Lord Roger Roberts: May’s Counter-Terror powers could enable her to ban liberalism

Lord Roger Roberts gave the following speech expressing his concerns about the Counter-Terrorism and Security Bill in the House of Lords at its Second Reading on Tuesday:

I was delighted that Lord Carlile mentioned, in his contribution to the debate, the four Albanians—two Muslims and two Christians—who walked together in the demonstration in Paris

Multi-faith groups exist in many places and people are able to say, “My brother, my sister, my family; we are one family”. We could really tackle a lot of these stresses before they become threatening. There is an opportunity in some way or another to encourage it.

However, the world is full of uncertainties. I am not the only one who remembers the time when it was better to be red than dead—so some said. Others said that it was better to be dead than red. Today it is the difference, between security and liberty. We are trying to see where is the line that needs to be drawn. This Bill seeks to draw that line. I sometimes measure our civilisation by Alan Paton’s (the author of Cry, the Beloved Country) values. In a lecture in 1953, he declared himself a liberal and defined the term thus:

By liberalism I don’t mean the creed of any party or any century. I mean a generosity of spirit, a tolerance of others, an attempt to comprehend otherness, a commitment to the rule of law, a high ideal of the worth and dignity of man, a repugnance of authoritarianism and a love of freedom.

What happened in Paris is a tremendous tragedy in so many ways. How does Alan Paton’s dream inspire not only Paris, and the leaders of the free world but us in this country? What exactly does freedom of speech mean? Who should have it and under what circumstances can it be limited? The Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg, got it right recently saying:

This is the bottom line: in a free society, people have to be free to offend each other. There is no such thing as a right not to be offended.

Here, in the House of Lords, we are protected by parliamentary privilege. We are able to make remarks that we would be arrested for outside this House. Because the occasion demands it—and today it certainly does—we must be free to speak truth as we see it, be that right or be it wrong, without fear of what could be done to us.

The Bill poses a threat. Threats to our freedom can often come from within these walls as well as from without. We have to safeguard the presumption of innocence, the right of abode, the right to privacy and freedom of speech.

Is the Home Secretary giving herself the right to determine what can and cannot be said in many of our public institutions, including universities? I believe this is so. Is she granting herself the power of sanction over those institutions that fail to abide by her ruling? Any failure to abide by this guidance could result in her enforcing the guidance “by a mandatory order”. Is this the freedom of speech that was meant when the four Albanians and the 40 or 50 leaders of the free nations marched to the statue of the republic in Paris? Is this what we speak of when we proclaim our support for free speech? What is the limit? Who has the authority somehow to destroy what we believe is a fundamental right to freedom of speech—the freedom to say things we agree with and tolerance of the things we do not?

In a Written Question I tried to get the Government to define what someone has to say to be considered an extremist, the Minister knows that I have not received a satisfactory answer. The vagueness of what is termed extremism means that the powers that the Home Secretary is granting herself could be applied to rooting out any ideas she chooses. It need not be only those of Islam. It could perhaps apply to liberalism or socialism, if she so wished. The powers give her that right. Of course, the target here is radical Islam. However, there is nothing in principle to prevent the powers being used to purge other ideas that the Home Secretary might disagree with.

These are difficult questions. Before I finish, I again quote the words of the Deputy Prime Minister:

 The same laws that allow satirists to ridicule Islamists allow Islamists (and other extremists) to promote their views … but when they peacefully express views which the majority of people find odious, we need to remember what is at stake. Free speech cannot just be for people we agree with. If it is to mean anything, free speech has to be for everyone.

The threats that face us are real; they are growing and they cannot be ignored. If we are to remain a free society—this is what our discussion in Committee and on Report will enable us to do—we must protect those cherished freedoms and not undermine them in any way, as, I suspect, some clauses of the Bill threaten to do.


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  • Julian Tisi 15th Jan '15 - 3:25pm

    Well said!

  • Excellent speech by Roger Roberts.

  • There is a very interesting post on the topic of liberalism and free speech over at WIngs Over Scotland,

    Apparently, according to a very recent poll UK voters agree with the proposal that
    “People should be prosecuted for offensive, but non-threatening comments on social media like twitter and facebook”.

    When broken down by party support, it was surprising to find the gap between agree and disagree with the statement was +10% among Lib Dem voters, exactly the same gap as for the general UK population. Intriguingly, men were found to be significantly less illiberal than women with a gap of +3% to +17% respectively. Could this imply that increasing the representation of women in politics would paradoxically make the country less liberal?

    The real surprise was that when the results were broken down by party support and nationality, it was Scottish tory voters who were the least illiberal on that issue with a score of just +2%, much more liberal than tories in the rest of the UK with 20%!

    The bombshell for Lib Dems in the rest of the UK is that their voters scored +19%, more illiberal even than UKIP supporters with only +15%.

    It just goes to show that there is a much more complex relationship between the policies and philosophy of a political party and the views of those that vote for that party than is commonly believed by those involved in political parties.

  • For clarity, the +10% for Lib Dem voters in my third paragraph above should be Scottish Lib Dem voters. The ones in the rest of the UK scored a much more illiberal +19%.

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