under a flag, and find ludicrous suggestions that Labour would surge forth to victory if they became more like the SNP; they might find themselves closer to the position of the Greens.
Without the charismatic figure of Farage at the helm, the UKIP vote may wither away, but the consequences of this remain to be unseen. It will take a great deal for the Liberal Democrats to rebuild themselves; their decline may be terminal. Nick Clegg has returned them to their situation under Clement Davies in the 1950s, and completely undone the efforts of Paddy Ashdown and Charles Kennedy to make them into a major third party force (see this post for a wider analysis of the results for the Liberal Democrats in historical perspective). But this just might offer an opportunity for Labour to reclaim some of the previous centre ground, but this would take a major cultural shift in the party such as they have only taken previously under Blair (and would have done under Gaitskell had he survived) in times of desperation following successive defeats. I will always resent deeply much of Blair’s foreign policy, but still acknowledge that New Labour did make possible some genuinely progressive social policies on the home front (as much because of others around him as Blair himself) and made the UK into a more internationally-minded and European country than that to which it has slipped back since. To achieve what Labour achieved under Blair, at least in the first term, may be as much as Labour could hope for now. This would still be a good deal better than what we have now.
Be very sceptical about online communications laws which protect the powerful – social media and the right to offendPosted: October 20, 2014
Today the UK Justice Secretary, Chris Grayling, clarified that what he called ‘a baying cyber-mob’ could face up to two years in jail under new laws. This refers to proposed amendments to the 1988 Malicious Communications Act, to quadruple the maximum sentence. Already, as modified in 2001 (modifications indicated), the law defines the following offence:
1. Offence of sending letters etc. with intent to cause distress or anxiety
Any person who sends to another person—
(a)a [F1 letter, electronic communication or article of any description] which conveys—
(i)a message which is indecent or grossly offensive;
(ii)a threat; or
(iii)information which is false and known or believed to be false by the sender; or
(b)any [F2 article or electronic communication] which is, in whole or part, of an indecent or grossly offensive nature,
is guilty of an offence if his purpose, or one of his purposes, in sending it is that it should, so far as falling within paragraph (a) or (b) above, cause distress or anxiety to the recipient or to any other person to whom he intends that it or its contents or nature should be communicated.
(2)A person is not guilty of an offence by virtue of subsection (1)(a)(ii) above if he shows—
(a)that the threat was used to reinforce a demand [F3 made by him on reasonable grounds]; and
(b)that he believed [F4, and had reasonable grounds for believing,] that the use of the threat was a proper means of reinforcing the demand.
[F5 (2A)In this section “electronic communication” includes—
(a)any oral or other communication by means of a telecommunication system (within the meaning of the Telecommunications Act 1984 (c. 12)); and
(b)any communication (however sent) that is in electronic form.]
(3)In this section references to sending include references to delivering [F6 or transmitting] and to causing to be sent [F7, delivered or transmitted] and “sender” shall be construed accordingly.
(4)A person guilty of an offence under this section shall be liable on summary conviction to [F8 imprisonment for a term not exceeding six months or to a fine not exceeding level 5 on the standard scale, or to both].
Under the new amendments, the maximum sentence would be two years.
Direct physical or other threats are indeed a worrying phenomenon of social media, as are any threats to politicians or others in public life, and I have no problem with these being criminalised. But it is clear that this law goes much further than that. In particular, the terms ‘indecent’ and ‘grossly offensive’ are very nebulous, and could be used in highly censorious ways, as I will attempt to demonstrate presently.
Amongst those cited in support of Grayling’s laws are former Conservative MP Edwina Currie and Labour MP Stella Creasy. A 33-year old man, Peter Nunn, received an 18-month sentence for abusive Twitter messages against Creasy. Yet Creasy’s rank hypocrisy was amply demonstrated when challenged by myself and various others some weeks ago to condemn a case where violence was not merely threatened but actually carried out, in a frenzied attack against Respect MP George Galloway by Neil Masterson, who appears to be a neo-fascist supporter of the Israeli government. The 60-year old Galloway was leaped on in a frenzied manner by the attacker, and suffered a broken jaw, suspected broken rib and severe bruising to the head and face through the attack. There were a shocking number of people posting online in many places to say Galloway deserved it.
Just a few prominent commentators made an issue of this. Peter Oborne, writing in the Telegraph, drew attention to the fact that no political party leader, nor the Speaker of the House of Commons, had condemned this attack on Galloway, which Oborne called ‘beyond doubt an attack on British democracy itself’. He added:
Had an MP been attacked by some pro-Palestinian fanatic for his support of Israel, I guess there would have been a national outcry and rightly so. Why then the silence from the mainstream establishment following this latest outrageous assault on a British politician?
Times journalist Hugo Rifkind, no political supporter of Galloway, tweeted on 31/8 ‘What happened to @georgegalloway shouldn’t happen to any politician in this country. Horrifying. Hope he’s okay.’
Amongst the responses were one by @77annfield, who said ‘any physical attack is wrong but it was his personality that brought it on’ (i.e. he basically deserved it), a few days later by an @ElectroPig who said ‘It shouldn’t happen to an HONEST politician who actually gives a damn. The rest of the bastards? #FineByMe’.
No UK party leader nor prominent politician condemned this attack on a fellow MP. Can we presume that Creasy thinks physical assault is OK, or at least not much of an issue, when it is against a political opponent or someone she doesn’t like? I am quite sure that if Creasy had suffered such an attack, and had her jaw and ribs broken, Galloway would have wholeheartedly condemned it.
Edwina Currie is currently the subject of various scrutiny for her role in appointing Jimmy Savile to a taskforce to run Broadmoor prison,, where he was involved in widespread sexual abuse, and also for the fact that she knew about the paedophile activities of late Conservative MP Peter Morrison, but appeared to do nothing about it until she could use it in diaries she had to sell. She said on the subject of Grayling’s proposals:
Most people know the difference between saying something nice and saying something nasty, saying something to support, which is wonderful when you get that on Twitter, and saying something to wound which is very cruel and very offensive.
it should not be surprising if Currie only wants ‘nice’ things said about her, considering her record. But the freedom to say things which are cruel, very offensive, and may be designed to wound, is fundamental in a democracy, I would say, however much Currie may not wish it to be. I worry about the implications of this law more widely to be possibilities of political dissent and satire in an age in which electronic communications and social media play a more prominent role than ever.
With this in mind, I would strongly recommend watching the two part 1994 BBC series written and presented by Kenneth Baker (now Lord Baker), From Walpole’s Bottom to Major’s Underpants, tracing the history of the political cartoon.
The image below, produced anonymously in 1740, refers to Robert Walpole, Prime Minister from 1721 to 1742.
This dates from 1797, and is by Richard Newton, showing Pope Pius VI kissing the bare bottom of Napoléon Bonaparte.
More recently, this image from 1967, drawn by Gerald Scarfe for Private Eye, shows Harold Wilson pulling down the back of Lindon Baines Johnson’s trousers and pants, as a comment on the Vietnam War; the original image actually had Wilson’s tongue up Johnson’s bottom, but then-editor Richard Ingrams thought this was too much.
This 1988 image, Mirth and Girth by then School or Art Institute of Chicago student David K. Nelson Jr, is of former Chicago major Harold Washington. This picture was confiscated by Chicago police, though Nelson later won a federal lawsuit against the city on the grounds of the confiscation and damage to his picture.
This from 2006, by cartoonist Latuff, shows fundamentalist pro-Israel zealot Alan Dershowitz masturbating over the sight of carnage in Lebanon brought about through Israeli military action.
This cartoon from Martin Rowson from 2007 at the time of Tony Blair’s resignation as Prime Minister, hardly hides its ‘fuck off and die’ message.
And here, from 2012, is a Steve Bell cartoon portraying Angela Merkel as a dominatrix of Europe.
Other example would include a bare-breasted Margaret Thatcher on Spitting Image (which I have been unable to find to post here), and countless other images from that programme (look at the treatment of Cecil Parkinson, David Mellor or Sarah Ferguson, for example, after all were embroiled in sex scandals).
All of these could be more than plausibly described as ‘indecent’ (except perhaps the Rowson cartoon) and ‘grossly offensive’. They all appeared in mainstream publications, but what would happen if a cartoonist posted them online, and tweeted them, perhaps with the hashtag of their subjects included? If they would be liable for prosecution and possibly a two-year prison sentence, this would be an extremely worrying development indeed.
I have seen and experienced intimidation online by other pro-Israeli neo-fascists, who spread messages of sometimes violent hatred. Some students have been revealed to have been paid by the Israeli government to act as propagandists, and I would imagine some of the people I have encountered are amongst these. I cannot imagine these laws being used against them (and certainly have not heard of such a case), though in the future I could certainly imagined them being used to intimidate pro-Palestinian campaigners, by branding various views they might express (such as, for example, that the foundation of the state of Israel involved the dispossession and ethnic cleansing of Palestinians, and cannot be accepted as legitimate) as ‘anti-semitic’, and as such constituting quasi-hate crimes against those to whom they are addressed. In neither of these cases is criminalisation appropriate.
In the UK, there is no written constitution as such, and thus no equivalent of the First Amendment to protect free speech. Many on both the left and the right would like to restrict the range of opinions capable of being expressed, at least through media they do not control (such as parts of the internet, as opposed to broadcast media over which the state has a monopoly or a press with whose owners successive Prime Ministers have an unhealthy relationship). But I believe very fundamentally in the right to the widest type of free speech when there is not a direct threat or incitement to something which is already a criminal act. And this would include views or statements which some will interpret as sexist, racist, anti-semitic, etc., or even a belief that terrible things should happen to someone, so long as this is not a direct incitement.
I generally block anyone on Twitter who says that anyone deserves to be hanged, to be raped in prison, or otherwise to be beaten up or mutilated – as often wished upon in the case of child abusers – or those who express approval for vigilantes or gangs thereof (including, for example, the female vigilante gangs in India). To my mind, those who do or wish such things are become little better than the abusers themselves. But I still do not believe at all that they should be criminalised for what they say.
In June, together with a group of others, I was involved in a Twitter campaign to get various MPs to add their names to those calling for a public inquiry into organised child abuse. As I discussed in a post I published on the eve of Simon Danczuk’s appearance before the Home Affairs Select Committee (which moved the campaign into another gear), I did not feel the persistent hectoring approach taken by some (and encouraged in that respect by Exaro News) was necessarily very productive. However, the campaign as a whole did undoubtedly result in many more MPs adding their names than would have otherwise been the case, and this played a fundamental part in Home Secretary Theresa May’s agreeing to the inquiry. A few people, including Labour MP Eric Joyce, and for a while former Conservative MP Mark Reckless, complained that this amounted to ‘online bullying’ (a refrain also taken up by some journalistic opponents of an inquiry, and doubtless privately by many other politicians). I would be very worried that in the future such politicians could threaten Twitter activists with this law to dissuade them from running such a campaign. The same would apply to Edwina Currie and her condescending and arrogant approach to questions which are put to her concerning abuse, or to numerous other politicians. Examples of these might be Harriet Harman MP, who is naturally not going to be happy with numerous tweeters reminding her of her earlier activities which served to help the Paedophile Information Exchange and their ideologies, or Lord Mayor of London Fiona Woolf, proposed chair of the inquiry, who has recently deleted her Twitter account after a period which has seen many tweets asking her questions about the nature of her personal and professional connections to various people themselves likely to come under scrutiny as part of the inquiry.
Be very distrustful of any laws, or any expansion of sentences linked to a law, which receive support first and foremost from politicians or others in power looking to criminalise ordinary people who attack them (when not in a manner actually constituting obviously criminal attack, as with Galloway). With more and more revelations coming to light about politicians, abuse and the corruption of power, there will be many angry people, some of whose statements to politicians on social media may unsurprisingly be intemperate. Do not let those politicians get away with criminalising their critics. So long as there are no direct threats involved, members of the public in a democracy should be free to be as harsh and offensive to politicians as they choose.
But I would ask whether the following hypothetical tweets would lead to two-year jail sentences against those who sent them?
@JimmySavile You are a vile abuser of children and necrophiliac protected at high levels of government
@PeterRighton Your proposed childcare reforms will make it easier for you to rape boys in homes
@PatriciaHewitt You submitted document to government saying child abuse does no harm, paedo defender
@PeterMorrison Did you miss the division bell because you were too busy seeking out adolescents in public toilets?
@CyrilSmith You are a hideous, obese and arrogant ass whose jokey exterior masks boy-raping scum
The following passage comes from Paul Foot, Who Framed Colin Wallace? (London: Macmillan, 1989), pp. 394-395.
If a secret state like this is allowed to grow unchecked all democratic politicians are at risk. it is no use right-wing politicians imagining that they themselves will be safe from the secret state, perhaps because they have more in common with each other politically. The monster, once fed, will grow hungrier. The upholders of the secret state regard all democratic politicians as traitors to the true cause, and will attack them just as readily as they attacked Harold Wilson or Merlyn Rees in the past. Early on in the miners’ strike of 1984, a vile rumour about the personal behaviour of the Home Secretary, Leon Brittan, started to circulate among journalists. The information was, as I eventually discovered, completely untrue. But it had about it just enough of the ‘ring of truth’ to make it sound credible. Anyone who believed it for an instant would have wanted Leon Brittan removed from office at once. After checking that the information was wrong, I then strove for many days to find its source. It was nowhere to be found. Everybody had ‘heard it from somewhere else’. Sometimes they could remember where they heard it, but that source would prove as maddeningly vague about his source – and so on, endlessly to nothing. Fortunately for Mr Brittan, the rumour never got into print. But where did it come from? So untrue was it that it could not have originated in that part of Britain where the ‘event’ was said to have taken place. It must have been entirely made up. But who could or would have made it up, save those same operators in the Intelligence service who, perhaps, did not want a Jew with a faintly liberal reputation to be leading the government offensive against the miners and in nominal control of MI5. This was by no means the first time that anti-Semitic propaganda against the large number of Jews in Mrs Thatcher’s circle has insidiously circulated among journalists and politicians.