The Tories' defence of "free speech" is about shutting people up.
(Finnbarr Webster Editorial / Alamy Stock Photo)
After his ordeal at the hands of a baying mob of vicious protesters who burst into a speech he was giving on Friday, Tory MP Jacob Rees-Mogg described his terror. "I never felt threatened or unsafe," he told Sky News, describing the altercation as "a few shouty people and a few people getting a little bit cross. It was not the end of the world."
The studied calm of Mogg is acting as a foil to the pearl-clutching hysteria of other politicians. Tory Party chairman Brandon Lewis called the shouting "horrendous abuse". Labour’s Angela Rayner went further and condemned "the behaviour of those tonight who tried to attack him". For Brexiteer MEP Daniel Hannan, the question was, "Where are these Momentum goons taking us?" – placing the blame for any violence squarely on Mogg’s boo-boys.
If you actually look at the videos of what happened, the only physical attack came from a member of Mogg's audience, who lashed out at one of the left-wing activists. The rest of the "abuse" could more accurately be described as "heckling", and there's no need to go into Mogg's appalling voting record and the abuses his politics constitute – for instance, against female bodily autonomy – to defend that.
Heckling is an age-old political tradition that was killed off by stage-managed electioneering for TV cameras and is now being brought back to public view thanks to smart phones. Has everyone already forgotten George Osborne getting booed at the Paralympics medal ceremony? Theresa May was heckled by Londoners in June and nobody blinked at the time. Jeremy Corbyn was heckled by Peter Tatchell about Syria in 2016 and there wasn't much moral outrage over that.
Nevertheless, this complete non-event is now being used to justify the creation of a new offence: "intimidation in public life". In a triple irony, this authoritarian crackdown involving 12-month jail sentences is being justified in the name of "free speech" and brought in by Prime Minister Theresa May – who, as Home Secretary, introduced racist "Go Home" vans to intimidate undocumented migrants. It will be announced during a speech on Tuesday marking the centenary of women getting the right to vote. If you remember your history lessons, the suffragettes who won the right to vote are celebrated for achieving change by politely attending speeches given by misogynistic politicians.
There’s a particular cynicism about how the right have jumped on this bandwagon. The Tories, reeling and desperate for anything to throw at Labour, have found a link to Momentum (although the heckle was in fact claimed by Bristol anti-fascists) and are now, of course, loudly appalled and demanding Corbyn condemns the protest.
Meanwhile, Tory chairman Brandon Lewis is talking about sending more Conservative politicians to speak at campuses to "defend free speech". This seems like a fairly obvious provocation – an attempt to start a Trumpian culture-war in the UK.
It's not just a Tory thing. If you want to know how docile the political class would like us to be, check out former Haringey council leader Claire Kober’s interview on the The Andrew Marr Show on Sunday. Labour politician Kober stepped down last week after opposition to her plan to sell off and flatten vast amounts of social housing in her borough, in partnership with infamous developer Lendlease.
Dragging the story away from local opposition to her policy and towards inter-party politicking, Kober told Marr that allies of Momentum founder John Lansman said she was "incompetent and should be removed from office". According to Kober, this was "outrageous behaviour". Kober’s reasoning for why people shouldn’t say she is bad at her job? "I'm a senior Labour council leader, I've done the role for a long time." Male politicians get called incompetent all the time. But, Kober told the Guardian, "I cannot for the life of me, in any way, think a man would be bullied in that way."
Kober put her resignation down to sexist bullying – and misogynist, racist and otherwise discriminatory abuse does happen and does absolutely need to be stopped. However, it's also important not to set the parameters of acceptable discourse so narrowly that criticism can't be made. Can you imagine how bleak the political landscape would be if we weren't allowed to say that longstanding politicians are crap?
If anyone was serious about decorum in politics, Rees-Mogg would surely not be their poster boy. In December, it was reported that he was shooting the shit with Steven Bannon, who – until recently – was executive chairman of the far-right website Breitbart News. Breitbart editor Raheem Kassam, who brokered the meetings, said, "Brexit and the election of President Trump were inextricably linked, so the discussions focused on how we move forward with winning for the conservative movements on both sides of the pond, how you build movements, on the ground and digitally, and what Steve’s brand of economic nationalism – which puts the interests of ordinary people first – can do in the US and United Kingdom."
A key part of building those movements is the peddling of a false narrative about free speech that is about everyone else having to listen to your obnoxious crap. How robust is a democracy if you can’t heckle without risking jail time? For all the over-hyped talk of a "hard-left takeover" of Labour and the fashion for smearing people as Venezuela-style authoritarians, the political establishment is demanding Stalinist levels of deference. Sit down, shut up.