Freedom of speech is an issue which has been touched upon in this blog from time to time. For example, we have considered, you and I, Kembrew McLeod's book Freedom of Expression, and we have looked, more than once, at the wonders of the English law of libel. We noted that the most famous English libel lawyer, Peter Carter-Ruck, was described at his death as a man 'who did for freedom of speech what the Boston Strangler did for door-to-door salesmen.'
And so on. But connoisseurs of this issue, particularly those outside the UK, may like to take note of a circumstance which has arisen in England during the last week.
There exists in the UK a small political party known as the British National Party (BNP). The party has a mission statement which you can read for yourself, but I don't think the members would complain too loudly if you described them as a white supremacist group. They might, perhaps, demur a bit if you described them as fascist, though plenty of their critics wouldn't hesitate to use that description. You could also describe them, in shorthand terms, as anti-immigration. Indeed the party leader seems to have made no secret of his view that all immigrants should be shipped back home -- wherever home is.
The party is headed by a Cambridge law graduate called Nick Griffin, and for several years now he has been going around making speeches -- as politicians do. Quite often, it seems, these speeches are made in front of audiences which deliberately do not include members of the press or other media.
Not surprisingly, perhaps, this exclusion policy aroused suspicion as to what was being said, and in 2004 the BBC smuggled in a camera and sound system to make a secret film of Griffin in action. Parts of the speech so recorded were then shown on TV.
In his speech, Griffin can be heard pointing out that, if the police got to know what he was saying to his supporters, he could get seven years in prison. So much, he implied, for the principle of free speech. He also described Islam as a 'wicked, vicious faith', and said that Muslims were turning Britain into a 'multi-racial hell hole'.
Sure enough, when this matter was drawn to the attention of Inspector Knacker of the Yard, and other authorities, Griffin was in due course prosecuted for using words likely to incite racial hatred.
At the first trial the jury failed to agree. But instead of then dropping the case, the authorities forced a retrial. However, on 10 November a jury in Leeds unanimously brought in a not guilty verdict on both Griffin and a colleague who faced similar charges. This verdict was promptly hailed by the BNP as a victory for free speech.
There were numerous reactions to this series of events. The most important, however, came from the man who is thought by some to be our next Prime Minister -- if ever, that is, our beloved Mr Blair should (God forbid) step down. Our next Prime Minister promptly declared that, since Mr Griffin had been acquitted, it was obviously necessary to tighten up the laws about what could and could not be said on racial matters.
But wait. By a curious coincidence (if you believe in coincidences), on precisely the same day as Mr Griffin was cracking open the champagne (kindly donated, the BNP tells us, by a French right-wing party), a speech was being made by Dame Eliza Manningham-Buller, the head of MI5.
Aside for overseas readers. MI5 (once department 5 of the Ministry of Information) is the body responsible for anti-espionage (and nowadays anti-terror) work in the UK. MI6 (the outfit that James Bond worked for) is reponsible for gathering intelligence from overseas. John Le Carre worked for both at various times.
Dame Eliza was speaking, as Mr Griffin had been, to a 'specially invited audience', and not to the general public. However, her remarks were issued to the press and were posted on the MI5 web site.
Young British Muslims, said Dame Eliza, were being groomed to become suicide bombers and her agents were tracking some 1,600 suspects, most of whom were British-born and linked to al Qaeda in Pakistan. 'We are aware of numerous plots to kill people and damage our economy. What do I mean by numerous? Five? Ten? No, nearer 30 ... That we know of.'
Here is another direct quotation from her speech: 'The extremists are motivated by a sense of grievance and injustice driven by their interpretation of the history between the West and the Muslim world. This view is shared, in some degree, by a far wider constituency. If the opinion polls conducted in the UK since July 2005 are only broadly accurate, over 100,000 of our citizens consider that the July 2005 attacks in London were justified.'
The response to this speech from Mr Blair, our glorious leader whom Allah preserve, was: 'I think she is absolutely right in saying that it will last a generation.... This terror threat is very real,' he added.
So. Mr Griffin describes Islam as wicked and vicious, and gets prosecuted for inciting racial hatred. The head of MI5 says that the range of factors that are motivating acts of terrorism include perceived injustices against Muslims around the world and extreme interpretations of Islam, and Mr Blair pats her on the back.
The fact that there is a a bit of a left hand/right hand problem here has not, you will be pleased to hear, gone completely unnoticed. For comment, you could try, for example, Rod Liddle in the Sunday Times, or Libby Purves in today's Times, or just read the letters in today's Times.
And if you're really, really keen, when you've absorbed all that, and are in training to face an audience or become a Church of England vicar or something, then you might like to limber up by preparing answers to a few questions of the sort that used to appear in examination papers set by the great universities of Oxford and Cambridge. (What the present practice is in those universities I know not; but, at a guess, candidates probably don't have to write essays any longer; just tick boxes. Such is progress.)
Anyway, as I say, here are a few questions of the kind that arts graduates of my generation used to have to answer: usually at the rate of four in a three-hour paper.
1. 'The English were driven insane by the second world war.' Discuss in relation to the immigration policies of successive British governments since 1945.
2. Enoch Powell was right. Discuss.
3. Compare and contrast the political philosophies of Mr Blair and Mr Griffin.
4. Immigration is one thing; occupation is another; and occupation by racial groups which are plotting the destruction of their host communities is yet a third. Discuss in relation to the present position in some British cities.