UK government bids to ban free speech in counter-terrorism plan

Watch what you say. EPA/Hannah McKay

Plans for new counter-extremism laws to tackle terrorism have been announced by UK prime minister David Cameron and are due to be introduced in parliament when it re-opens at the end of May.

Theresa May, the home secretary, says the aim is to “bring people together to ensure we are living together as one society”, she omitted to say that this is to be made mandatory, with severe penalties for those who will not comply or live up to the assumed British values now asserted by the authorities.

Genuine free speech is now firmly off the menu, just a few months after world leaders – including Cameron – marched in supposed solidarity for the cartoonists murdered in France for the very same.

A little more than 200 years ago, observing the spirit of liberty first unleashed by the French revolution, the very British poet William Wordsworth exclaimed: “Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive, but to be young was very heaven!”

Today, the twilight of freedom is upon us and to be young is to be cowed and scrutinised, as the government implicitly reveals that it has given up on trying to understand the reasons why growing numbers of youths are disengaged from society (leading at the margins to the vexatious violence of a small minority). Interception and incarceration are to be the bold new vision of the future for Britain.

How quickly Cameron forgets. EPA/Olivier Hoslet

Most strikingly of all, the government will also empower institutions to “challenge bigotry and ignorance” – whatever that means.

Cameron states that for too long “we have been a passively tolerant society” and is presumably pumped up at the possibility of changing this image. But, in truth, Britain has strayed a long way from any Enlightenment conceptualisation of tolerance, which advocated robust engagement with others over matters of principle while recognising the need to live side-by-side.

In recent years British society has become not tolerant, but indifferent, to the others, preferring to turn a blind eye to outlooks and activities deemed not too threatening. You can believe anything you like, so long as you don’t believe in it too much, has been the unstated outlook of the authorities. Now Cameron seeks to shift gear from passive indifference to active authoritarianism.

Of course, deep down, neither Cameron nor May truly believes that this approach can work. At best it is a form of containment and, as the security services know full well, there can be no security solutions to social problems. They are already at full capacity monitoring the active few who could pose a real threat (though possibly over-stretched too from their own lack of sense of proportionality).

The government legislates, not from conviction, but to be seen to be doing something. Institutions and individuals will act and speak accordingly, wishing to be seen to be in compliance. After all, to say what you really think no longer appears to be a constituent of British values today.

Meanwhile, a generation of young people in search of purpose and meaning in their lives, looking for something to really believe in, will find it in all manner of bizarre, and sadly, occasionally twisted avenues.

It is not ideas on the internet that radicalise. To presume so is to view people as mindless sponges. Rather, it is the gaping hole at the heart of where real values ought to be that they seek to fill – a hole best exemplified by the recent election, in which no party sought to provide any strategic or principled vision for the society they sought to represent.

Sadly, it really is through the prism of an authoritarian form of child protection that the government now views the populace, and especially the young. Successive heads of the security service MI5 have alluded to how these young people are “vulnerable” and “groomed” online by vicious malcontents. This presents the next generation as lacking any agency, autonomy and – inadvertently perhaps – accountability for their actions.

In acting this way – by-passing political persuasion through legal diktat – Cameron and others have revealed themselves as having little to offer by way of an alternative.