Tuesday, 22 September 2009

Preserving Freedom

There has been much debate recently in the UK about whether the British National Party should be allowed to speak on national TV politics shows. Motions have been discussed within political parties and trade unions, and some have even suggested that the current ban on police officers belonging to this party should be extended to all public servants, national and local. There is talk of banning them from TV altogether, disallowing them from using any public facilities and putting other obstacles in their path.

This is a question that goes right to the heart of our definition of a free and democratic society.

The BNP are certainly a fascistic party with some pretty objectionable policies. They are, however, a legal political party, with elected local councillors and, now, two MEPs sitting in Strasbourg. They have existed as a legal entity for many years, but are enjoying renewed vigour, probably as a result of the recent immigration from the new EU accession states, and of the economic downturn. There may well be good arguments for banning such a party, and they are certainly acting illegally, under UK and EU law, in not allowing non-white people to join; they face a possible prosecution on this very issue. However, at present, they are a legal party, with legitimately elected representatives.

Can we, as a society espousing the rights to freedom of speech and freedom of association, and as signatories to the Charter of Human Rights, stop people joining the legal political party of their choice, however repulsive it seems to many, or harass that party in the conduct of legitimate business? Under the rules of equal access and political bias, can our broadcasters deny them airtime or participation in political debate?

Is not the odiousness of their xenophobia and racism best exposed by publicly confronting it, holding it up to ridicule, and revealing the flawed logic and lack of intelligence behind it? Or do we fear that we are not able to do so? Do we defeat extremism by resorting to extremism, or by extolling the virtue of the opposing view and values, and by practising them? Should we not be trying to educate those communities and individuals who have chosen to support the BNP, rather than dismissing and abusing them?

If the electorate, rightly or wrongly, have chosen these people, then should they not be allowed to perform the duty of representing their electorate unimpeded? This is a representative democracy, and that means representing all, not just those we agree with. There seems a real danger of making martyrs and anti-heroes out of the BNP, if we persecute them.

Inciting violence and hatred are criminal offences in the UK, particularly against racial and religious minorities and the BNP will likely slip up at some point. As stated, already the Equality Commission are looking at prosecution over the party's rules on membership. If they break the law then action should be taken, but on the same basis as any other crime. This is the proper course to follow, in my opinion.

It seems to me that until this party are proscribed by some means, or a court case forces them out of existence, then they, and their members, have to be treated equally to other parties. That is the very essence of our freedoms, and to do otherwise undermines them. In a free democracy, we must have the right to speak as we choose, as long as we do not incite harm against others, and we must be free to join whatever parties and associations we choose, unless they are implicated in illegality. We can not pick and choose who we give rights to.

Compassion Revisited

On August 20th, Abdelbaset al-Megrahi was released from prison by the Scottish Government. The reaction since has been most instructive about different countries, societies and cultures. We have seen the developing debate within Scotland, the reaction within Libya, America and the wider world. We have learned much about the motivations of many involved in the background to this decision.

It was deeply unfortunate that the Libyan public chose to celebrate Megrahi's return as they did. It was foolish and insensitive in the presence of so many cameras. However, it should be remembered that their society has very different values to us, and that many of those who celebrated will have been clan members, related to his family; they would have celebrated no matter what they thought of his guilt, or otherwise. It is also reported in some independent media that the Libyan police cleared the crowd very soon after the pictures we all saw.

Furthermore, in much of the world, and amongst many in Britain, there are very real doubts about this man's guilt. Respected journalists, lawyers, politicians and commentators have all supported this view. In Libya, he is viewed as a martyr who laid down his freedom for his country. And even the respected UN observer at his trial has declared it a miscarriage of justice. There are many questions left unanswered. Why was the Syrian link so suddenly dropped? What is the nature of the undisclosed evidence? Why was the Heathrow break-in not mentioned at trial?

It is particularly strange that his co-accused was found innocent, yet Megrahi convicted. The only difference in evidence seems to be that of Tony Gauci, the Maltese shopkeeper, who completely changed his description of the alleged purchaser of the clothing wrapped around the bomb. He seems not to be a reliable witness to base an entire conviction upon. The UK Government should open an inquiry as soon as possible. They owe that to the victims families.

In Scotland, we have seen the unedifying spectacle of the opposition political parties doing their best to extract as much political capital as they can from the row. Yet their own ideas are revealed to be inept, impractical and lacking in any humanity. They reveal themselves to be opportunists with no moral base, and to be mindless pursuers of popular opinion. The gist of their concern seems to be what the rest of the world thinks of us. Yet what do we really know about the rest of the world's opinion? It seems the only opinion they are remotely interested in is that of America. What does this tell us?

For all that it actually matters, I would guess that opinion throughout most of the world is either neutral or positive. It certainly seems that in large parts of Africa and Asia the decision has been greeted positively (not least by Nelson Mandela). All the religious leaders in Scotland seem to be supportive; Catholic, various Protestant denominations, Jewish, Buddhist and Quaker. It would be likely that this is widely shared by religious groups across much of the globe. Perhaps, on balance, Scotland's standing around the world has actually gone up. I think many people would be proud to live in a country that embodied such values in it's legal system. At the end of the day though, I believe that Scotland has done the right thing, and what the world thinks should be of minor concern to us.

And what of that popular opinion here, that the politicians so assiduously chase? At first this was dominated by the negative, but, as people have had time to think for themselves, they have started to move away from the artificial outrage of the media, and polls show them moving to support for the decision. Immediately after the release, the divide was 3-1 against; the most recent poll shows that opinion is now evenly split. And even amongst those who disagree with the decision, the majority support Kenny MacAskill's right to make it, and only a small minority would support his resignation. As time progresses and the dust settles, many more may change their minds, one way or the other. Only history will decide in the end.

And what of American opinion? The reports seem devoid of any understanding of compassion, never mind compassion itself. Yet this is a self proclaimed God-fearing country. Apparently they fear God, but don't listen to the message of their supposed saviour. What do we really expect from a country that continues to support the death penalty, even for juveniles and the mentally deficient? Which regards the provision of adequate healthcare to be some form of socialism, or bankruptcy an acceptable price to pay for it? Which puts the machismo of gun ownership above the lives of so many of it's citizens?

Perhaps the most depressing and disturbing aspect of American reaction is the call, by hopefully a vocal minority, for a boycott of Scotland and the whole UK because of one decision by one minister in part of the UK. Never mind the support this country has given the US on so many occasions, despite our many misgivings about their policies. Never mind the tens of thousands of UK, and especially Scottish, troops that have served alongside the US troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the dozens of other places over the past decades. Never mind the thousands of wounded and mutilated amongst them. Or the hundreds that gave their lives.

Twisted and cynical it certainly is, as we witness the oil companies and Westminster politicians cosying up to the Libyan Government. But that is realpolitik. Did this play a role in Kenny MacAskill's decision? Somehow I doubt it. I can't quite see the SNP doing Gordon Brown any favours, especially as his government squeezes the Holyrood budgets. Indeed, pressure from that direction would more likely have the opposite effect. I think this was a genuine decision taken on correct legal and moral grounds.

Luckily, I know, as will many, that there are many more intelligent Americans, who understand that this was Scotland's decision to make, and who may, at least, understand the values which we have espoused in so doing. They will continue to regard Scotland, and it's people, as friends and allies. There may even be some who support that decision, but it is unlikely that the media will let them have their voice.