By Robert Sharp
The riots seem to have brought out the worst in our politicians. You would think our political class would be well aware of the perils of knee-jerk responses and short term expediency, but apparently not. First, a few Conservative MPs (the Prime Minister among them) have called for social networks to be interfered with in times of crisis – an astonishingly cynical and hypocritical idea, given our condemnation of the Iranian and Egyptian regimes when they did the same thing.
Not to be outdone, a group of Labour politicians have now put opportunism and short-term thinking above the principles of good democracy. The leaders of thirteen London Boroughs, together with John Biggs AM and MPs Rushanara Ali and Jim Fitzpatrick, called for a proposed EDL march in Tower Hamlets to be banned on account of the cost of policing, which they say “would simply be too great”.
The potential cost of policing the march wass half a million pounds, which is be no small sum to remove from London’s clean-up effort. But the costs of banning the EDL march will be much higher in the long term. It will fuel resentment among those wishing to march, and award them the status of ‘free speech martyrs’ that they crave, but do not deserve. Their warped view of immigration and their fantastical idea of what constitutes ‘true’ British culture will remain unchallenged once again. This will only lead to more tension and conflict that the police will have to spend time and resources to contain.
Citing costs as a reason to deny political or artistic expression is a classic argument used by despots abroad to suppress internal opposition. Of course, there is no comparison between our democracy and their tyrannies… but that’s an argument that carries zero weight when you’re campaigning for human rights in those places. Cameron’s suggestion that we censor social media, and the Labour call for the banning of this EDL event, will hamstring the fight for free expression elsewhere: “You do it, so why shouldn’t we?”
Worse, this excuse also puts the power of censorship into the hands of the mob. For example, in 2004, a small and unrepresentative group of youths were able to stop performances of Behzti at the Birmingham Rep Theatre (which they found offensive), by threatening to cause chaos that the police were unable to stop, on grounds of cost. Six years later, another theatre had to fight tooth-and-nail to ensure that the police would guarantee the safety of performers in another play by the same playwright. If this precedent persists, then we give extremists like the EDL, the BNP, or Islam4UK an ongoing permit to shut down any gathering they disagree with. Already we’ve seen local councils bullied into withdrawing Moonfleece, a play that challenges far-right extremism… because those same extremists threatened ‘trouble’! Arguments that seek to ban the EDL, however well-intentioned, slide inexorably into the banning of others, and eventually, banning everyone.
When the riots erupted across our cities earlier this month, we rightly saw them as a threat to our way of life. We demanded the police throw all their resources at the problem, regardless of the cost in these austere times. The right to freedom of expression must be protected by the police with equal vigour, and it’s odd that our London councillors have forgotten this.
To argue that the EDL must be allowed their right to march is only the beginning of the discussion. Those who advocate the right to free expression have a moral obligation to challenge those who preach hate and division. No one is arguing that an EDL march will not exacerbate tensions in Tower Hamlets, but these can be diffused without trampling on the right to association and assembly. This is where we need leadership, from those very same elected Labour representatives who signed the letter in the Guardian on Monday. I met and campaigned with Rushanara Ali and Jim Fitzpatrick when I lived in Tower Hamlets – They are both deeply respected in their constituencies. They, together with the Mayor of London and the Metropolitan Police, have both the wit and the standing to co-ordinate and lead a peaceful response to the EDL. Why did they not playing a central role in the Unite Against Fascism counter-protest? So far it has only garnered support from the unions and the mosques.
It is down to our politicians to present the contrast between the thuggery of the far-right, and the vibrancy of multicultural inner-city life, all while respecting free speech. Granted, this is not as simple as just banning the march. But we elect our Members of Parliament and Councillors to take on these difficult tasks, not to engage in easy, knee-jerk letter-writing. Time for Labour to lead.