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There is no right to freedom of expression in Britain

Artur Boruc, a Polish goalkeeper playing for with Celtic, has received a police caution for “a breach of the peace” after he made the sign of the cross during a game. I can only marvel at how Muslims can march through London carrying signs threatening death against people who do not share their beliefs can get a police escort, whereas a devout Christian making the sign of the cross in public can get a police caution. The Polish player was not making rude gestures at a hostile crowd [see update & link below - perhaps he was] or trying to threaten anyone, he was just making a personal gesture indicating a set of beliefs.

I may be a godless rationalist myself but I sincerely hope Artur Boruc not just ignores the police caution but robustly reject it and continues to demonstrate his beliefs as he sees fit. If some Rangers fans cannot stand that and become violent, then perhaps that is where the police’s attention should be more properly focused. Moreover I hope his club supports him regarding this matter and if it does not then I hope he takes his talents elsewhere.

However I am rather bemused that the dismal Ruth Kelly is ‘surprised’ at this development seeing as how she is a leading member of the political class which put the legal infrastructure in place so that exactly this can happen.

Britain has nothing even vaguely resembling the First Amendment or the US Bill of Rights generally, instead relying on common law that springs from a highly imperfect cultural tradition of liberty. As this culture has been in effect ‘nationalised’ and largely replaced by fifty years of highly malleable legislation, there are now few legal tools left to secure individual rights against the state in the UK. Consequently we are left with just hoping for the state to act in a restrained manner as there so now so many laws that can be used to suppress freedom of expression (including not just social but also political speech) that the state can prohibit almost any action it wishes if it really wants to. Moreover public bodies have now been given so much discretion to exercise power ‘in the public interest’ that almost any petty-fogging official can seriously mess with your life if he or she is so inclined. And we can thank the likes of Ruth Kelly in both of the main political parties for this.

Update Update: Although I stand by my general contention regarding the state of the law and freedom of expression in the UK, there may be a bit more to this specific story than the Telegraph article suggested.

20 comments to There is no right to freedom of expression in Britain

  • Alfred E. Neuman

    Looks like it’s about time for you to apply to the US for asylum, Perry. We’re far from ideal, but at least there is some protection.

  • dearieme

    There’s an eyewitness account at http://mreugenides.blogspot.com/2006/08/football-and-sectarianism.html
    that leaves one wondering about the honesty or competence of the BBC’s account of what happened. Surprise!

  • Interesting! If they cautioned him for making the ‘wanker’ gesture in an attempt to provoke the crowd, that is rather less corrosive to freedom of expression than if they cautioned him for blessing himself.

  • ian Grey

    Dearime, there are often more strands to a story than first meets the eye, and the link certainly paints it in a different tint.

    Of course, you get 30,000 people shouting abuse at one player and there must be a strong temptation to gesture fingers or wankers back. It ain’t a police issue though.

  • Brian

    Are we going to see Mohammed Yousuf arrested next time he makes a ton, then, for making inflammatory gestures to the crowd?

    Oh, silly old me. I forgot.

    Freedom of religion means freedom of approved religions.

  • Apparently the BBC are now reporting that the Crown Office has issued a clarification, stating that the caution was for his general conduct, including the abusive gestures aimed at the crowd – it has also been reported that he made a “v-sign”, but I did not see it – and not specifically for crossing himself.

    The whole affair is a somewhat sorry one; neither the Strathclyde police, the player, the rent-a-quote politicos, or indeed the fans who reported the player’s conduct, come out of it particularly well.

  • Nick M

    I am absolutely outraged by this story. I watched the world cup. I guess a lot of you did likewise. Practically every sub brought on by South American or Southern European teams crossed themselves as they ran on to the pitch.

    Quite why anybody should be allowed to find an individuals personal sign of faith offensive is utterly beyond me.

    having said that, Perry, I don’t think the UK requires something like the US Bill of Rights or the first ammendment. (much though I respect them). I think English common law protects all the freedoms we need. As long as our government doesn’t meddle with it. Alas it does.

  • guy herbert

    Making the sign of the cross might be construed as inflammatory in the context of a Rangers-Celtic game, and it is quite conceivable, too, that a foreign player would be unaware of it.

    It just goes to show the knots you get in once you start restricting expression: is it the intention to offend (or not) that matters or the offence taken? The old conservative communitarians, the New Labour civic republicans and the mad mullahs are agreed it is the offence taken, they just have different standards they wish to hold everyone else to.

    Not sure, Nick M, that Common Law is always adequate. Common Law suffers from peacock’s-tail adventitious growths given the slightest start from an awkward or barmy judge.

  • I think English common law protects all the freedoms we need. As long as our government doesn’t meddle with it.

    But…

    Alas it does.

    I think you just proposed and then refuted the contention that the British system still works without any help from me. It depends on the state accepting certain limits and when it no longer does, the system collapses as a way of securing the rights of individuals. If any government with a majority can legislate away ancient rights with the wave of a pencil then the notion we still live by a common law “constitution” has become a myth.

  • Nick M

    Guy,

    Interesting point. Should the context be important, or perhaps shouldn’t Rangers and Celtic fans grow up? To what extent do we have to accomodate the nutty ideas of religous and other extremists. I suspect the more room to maneuver we give ‘em the more room they will demand. Does anyone seriously believe that this Pole was honestly trying to wind folks up?

    Guy & Perry,

    Well, my mention of English Common Law was a little tongue in cheek. It should be adequate to defend our rights. In fact it is, in principle, a wonderful system. Quite possibly the likes of the Blairs, Kelly and Blunkett have buggered that system completely. I’ll certainly buy into that idea. But I’m still sad that over 1000 years of increasingly liberal (in the true sense of the word) legal history can be destroyed while pretty much no one gives a toss.

    Sad, I’m absolutely mentalist about it. Yet I disagree with certain members of the commentariat here that this is the singular action of NuLab. I think the destruction of our rights has been going on for a lot longer.

    When I was a kid I believed (possibly with some justification) that England was a beacon of freedom to the world. I no longer believe that. We have surrendered many of our freedoms without a fight. I was prepared to fight and die for EEngland when I was 16. I wouldn’t even buy a premium bond now.

  • Nick M

    Yeah, and I can’t even be bothered to spell it correctly either.

  • If its just happening to England Nick I reckon the sooner us scots get our independence the better :P

    Britain used to have an empire which enslaved and subjugated millions of people across the globe, how that history is a ‘beacon of freedom’ I don’t know. I know it all started with the magna carta and the people who acutually lived in Britain have had it pretty good, but we are now so complacent about our liberty that we give it up and don’t even notice. Eternal vigilance is the price of freedom but its not vigilance as the state would preach it. Its like someone coming up to you and saying “Oh look, what is that?” and pointing then using the distraction to swipe your wallet. The scary thing is that we fell for it, and are still falling for it. Even you lot. You point in the same direction and say “The threat is Islamic-totalitarianism, We must fight this enemy.” Its tantamount to handing the pointer your wallet and asking them to look after it while you go and take a look.
    I hear all this talk about basic liberties being eroded and the like (not just here I read it all over the place) but no-one seems to be doing anything constructive about it. Not that I’m any better, All mouth no trousers.

  • Stuart

    “English Common Law ….. should be adequate to defend our rights. In fact it is, in principle, a wonderful system”

    Garbage! The so-called ‘constitutional monarchy’ allows tryants like Blair and others to rule practically unchecked ‘in the name of the Queen’.

    Any such system that relies on the largesse of benign ruler is bound to fail; the only mystery is, how it survived so long at all.

  • Midwesterner

    Oh come now. Those poor Ranger fans can’t possibly be responsible for their own actions. He deliberately made the sign of the cross right at them. Isn’t it totally understandable and excusable that they should respond by degenerating into criminals? Those Ranger fans are victims! You should be sympathetic of their pain.

    And before any Ranger fans get angry at my sarcasm, the same derision of course applies when the tables are turned.

    It is utterly irrelevant whether his gesture was deliberately intended to upset or not. I am an individualist and hold individuals responsible for the (re)actions they choose.

  • If its just happening to England Nick I reckon the sooner us scots get our independence the better :P

    I am all for Scottish independence, although I actually see it as English independance. I want the UK out of the EU but I am just as happy to see England out of the UK too.

  • SUBTILIOR

    It is not the constitutional monarchy that allows Blair to act like a tyrant. Rather it is that he has been elected democratically, and therefore has the air of legitimacy to the believer in such democratic myths as the “will of the people”, and so forth, and can do what the hell he wants.

    A true constitutional monarch is limited by the constitution, which delimits what the monarch may and may not legitimately do.

  • Roy Lofquist

    As a citizen of the US I can only say: 1776, Hooah!

  • guy herbert

    If its just happening to England Nick I reckon the sooner us scots get our independence the better :P

    Likewise. Our problem is the clash of English laws and Scotch legislators…

    When Vice triumphant holds her sov’reign sway,
    Obey’d by all who nought beside obey;
    When Folly, frequent harbinger of crime,
    Bedecks her cap with bells of every clime;
    When knaves and fools combined o’er all prevail.
    And weigh their justice in a golden scale;
    E’en then the boldest start from public sneers,
    Afraid of shame, unknown to other fears,
    More darkly sin, by satire kept in awe,
    And shrink from ridicule, though not from law.

    The New Labour Scottish raj is what’s so quickly destroyed freedom in all Britain. Liberate the Scots and where’s the majority? End the Union and where’s the cabinet?

    I recognise this is very selfish of me. Despite substantial differences in principle, I like Alex Salmond very much, and as an Englishman it would delight me to vote Scots Nationalist. Were I a Scot, however, I wouldn’t want to have to cope with the current Labour crew in a sovereign Edinburgh parliament, and I’d be aggrieved at English me for cutting them adrift. But since they get their way anyway, and the Scottish public continues to vote them in, it couldn’t make the Scottish lot much worse, and would make life in England better.

  • Daveon

    As somebody else mentioned, there is a good reason why making the sign of the cross at the crowd at Auld Firm matches can be problematic. Glasgow is a not a place for a catholic or protestant to get caught drinking in the wrong bar by the wrong people.

    However, this looks like misreporting of the entire incident and it has been blown significantly out of all proportion. Are players under huge pressures from the crowd? Certainly. Will it be worse at games where there are already sectarian problems? Yup. Should players respond? No.

    The real question is why this wasn’t dealt with by the SFA rather than the police. There’s the real question.

  • pete

    It’s a bit like the BNP bus driver in this case, who had to be sacked partly to prevent other people being provoked into attacking him in a criminal fashion because of his views. I doubt if a muslim bus driver would be sacked in Burnley for being liable to provoke attacks while driving his bus through those Burnley wards that have elected a BNP councillor. I expect the drivers attackers would be prosecuted and convicted in that particular case. How long before this government makes it mandatory for every job applicant to state if they belong to any political organisation?

    http://www.personneltoday.com/Articles/2006/05/25/35507/BNP+bus+driver's+dismissal+did+not+breach+Race+Discrimination.htm