Whatever happened to freedom of speech?
Posted by paulipoldie on December 2, 2010
By Max Hastings
We live in a democracy in which it is widely supposed that anything can be said and anything done – at least by celebrity television performers.
Yet within politics, freedom of speech is more drastically constrained than ever before. Seldom have those who govern us been so much inhibited in what they feel able to say or write, not by legislatively-imposed censorship, but by a smothering blanket of supposed propriety and oppressive liberal values.
Until Thursday, former Tory MP Howard Flight enjoyed a lower recognition rating than your average park pigeon. He sprang to fame, or rather plunged into notoriety, by making some explosive remarks during an interview prompted by his newly-awarded peerage.
He denounced government benefit cuts as likely to make the middle class have fewer children and the underclass breed more: ‘Well, that’s not very sensible.’
Headlines screamed. David Cameron fumed, Labour raged, The Guardian revelled in the furore. The ‘guilty’ man apologised. Here was another day, another ‘gaffe’, less than a week after Tory veteran Lord Young was forced to resign after telling the nation it had ‘never had it so good’.
Shocking, isn’t it, the wicked things these politicians say? The funny part starts, however, when we examine the words of Howard Flight and Lord Young.
It is a statistical fact that the middle class have fewer children than the underclass, because the former assess their own ability to raise and educate them, and the latter seldom bother.
As financial pressures on the middle class intensify in the years ahead, it is indeed highly likely that some parents will decide to have fewer children, because they cannot afford them.
The truth of Lord Young’s remarks is equally evident: the British people enjoy a more comfortable lifestyle than at any time in their history.
Whether we shall be able to maintain this happy state is another story, and again the middle class has cause for special alarm. But Young was correct to assert that we ‘have never had it so good’.
His words nonetheless cost him his government job. He committed the most heinous crime of a modern politician: he told the truth, but in terms unacceptable to the commissars of the liberal establishment.
We claim that we want our rulers to be honest, but in reality modern politics is ringed by a vast minefield of Things We Know, But Are Not Allowed To Say.
The term political correctness has become a cliche, but identifies something real. In every aspect of our lives, lines are drawn which politicians and even the rest of us cross at our peril, because a raging pack of truth-deniers will spring at our throats.
Examples? Let us start with the NHS. The idea that healthcare must be absolutely free for everybody has been elevated to a neo-religious principle, which David Cameron treats with more respect than the prayer book.
Every intelligent study shows that Britain’s present NHS structure is not indefinitely affordable. People treat their own health more responsibly if they have a financial stake in adopting a sensible lifestyle, however small. Sooner or later, Britain must move to an insurance-based system or go broke.
But it is deemed suicidal for ministers to admit this. No MP who wants to keep his seat will say that all but a handful of obese people eat too much and exercise too little – that their ghastly condition is their own fault.
More than that, no canny politician suggests that any misfortune in life is the victim’s own fault. It is a fundamental tenet of our society that somebody must be blamed for everything that goes wrong, in order that they can be sued. A whole new breed of vulture lawyers has arisen, to fulfil this purpose.
The Archbishop of Canterbury, that supremely foolish Welsh windbag Dr Rowan Williams, has denounced the Government’s impending benefit cuts as not merely mistaken, but ‘immoral’.
Dr Williams offers no hint of any constructive ideas about how the unaffordable cost of the current welfare state is to be curbed: like Labour’s front bench, he merely proclaims the wickedness of cutting welfare entitlements, as if these were enshrined in Magna Carta.
Rights, rights, rights – the word is abused almost daily by people who should know better, to foreclose debate about how Britain can pay its way through the 21st century, and about what rewards should be conferred on those at the bottom of the pile, heedless of any obligation to strive for themselves.
Another taboo subject is immigration. Almost no frontline politician dares tell the truth about something that has changed this country more irrevocably than two world wars.
Nor are we allowed to say that as long as we are members of the EU and subscribe to the European Convention on Human Rights, pitifully few avenues are open to ministers by which the flow of migrants can be stemmed. It is also these days essential to pretend to think well of Islam, and pay the occasional visit to a mosque.
Any minister who said publicly ‘Race relations in Britain might be in better shape if more Muslims who live here showed a willingness to join our culture and adopt our values’ would be out on his ear next day, denounced on front pages as a bigot. It is unacceptable to assert that if newcomers want to come and live in Britain, they will live happiest and fit in best if they dress and act British.
Selection in education is a litmus test, which no candidate for high office can flinch from, or rather address honestly. David Cameron has closed the door on new grammar schools and is apparently also against any selective schooling system.
The Left and the education establishment denounce these things as elitist, anti-egalitarian, discriminatory.
Some of the mud sticks even to those who argue the rational case for apportioning children to schools and classes according to their abilities and willingness to learn.
It is acceptable for women politicians to speak ill of men, but an ambitious male politician who knows which way his bread is buttered will say nothing about the opposite sex, except how wonderful they are.
He will not admit, for instance, that some women shamelessly milk employment law to pursue bogus claims of sexual discrimination; that few pretty women in the workplace fail to make the most of their looks; that extending maternity leave, never mind paternity leave, is potty.
One of the least attractive spectacles in British politics is that of David Cameron, Nick Clegg and Ed Miliband vying with each other to demonstrate their credentials as good parents, running the kids to school and taking paternity leave.
As a voter, I don’t want anybody who has chosen to run the country at a time of crisis to be messing about with Lego. I want him dealing with our problems, not his children’s. If a man wants to play the good dad, he should choose another career.
But now the entire front rank of British politicians has agreed to play the parenting game, what future candidate for high office will dare break ranks and say ‘This job is too important to waste time changing nappies’?
The silly myth must be sustained that people filling the most demanding offices in the country should also do their bit about the house.
In 2010, it is suicidal to make any statement that might invite a charge of discrimination: I doubt whether any member of the Government could long keep their job after suggesting publicly that gay adoption or IVF treatment for lesbians is a bad idea.
The title of the current comedy movie The Kids Are All Right, about a couple of lesbian parents, says it all. Many of us do not think ‘the kids are all right’: but we would have no future at Westminster if we declared as much.
Consider what would be said about an MP who argued that it is tough for BA to run a popular airline with stewardesses who are allowed to work until they drop, in competition with Singapore Airlines and their kind, who employ only young and pretty ones.
He or she would be in even deeper trouble if they suggested that breast-feeding babies in public places is anti-social.
The Culture Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, recently took much stick for his alleged blunder in saying that those who want to have a lot of children should think more about taking financial responsibility for them, which most of us think a statement of the obvious.
It is politically perilous these days to assert that the aspirational middle class deserve to succeed because they work hard, use their money sensibly, make the most of education, and accept responsibility for their actions.
It is even more hazardous to say that some of those who fail in life do so because they dismiss those principles.
At a more frivolous level, every politician must enthuse about Harry Potter, Strictly Come Dancing and The X Factor, or find themselves denounced for being ‘out of touch with the public’.
Can you imagine David Cameron admitting in an interview, as did Harold Macmillan when he was prime minister, that he spent his leisure hours reading the Victorian novels of Anthony Trollope?
If you want to end a promising career fast, tell a TV audience that you hate football. Worse still, suggest that Joanna Lumley is not the fount of all wisdom about public issues and should stick to acting.
We allow and even expect our rulers to offer obeisance to the vacuous culture of celebrity, when we should have the sense instead to demand that they behave like serious people with serious values. We might even applaud if they wore ties in public, rather than flaunt open-neck shirts to emphasise their informality and ‘accessibility’.
The BBC, with its overwhelming power to set the agenda and influence values, bears a significant responsibility for driving our politicians into an iron cage of political correctness.
Not merely its news coverage but the entire ethos of the BBC’s output reflects the values of the liberal establishment – the Rowan Williams view of life, if you like.
The knowledge that BBC correspondents will treat any minister’s deviation from the PC path not as an error but a career-threatening gaffe goes far to explain why traditional rights of free speech are now so rarely exercised at Westminster.
Both Howard Flight and Lord Young were foolish to say what they did in the way they said it, especially at a time when the British people’s tolerance is strained by financial crisis and looming spending cuts.
But the wider becomes the gulf between obvious realities – or at least, reasonable points of view – and our politicians’ willingness to express these, the worse it must be for us all.
Freedom in Britain is not today threatened by law or official censorship, but by an oppressive liberalism which is almost equally pernicious.