Over the past few years, I’ve written on a few occasions on the subject of the importance of free expression when dissenting & challenging prevailing wisdom. Whether that be challenging religious dogma, or political ideals. Those – like the National Union of Students – dedicated as they are to creating ‘safe spaces’ where topics are off-limits, not only silence dissent, but take it upon themselves to ban my right to hear dissenting views and come to my own conclusion. There’s is a form of banning blasphemy.
But it isn’t just the left & religious conservatives that has taken it upon themselves themselves to attempt to silence dissent.
As far as I can tell, apart from David Lammy and a small group of MPs, there is less a will to overturn the EU referendum vote, and more a will among remainers – like me – to consistently scrutinise the winning side, and ensure our voice is heard when a deal is reached. The problem is, this is quickly being cast as an attempt to subvert the ‘will of the people‘. By that, they mean just 52% of a small number of people who actually bothered to vote. By extension, this implies that any representation of the 48% or any scrutiny of the winning side, is to be viewed as some sort of elitist threat to the people. Or, as I’m calling it, Brexit Blasphemy.
– The dangerous ‘patriot/traitor’ rhetoric is alive across social media, but more worryingly, it exists right at the top of the print media world. Jo Cox was the victim of that hyperbole, and that level of violent rhetoric. Those of us challenging the winning side, with scrutiny are cast as the anti-British enemy of the people. Those who voted Leave cast themselves as patriots, implying that if I voted to remain, I am not a patriot. But I do not recall voting on who gets the right to define what it means to love one’s country. Indeed, I adore my country, so much so that I believe any right I claim for myself, I must defend for others, and that to be anti-British, is to attack values of free expression, inquiry, and democratic scrutiny. If I vote on decisions that will have wide ranging implications on the lives of those who voted against, I expect those people to free to express their voice, or be given representation moving forward.
These people do not own the concept of patriotism. It is not for the far-right and no one else. The language – ‘unpatriotics’, ‘damn’, ‘plot’, ‘subvert’ to refer to dissenters, whilst the British people (which, remember, means 52% of people) are cast as the victims…. it is the creation of an atmosphere of hate based solely on the appropriation of the Union Jack for a small section of people who voted in a single referendum. The irony of course, is that for the Daily Mail to be consistent, it must not scrutinise, nor criticise any government ever again, because to do so would be to ‘subvert the will of the British people‘.
The Express took a similar line:
– There is something fundamentally anti-British, illiberal, and anti-democratic in the idea that those keeping check on the winning side of a vote, must be silenced. Which is a spectacular irony, given they ran a campaign on the basis of taking back democracy. Let’s us be clear; silencing criticism of a political position, is not a British value. Democracy is not just a vote on a piece of paper. It is pressure groups, it is criticism of each side and their ideas, it is scrutiny of the victors, it is holding claims to account, it is free expression and inquiry.
The Mail & The Express are not fans of any of those, unless they are used to advance a right winged narrative. Here is the Daily Express’ front pages expressing – or to use their term, ‘whinging’ – for the past two years about policy on immigration (click to enlarge):
– For The Express, the winning idea or the prevailing norm must be challenged…. unless they’re on the winning side, then dissenters must be silenced. The winning idea thus becomes untouchable, closed to criticism, it’s an idea – like Islam in countries that ban criticism of it – that becomes sacred, like a religion. To criticise it, to dissent, to think for yourself, becomes a thought crime, and you are told you are a traitor (or apostate, blasphemer, take your pick). And so the idea that was presented as fighting the elites, taking on the establishment, has itself become elitist, and the establishment, and seeks to enshrine that position by recasting criticism as blasphemous.
I suspect the idea is that if those who voted remain are cast as the villain now, any future failure following on from the vote to leave, will be blamed on remainers, rather than leaving. This, again, reflects the religious-right. Their narrative, their idea, their belief, is never to be blamed, any negative consequence of their view, is to blamed on outsiders, blaphemers, apostates, for devaluing the faith. The faith itself, must be considered perfect, and all those lives damaged are considered worth it, for the sake of someone else’s cause. Richard Tice, co-chairman of ‘Leave means Leave‘ (a completely meaningless phrase) does this with effortless refrain when he says:
“They are damaging Britain’s negotiating position by insisting we remain in the Single Market when we voted to leave it.”
– It is remainers who are ‘damaging Britain’. It’s as if these people simply expected literally no criticism of their position, and for those of us completely opposed to their position, to shut up and embrace it. Indeed, highlighting the importance of the single market to jobs in this country, is referred to as ‘damaging Britain’. He doesn’t seek to reassure people, he simply casts them as traitors if they question. Those businesses struggling to understand what comes next, those jobs threatened are considered unimportant, and so it further implies that if those jobs are lost it is not ‘damage’ because it is all in aid of the one true religion. Individuals cease to be considered as anything more than cogs in a nationalist machine… a vastly illiberal principle.
And here’s the bizarre thing, the case for Brexit was based on the will, the sovereignty of the British public, the individual voter, and Parliament. All of us together, draped in a Union Jack. Once Brexit was voted on, suddenly the future of the country is is the sovereignty of Brexit voters – Patriots – only, and in particular David Davis, Boris Johnson, and Liam Fox. Public critics are simply traitors who should be ignored rather than debated, and Parliament just gets in the way of three men. By implication, it narrows the debate over the future, which ensures not an arena of ideas and progress, but a stagnant echo chamber. It’s a mad reversal from democratic accountability, to autocratic control and silencing, in the space of about four months. An incredible change of heart.
But like with religion and the jump to ban criticism of it, & refusal to take any responsibility for the failures in its narrative, the critical mind becomes more critical, because we get the feeling that Brexiters demanding silence from critics are not particularly secure in their beliefs (like religious folk demanding silence from apostates, are clearly insecure in their beliefs, given that their beliefs cannot be defended against criticism), and so it intrigues us, it creates a taboo out of the idea. The only way then to prevent criticism, is by force. Hence, the petition set up by Conservative Party councillor Christian Holliday:
– Whether Brexiters like it or not, their idea is not inherently untouchable nor is it without fault, and crucially, and I can’t stress this enough…. they do not own the concept of what it means to love this country. Their position isn’t one of love for Britain whilst mine is disdain for Britain. We simply come at our love for our country, from a different position, and I would further argue that attempts to silence criticism of ideas, to cast them as villains to be taken on, and to incite hatred of people for views held is about as far from the British ideal of individual liberty, open debate, and democratic society that I think I’ve ever come across.
Brexit must be open to scrutiny, to mockery, to criticism, to questioning, just like every other idea must be. Ideas that have an impact on the lives of others – religious, political… and yes, this includes immigration – must not be off limits to criticism or demonised. They must be challenged. Scrutiny does not end once a vote is won. Indeed, if I am being told that I must lose my EU Citizenship without my full consent, I must be free to criticise that idea. Whether you as an individual listen to me or not, is not something I care for. You’re entitled to ignore me all you want. But if you seek to cast me as the unpatriotic villain, simply for not agreeing with you, and dismissing my voice from public debate The liberal principle of free inquiry, free expression, and vocal dissent is not anti-democratic, nor subverting the will of the people, it is democracy in itself, and a complete defence of the individual right to dissent and challenge the victors. That is a fundamental British value. Brexit-blasphemy isn’t.