Freedom of speech still in danger

While Blair's defeat over religious incitement is to be welcomed, the new law could still be wielded against the working class, writes Peter Manson. That is why it is appalling that George Galloway and Respect were New Labour's only allies in the Commons

The twin defeat suffered by New Labour in the House of Commons over its latest anti-free speech measure, the Religious and Racial Hatred Bill, on January 31, is to be welcomed. But it owed everything to a motley collection, including the Tory and Liberal Democrat parties, the House of Lords, rightwing libertarians, muslims, christian fundamentalists, liberals, artists and various leftwing groups and individuals; and nothing at all to a mass mobilisation by the big battalions of the organised working class. Indeed George Galloway and the Socialist Workers Party lined up with New Labour.

Last year the Lords, through a series of amendments, had considerably watered down the wording, if not the overall effect, of the bill, but the government had dug in its heels - attempting to reinstate most of what had been deleted and insert its own 'compromise' amendments that made it clear what its real intention was - under the guise of defending religious minorities, to give itself reserve powers to move against any politico-religious dissident whose words or actions it found particularly troubling.

The Lords had voted in a clause which assured us that nothing in the bill should "be read or given effect in a way which prohibits or restricts discussion, criticism or expressions of antipathy, dislike, ridicule, insult or abuse of particular religions or the beliefs or practices of their adherents, or of any other belief system or the beliefs or practices of its adherents, or proselytising or urging adherents of a different religion or belief system to cease practising their religion or belief system".

This seems pretty conclusive, in that it appears at first sight to be effectively negating the legislation in its entirety. However, even under the amended version of the bill, which has now passed into law, you could still be found guilty of a crime if it is proved you intended - during the course of your "discussion, criticism or expressions of antipathy, dislike, ridicule, insult or abuse", etc - to stir up hatred. Your incitement to hatred would still be illegal if your words, actions, images, etc were considered "threatening", not merely "abusive" or "insulting", to followers of a particular religion or belief system.

This is certainly an improvement, but - despite being welcomed by a whole range of artists, writers, campaigners for secularism and religious believers - hardly provides a clear-cut defence of the right to free expression, including the right to offend. After all, when words deemed "abusive" are used, they will frequently be perceived as "threatening" - and it is not a straightforward matter to prove that the intention was only the former.

For example, if some anarchist hothead were to condemn the Church of England establishment as being the moving hand behind modern big business and the imperialist war machine and that the senior clergy ought to be put on trial before the people for aiding and abetting mass murder, it does not take a genius to work out that such a person could find themselves accused of employing sinister threats to incite religious hatred, even under the new act as it stands.

The government's attempts to give assurances that freedom of expression would still be guaranteed under its proposals were truly pathetic. According to home office minister Paul Goggins, you could say whatever you liked with impunity - unless you "intended to stir up religious hatred" or were "reckless as to whether religious hatred would be stirred up".

Goggins said there was nothing in the bill which would stop people telling jokes or condemning particular religions: ""¦ we're putting on the face of the bill a very clear commitment that, providing people are not setting out to incite hatred, then they can have robust discussion, criticism, ridicule, even expressed in abusive and insulting terms."

Comedian and actor Rowan Atkinson summed up the government's attempt to face both ways when he noted: "So effectively all that clause is doing is saying, 'You have not committed an offence, unless of course you have committed the offence, in which case I am afraid you have committed an offence'."

Goggins unintentionally exposed the repressive nature of the new law through the ludicrous example he gave: it could be used to ban posters which had a group of muslim women - one of whom is white - all wearing burqas and which claimed that this was the uniform of suicide bombers. Apart from one of the women being white - hard to tell if she is wearing head-to-toe covering - this would already be illegal under existing race laws. Muslims are to all intents and purposes regarded as an Asian 'race'.

Returning to our previous analogy, what if, in the best traditions of anti-clericalism, we replaced the poster of a woman in a burqa with one of an army chaplain brandishing a rocket launcher in one hand and a bible in the other? I assure you that our intention would be to provoke feelings of contempt, loathing and, yes, "hatred" for the religious establishment.

Nevertheless, thanks to the defeat of the two government amendments, it will now be much more difficult to prove an offence has been committed. But, in the right climate, the legislation, even as it stands, would undoubtedly be wielded against the bourgeoisie's main objective enemy: the working class.

That is why it is an absolute disgrace that the only non-Labour MP to vote for the government's two unsuccessful amendments was George Galloway, whose party, Respect, puts itself forward as the organisation capable of filling the vacuum left by the lack of working class representation. Galloway was the only member outside the ranks of New Labour who was prepared to vote down the commitment to free expression contained in the previous Lords insertion. The Labour left was reasonably united in its opposition to the bill. John McDonnell issued a statement on behalf of the Socialist Campaign Group welcoming the government's defeat (January 31). There were 27 rebel Labour MPs.

Galloway was backed by the SWP, whose leading cadres have insisted that it is the duty of Respect to support this bill - obviously an important plank in Tony Blair's overall assault on democratic rights. To do otherwise, they argue, would mean being perceived as failing to defend muslim rights and stand firm against islamophobia.

This is nonsense. Even if it was true that the legislation was aimed at enhancing muslim rights (anti-establishment muslims will surely be among the first targets), it is futile to try and protect a minority by going along with the suppression of the rights of all. And organisations representing muslims were among those campaigning against the legislation - most notably the Muslim Parliament and the Muslim Forum.

For example, Dr Ghayasuddin Siddiqui of the Muslim Parliament, previously an enthusiastic supporter of Respect, takes a position totally at odds with both his former party and the largest islamic umbrella grouping, the Muslim Council of Britain.

"I believe that respect for muslims will not be achieved through laws," he told me. "The way forward is through more integration and closer cooperation. In our view the MCB have isolated themselves from civil society - the message they have put across is: 'We are more concerned with dogma than freedom of speech'. I have tried to persuade the MCB that they would achieve a lot more by standing with civil society, but they didn't accept this argument."

According to Dr Siddiqui, "It was muslim civilisation that created the basis for free speech, for free interaction, and this inspired European civilisation. But the muslim world declined because it abandoned this philosophy. It is so sad that today we should be perceived as standing against free speech rather than embracing it. It is indicative of the decline in muslim scholarship."

Whatever you think of the historical accuracy of this, the democratic sentiment underlying it is admirable. It really gives the lie to the SWP's claim that the defence of free expression is secondary, compared to the need to be perceived as combating islamophobia. In fact the SWP's simplistic stance is deeply and dangerously patronising - muslims are apparently incapable of seeing through Blair's ploy to win back their votes and all we can do is try to pull the same trick ourselves. Just as muslims cannot be won to uphold gay rights, a woman's right to chose an abortion or even the secular equality of believer and non-believer, so in the SWP view they cannot be won to champion the freedom of all as the best way to protect their own freedom.

If George Galloway, Respect and the organisations of the working class will not stand firm against every infringement of democracy, it is inevitable that workers, including those from ethnic minorities, will turn to those who, for their own opportunistic reasons, opposed Blair this time. Neither the Liberal Democrats nor the nationalists - and certainly not the Conservatives - are reliable in this regard.

If it suited their purposes, every one of them would back such measures. In this sense Charles Clarke was not completely wrong when he said that the other parties - particularly the Tories - were primarily concerned with inflicting a defeat on the government rather than dealing with the issues.

Just as the working class is the only consistently democratic class, revolutionaries who aspire to lead them must themselves be consistently democratic.