Why, Exactly, Toby Young's Free Speech Union Is So Pathetic

It's equal parts cynical and embarrassing.
February 26, 2020, 8:45am
Toby Young Free Speech Union
Toby Young. christopher jones / Alamy Stock Photo

Toby Young has set up a "Free Speech Union".

Or: Something calling itself a "union" has been started to defend "free speech", and it has been started by renowned boob-ogler Toby Young.

Or, indeed: The right-wing journalist guy who reportedly edited his own Wikipedia page 282 times in ten years has set up a union to protect people's rights to air their every half-formed prejudiced thought.

Or, lastly: Toby Young – a man who is paid to publicise his opinions – is so fed up of not being allowed to express his opinions that he's set up a pay-to-join club to complain about it.

Whatever way you phrase it, this is a dispiriting sentence to have to type.

There are so many bad things about Toby Young's Free Speech Union that it seems crass even to begin listing them – insulting, even, to the genius of his apparent grift – and yet, here we are. On Friday, Young announced via his Twitter account that he was launching the Free Speech Union (£49.95 for a full annual membership), which pledges to "start a petition" and maybe also a legal fees crowdfunder (maybe) if you get sacked for being a racist at work, for instance. It is, of course, completely free not to say something bigoted in a professional context, but you're not going to get invited on Newsnight like that are you.

In a talking head video shot outside a building he is at pains to mention belongs to Cambridge University, Young urges us to join him to "defeat the authoritarianism and intolerance that is once again threatening to destroy our liberty".

"Once again", that is, because according to the video the last time was apparently during World War Two. For the avoidance of doubt, in the Toby Young universe, it seems the Second World War wasn't a fight against Nazism that saw the racist murders of millions of people, but the fight to, I don't know, be allowed to say the f-word in "Fairytale of New York".

When Young initially wrote about wanting to set this union up in the middle of last year, he described wanting the group to be "open to academics, intellectuals, columnists, pundits, novelists, poets, playwrights, screenwriters, songwriters, comedians and so on". But now, seemingly anybody with £50 knocking around is welcome. Or, for £250 you can become a founding member, which comes with a special big boy lanyard to wear at – and I'm sorry to have to share this – "speakeasies", i.e. gatherings Young will be organising in pub basements across the land.

On the ticketing website for the Oxford Literary Festival, where Young will be paid to speak about not being allowed to say anything, the blurb for his event reads: "Young says there is a need for a union in the image of the Polish Solidarity movement, one of whose key demands was freedom of speech – a guarantee that workers would not lose their jobs for publicly criticising the Communist Party."

In this analogy, it seems anybody expressing that Toby Young and his ilk shouldn't go round encouraging racism, misogyny or homophobia is a member of "the Communist Party". In the Free Speech Union launch video, Young calls for an end to "digital McCarthyism", whereby people on Twitter hunt him down, like a communist. So who are the communists? Who cares! It literally does not matter: simply set up a direct debit, walk straight to the nearest public square and scream about your Eastern European neighbours. Toby's got you.

It's partly the veneer of legitimacy that makes this whole thing stink so badly: the inevitable quoting of Orwell and Voltaire, the rhetoric that aligns itself with academia and with dissenting scholars. But the idea that this is a group that will be populated mostly by daring philosophers is nonsense. It will surely be made up mostly of Twitter dads from Surrey with South Park avatars, port-and-waistcoat undergraduates, hashtag FreeTommy lads and the kind of people who love it when airlines go bust and they get to refer to "Britons needing repatriation" like it's 1945 again. Also, straight-up racists! In other words, all sorts of people just looking for other people who share their prejudices, on the hunt for a forum to support them.

Real trade unions exist to protect their members from those who hold the power to oppress them. It's contemptuous but not remotely surprising that Young and co. want to co-opt that language to set up something that looks to protect people who wish to express dangerous and hateful views with no consequences and without criticism.

It's such a cynical misrepresentation of where power lies. Not, in fact, with white conservative men with financial security, but with the minority groups that Young wants to be able to slag off to his heart's content. They are the ones holding all the cards, he posits. Never mind that hate crime doubled between 2014 and 2019. The most important thing is that people like Toby Young are never told "no" or "this isn't about you" or "shut up, you gigantic clown". Ideas are not neutral, and providing a space where hateful ideas are protected and encouraged isn't neutral either.