This week the Conservative Party published their 2017 election manifesto. While the manifesto contained strong elements of Disraelian one nation conservatism, which as someone who specialised in that particular ideology at university tickled me to see, it also contained some rather worrying propositions regarding internet liberties and privacy protection.
In short, the Conservative Party if elected, which will likely be the case, intends to pursue a policy of governmental regulation regarding the internet which would see, according to an article in The Independent on the subject, ‘huge restrictions on what people can post, share and publish online.’ Given the already draconian state of internet surveillance within Britain following the implementation of Theresa May’s Snooper’s Charter, it was not unexpected that the authoritarian former-Home Secretary would push for greater intrusions on online freedoms under the guise of a need for greater safety. However a restriction on the freedom to speak without fear of state reprimand online is in a different league to previous legislation proposed by May on the subject of the internet. Such a restriction erodes the already shaky foundation of free speech which our country enjoys priding itself upon.
That freedom of speech is already restricted by hate speech laws is indicative of how far this path towards authoritarianism and censorship has led us already. Currently, a YouTube producer based in Scotland is under trial for teaching his girlfriend’s dog to perform a Nazi salute on command. In a pre-trial video, the YouTube personality in question expressed at if he was sentenced successfully “that would be a sign that our country has taken a step down a very, very dark path where people can actually spend time in prison for comedy.” His actions, questionably offensive as they might have been, should not be grounds for the twelve month prison sentence he now faces, particularly when in the video which sparked the controversy he asserts a non-allegiance to Nazi doctrine and presents the view of Nazism as a bad thing. Even were he, or any other person, to express Nazi beliefs, however, it is not the place of the state to censor such beliefs. It is not the same form of censorship seen in some countries, where objectionable content is merely removed so it cannot be viewed. This is a form of dissuasive censorship whereby the stifling of speech is enforced by the threat that a person can be prosecuted based on the ideas they express. The state is still dictating what ideas can and cannot be held by the population, it is merely doing so in a manner which presents the illusion of free speech. It is this power to prosecute based on what people say which the Conservative Party seeks to extend.
Outside of the state, western democracies are experiencing a second authoritarian phenomenon. No platforming of ideas at universities has been a feature of student politics for several years now, stifling debate and subverting the very purpose of those ancient institutions. Recently protesters in Sydney attempted to prevent a screening of the feminist Cassie Jaye documentary, The Red Pill. While initially intending to flood the auditorium halfway through the screening, thus bringing it to a conclusion, the protesters eventually settled for standing outside with megaphones blocking the corridor leading to the auditorium entrance, in doing so preventing some people from attending and exposing others to harassment (with Game of Thrones-style cries of “shame” accompanying the chanting). Other screenings were cancelled after protest in Calgary, in Melbourne, and elsewhere. Claims of the documentary being misogynist, homophobic, and racist were made. Having watched the documentary following the uproar these cancellations brought about, the documentary is none of these things. Throughout, the interviewer – a feminist herself – questions both feminists and Men’s Rights Activists to see how the mainstream ideology interacts with and demonises the more controversial one. There is no sexism, and race and sexuality are absent from the documentary entirely. In the words of The Guardian, ‘the battle was ideological, not commercial. For those in favour, the Red Pill was a proxy for freedom of speech but it represented misogyny for those against it.’ Many who went to watch the documentary, I expect based upon this statement, did so for similar reasons I did so – not because they agreed with either side in the feminist/MRA argument but in order to learn more about a topic which is stigmatised by the mainstream.
From both the left and the right side of the political spectrum, therefore, free speech and the trust in people to make their own personal decisions regarding what they say and what they view – with even forms of pornography restricted under the Conservative government – is under attack. Both of the major parties favour a more authoritarian approach towards society, and there has descended upon the country a culture – a consensus – for social authoritarianism in the manner of the 1945-79 economic consensus in Britain. What is necessary, therefore, is a repeat of 1979 for the social libertarian/authoritarian axis the way things went with the economic left/right axis and economic libertarian/authoritarian axis. A new Thatcher for a new age. A decisive figure unwilling to accept the status quo and who believes that the tide of authoritarianism cannot just be delayed, as the Liberal Democrats seem to believe, but can be reversed.
Such a figure may be difficult to uncover. It took free marketeers three decades and two failed attempts in the forms of Enoch Powell and Keith Joseph before they discovered their saviour in the form of Margaret Thatcher. Free speech advocates do not have that luxury of time. Nor are there currently many politicians willing to advocate for liberty over ‘safety’. Yet it is precisely such a figure (though hopefully less divisive and destructive) who is needed. Britain is fast approaching a dark place, a place where the state has the power to dictate what ideas and ideologies are allowed to be discussed under the guise of preventing extremism, yet in the words of Frank Turner, ‘a man who’d trade his liberty for a safe and dreamless sleep doesn’t deserve the both of them and neither shall he keep.’