That hateful religious hatred Bill
Once again the government is seeking parliamentary approval for the religious hatred Bill which has been repeatedly condemned and rejected on all sides, from far left to far right, as an unconscionable and unenforceable assault on freedom of speech and expression.
Notable features of the Bill include the absence of any attempt to define ‘religion’ or ‘religious’, presumably because it got stuck in the Parliamentary Draftsman’s Too Difficult tray. As other commentators have plaintively enquired, is Christian Scientism a religion? Satanism? Flat-Earthism? Scientology (now there’s a can of worms waiting to be opened!)? What about astrology, a system of beliefs having no rational or evidential basis and therefore not easily distinguished from other systems having the same characteristics but obviously qualifying as religions? It will be hard to exclude almost any kind of dotty irrationalism from the scope of this sloppy piece of draft legislation.
Perhaps even more curiously, the Bill includes not only groups ‘defined by reference to religious belief’, but also groups ‘defined by reference to …lack of religious belief’. The atheists and agnostics will be protected too. That’s a relief! Even the wording of the bits about ‘hatred’ is peculiar:
‘“religious hatred” means hatred against a group of persons defined by reference to religious belief or lack of religious belief.’
"Hatred against"? How is that different from the more usual "hatred of"?
Then the scope of the Bill is to be sweeping: it’s going to be an offence to engage in behaviour or to publish material —
“…likely to be heard or seen by any person in whom they are (or it is) likely to stir up racial or religious hatred.”
Or to put on a play or film or poetry reading or, I suppose, drag act, if —
“…the performance [or the ‘recording’ or the ‘programme’] is likely to be attended [heard, seen, etc.] by any person in whom the performance (taken as a whole) is likely to stir up racial or religious hatred.”
Notice that it won’t be necessary to prove any intention to ‘stir up’ religious hatred: if some policeman thinks, and a court agrees, that your speech, book, play, film, etc., is ‘likely’ to be seen or read or heard by any person (any person!) in whom religious hatred is ‘likely’ to be stirred up, whether that was the intention of the speech, book, play, etc., and however daft or bigoted the person with this proclivity for hatred, you’re heading for the slammer, as Sir Malcolm Rifkind, that phoenix risen from the electoral ashes, put it the other evening on Any Questions.
There’s a widespread suspicion that the motive for persisting with this pernicious proposal is to lure back to New Labour the Muslim vote, much of it diverted into other political directions by Iraq, Belmarsh, control orders and other recent blunders. Alas, some Muslim leaders have indeed been seeking the same protection for Islam as that supposedly afforded to Christianity by the anachronistic blasphemy laws. They may have a disagreeable surprise awaiting them if this misbegotten Bill ever becomes law. It’s every bit as likely to be used against Muslims as against the adherents of other religions, and adherents of none. The fact is that freedom to criticise, denounce, mock and generally ‘stir up’ feeling against other groups, especially those groups whose members are members by choice and belief, is an essential freedom in a democracy and one in which the law should have no role. The defence against criticism and mockery should be counter-argument and debate, not a resort to the cops or the courts. Harassment and threatening behaviour are already offences.
The airwaves have been replete with eager assurances by junior ministers that the Bill, if it’s allowed by a supine House of Commons and a weary House of Lords to become law, certainly won’t be used against comedians or others who invite us to laugh at the more surreal claims of the devout in our midst. Such assurances are entirely worthless. The fact that prosecutions under the Act will require the permission of the Attorney-General prompts more alarm than reassurance. Whether or not we may rely on the good sense of the Attorney-General of the present government not to allow the Act to be misused to curb legitimate free speech and expression, what possible confidence can we have in the benign judgement of the law officers of some future government, perhaps one even more authoritarian and illiberal than what we have now? A law that relies for its sensible administration on the good sense and restraint of a politician is a bad law. This one is among the worst. How many of our bright-eyed new (but not necessarily New) Labour MPs are going to stand up and be counted when it comes to a vote?