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Opinion: Graham Sykes

13 April 15

Freedom of speech is essential to a modern democratic society, and to qualify it in the interests of certain groups is to undermine the values that we defended against the threat of Fascism

by Graham Sykes

I have to disagree with Waqqas Ashraf’s well-intended but flawed comment on freedom of speech (Journal, February, 5). The simple fact is that you either have freedom of speech in a democratic society or you do not. It cannot be qualified. 

Recent legislative interference and the ongoing cancer of political correctness have conspired to create an atmosphere of fear, where parents are wary of nursery rhymes involving sheep of a certain hue, VAT inspectors are reluctant to press Asian retailers for accountability, and social commentators are confused by whether the term “black” or “coloured” is the currently acceptable adjective (I confess I am too).

We live in confusing times. Billy Connolly regretted his jest about those kidnapped by Muslim extremists, while Ricky Gervais’s questionable repertoire includes sketches on cancer patients. I’m told Frankie Boyle finds it acceptable to make sport of handicapped children. People pay to hear such material, but should any personality even suggest using the dreaded “n” word, the National Guard is called out.

It seems to me that there is some misuse of the word “race”. We talk of matters being “inter-racial”, or of “racial conflict”. Surely there is only one race, the human race? The difficulties we experience in modern society do not involve any conflict about nationality (let’s not open up the UKIP debate here); the problem originates in the fundamental conflict between the liberal secular way largely followed in the west, and Mohammedanism, with many Muslims displaying an increasing reluctance to accept the western rule of law.

As a mongrel nation, Britain has a long and remarkable cultural heritage through invasion and, more recently, immigration. When the Irish, Italian, Jewish, Polish and German immigrants arrived, they integrated in a way that many Muslims seem reluctant to embrace today. That is not to say that those of the Muslim faith have not made their own contribution, but as was learned from the Irish troubles of last century, a troublesome minority can create significant community divisions which, if unresolved, can threaten both stability and security at a national level.

We must protect and cherish the right to express without fetter; to restrict or control means there cannot be true freedom of speech. The reasonable and intelligent person will recognise that to call someone a “Yid” or a “Paki” is offensive, but until the recent legislative interventions, the British view was very much: “I don’t agree with what you say but I respect your right to say it.” It is this right that was jealously guarded by a generation who sacrificed so much to prevent Fascist imposition of measures that are in danger of creeping in today. I see no need for new statutory provisions to resolve current issues: the necessary law is in place. However, while preserving accountability, it is now time to reassure those enforcing the law that they may pursue whatever course they feel necessary to protect our way of life without fear of unreasonable media or political interference.

Charlie Hebdo’s poorly drafted cartoons were not particularly appealing, but one should not devalue the right to distribute such material in our modern democratic society. The Muslim community, although distressed, should accept that in choosing to live in the west, they must respect the concept that the freedom to express is a privilege that should never be answered by violence. Waqqas Ashraf refers to the right to “protection from incendiary material”, but with respect, it is not the material that is incendiary, it is the bombs detonated by those who seek to attack the way of life that previous generations fought to protect. There is a growing awareness among many British citizens that with political correctness and misguided state restriction, this hard-won right is now in jeopardy.

I propose to leave the last comment not to the drafters, interpreters or enforcement officers of the law, but rather the so-called “reasonable man” often referred to in case reports. Stopping in a bar on the way home, I chanced on a passionate discussion among four elderly gentlemen about the current state of community relations in the UK. This was concluded by an impressive and particularly Glaswegian turn of phrase when one of the group summed up: “Look, Ah’ve got nae problem with any o’ thae Muslims comin’ o’er here to stay, so long as they behave themsels. Any o’ their pish and we’ll dae whit the Australians dae!”

If recent outrageous reports about exclusion zones for non-Muslims being established in certain parts of Glasgow and Bradford are to be believed, perhaps it is time to consider the Australian stance against radical conduct.   

Graham Sykes is a solicitor with Hepworth & Co, Cambuslang, and spent part of his childhood in Kuwait 
Click the link above for other comments in response to Waqqas Ashraf's article 

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Your comment

Peter McFarlane

Thursday April 16, 2015, 16:58

Interesting and thought provoking.

Perhaps we should reflect more deeply on the comment that "many Muslims (are) displaying an increasing reluctance to accept the western rule of law".

Although necessarily anecdotal, I am pretty sure that when we created the Empire and exported ourselves "to develop" the nations and peoples of the Empire, we did not subject ourselves to whatever indigenous legal systems or modes of society there were? We imposed what Graham calls "the western rule of law". Presumably we thought it was "superior" with a better moral content. I bet the resident populations were none too happy!

I am not clear that we should regard our own current values (even if we could all agree what they are) as necessarily superior in all respects to other ones, in perpetuity?

Open debate with a clear perspective of each side's history and cultural norms is necessary.


Jim Bauld

Thursday April 16, 2015, 18:59

I have already commented via Twitter and have received many responses.

The more I read this article the more I am astonished that it has been printed in the Journal.

Incredible suggestion that Asian retailers are tax evaders.

I'm amazed that any practising solicitor is confused about whether "coloured" is an acceptable adjective.

Still waiting for a reply as to what "Australians dae" to "thae Muslims".

No idea when the term "Mohammedanism" was last used.

I live in Glasgow and am unaware of any exclusion zones for non-Muslims.

Perhaps the author should leave the 1940s and recognise that there are many thousands of Scots who are Muslims and haven't come from anywhere except the maternity wards of Scottish hospitals... heaven forfend some of them even appear to be qualified lawyers!!


Claire Mitchell

Friday April 17, 2015, 00:19

The author writes " The simple fact is that you either have freedom of speech in a democratic society or you do not. It cannot be qualified." Freedom of expression is not absolute and can indeed be qualified, as is made clear by article 10(2) of the ECHR :- Article 10 – Freedom of expression

1. Everyone has the right to freedom of expression. This right shall include freedom to hold opinions and to receive and impart information and ideas without interference by public authority and regardless of frontiers. This article shall not prevent States from requiring the licensing of broadcasting, television or cinema enterprises.

2. The exercise of these freedoms, since it carries with it duties and responsibilities, may be subject to such formalities, conditions, restrictions or penalties as are prescribed by law and are necessary in a democratic society, in the interests of national security, territorial integrity or public safety, for the prevention of disorder or crime, for the protection of health or morals, for the protection of the reputation or rights of others, for preventing the disclosure of information received in confidence, or for maintaining the authority and impartiality of the judiciary.