Mixed Messages

17 February 2022

Mixed Messages

Where does this government really stand on free speech?

By Lynda Goetz

This week, the Chairman of the Conservative Party, Oliver Dowden, gave a speech to the Heritage Foundation think tank in Washington DC which he obviously felt was sufficiently significant and timely that it was circulated to members of his party and on Twitter, as well as being reported in the press. Interestingly, although the speech was widely quoted, there was very little commentary on it. LBC’s James O’Brien apparently said he was ‘baffled’ by it, given all the other things which were going on.  Pink News pointed out that Mr Dowden was speaking to the converted, as the Heritage Foundation is a right-wing think tank which has long ‘worked tirelessly against LGBTQ+ rights and hosted political figures like Margaret Thatcher, Donald Trump, Mike Pence, Priti Patel and Liz Truss’. The article concluded by saying that Mr Dowden had been approached for comment. The Huff Post reported without comment as did The Telegraph and The Guardian.

I will not quote extensively from the speech as this has been done elsewhere. Suffice to say that Mr Dowden made it quite plain that he had no time at all for ‘the dismal argument that standing up for freedom is reactionary’ and put forward the view that we should not ‘be obsessed by what divides us rather than unites us’. He was also concerned that this current inward-looking obsession was weakening the West, particularly the US and the UK, at a time when ‘we should be showcasing the vitality of our values and the strength of democratic societies’. He went on to say that activists ‘are engaged in a form of Maoism … determined to expunge large parts of our past in its entirety’. He also pointed out that the government was legislating ‘to protect free speech on campus’ (The Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill).

These words in support of free speech and against cancel culture and the increasingly bullying nature of woke ideologies were almost certainly well-received in the surroundings in which they were given.  Do they truly reflect the current views of the Government however, or are they rather Mr Dowden’s strongly-held personal views as a self-confessed ‘child of Thatcher’ from a working-class background? As The Guardian pointed out, ‘Since entering No 10, Boris Johnson has hired or promoted several ‘anti-woke warriors’, including Munira Mirza, his former policy chief, who resigned this month, Kemi Badenoch, an equalities minister, and Nadine Dorries, the culture secretary. However, Dowden’s preoccupation with the subject suggests the Tories could be willing to make it a platform of their next election campaign’.

These comments are interesting.  An anti-woke but not free speech platform, perhaps?  In a week when Education Secretary Nadhim Zahawi intervened over Brighton Council’s Critical Race Theory training programme for teachers, Health Secretary Sajid Javid piped up in the Jimmy Carr row and described Carr’s joke as ‘horrid’ and urged people to boycott (cancel?) the comedian.  A Downing Street spokesman also branded the comments ‘deeply disturbing’ and ‘unacceptable’ and Nadine Dorries (yes, the same Nadine Dorries) suggested on GB News that new laws could criminalise networks airing such jokes. Have we all lost the plot as well as our sense of humour?  If you are not a fan of tasteless jokes, then perhaps Jimmy Carr is not the comedian for you; but to suggest, as one SNP councillor apparently did, that the audience should be prosecuted for laughing suggests the totalitarian nightmare is even closer than some of us feared. Perhaps Carr himself is right and within a decade we will be saying, “I saw a man and he stood on a stage and he made light of serious issues. We used to call them jokes and people would laugh.”

Free speech does not mean the right to say only those things which are acceptable or those things which we are all agreed upon or which are inoffensive. It does mean, under Article 10 of the Human Rights Act, the freedom to hold and express your own opinions, although individuals have a duty to behave responsibly and to respect the rights of others.  As we all know, hate-crime legislation in place since 1998 and general ‘woke’ attitudes prevalent in many public institutions have muddied the waters somewhat about what is and is not acceptable to say under freedom of expression rights. Perhaps you share the view of Guardian writer, David Shariatmadari, who in an article several years ago posited that ‘There is no crisis of free speech’, but rather that ‘there are no greater limits on behaviour, rather different ones’ and that it is simply the moral code of the reactionary right which is being dismantled. Things have moved on since 2017, when Mr Shariatmadari wrote his article, but the polarisation of society continues.

Oliver Dowden takes issue with those who express their “fury at historical ‘imperialism‘, but “have absolutely nothing to say about Vladimir Putin’s modern-day empire-building” or, he might have added, China’s effectively imperialist ‘Belt and Road Initiative’. Mr Dowden is chairman of a party in which those holding high office appear to have been moving relentlessly leftwards towards social democrat policies. The Government itself has been criticised by its backbenches as well as its grassroots for betraying conservative principles and becoming a high taxation, big state government. The pandemic has clearly accelerated these tendencies. The PM himself had appeared to abandon all those conservative instincts which he displayed with such flair as a journalist. Is Dowden’s speech perhaps a sign that, after the recent torrid times that the party and the Government have gone through, they are going to take a more constructive line on the behaviour that has been thrown up by the current ‘zeitgeist’, or is this simply Dowden’s wishful thinking and the right speech for the right audience?

The Conservative party chairman states in his speech, ‘There was, of course, a time not very long ago, when the mainstream Left was just as committed to free speech as the Right…’ However, ‘…the Left has abandoned the field’ so that ‘we conservatives must find the strength to defend the principles of free society on our own’. He may perhaps have found the cause which could unite the majority occupying the middle ground; those who believe in the rights of all individuals to a decent life, but who do not wish to be bullied into the ‘correct’ way of thinking by a vociferous minority who have no wish to hear any other opinions and do not understand the concept of debate; all those who understand that jokes, like life, can be cruel, but that sometimes we need to laugh anyway.  Sajid Javid and Nadine Dorries may just have to develop a sense of humour or else step aside until they understand that it is not the job of politicians or policemen to police either thoughts or jokes, at least not in a democracy. Surely the ‘old’ Boris must see that, in spite of the whisperings in his ear of the millennial wife and the ‘woke’ young SPADs?

Cover page image: Etienne Girardet / Unsplash

Follow the Shaw Sheet on

It's FREE!

Already get the weekly email?  Please tell your friends what you like best. Just click the X at the top right and use the social media buttons found on every page.

New to our News?

Click to help keep Shaw Sheet free by signing up.Large 600x271 stamp prompting the reader to join the subscription list