In all our sanctuaries we sit at risk

How can we Defend Free Speech from the Lie ?


This piece follows the recent UK referendum on our membership of the EU. Both the quality of the debate and the “decision” that came out of it have left many millions of people reeling and horrified.

But how was that decision arrived at ? Why do so many of us find it impossible to accept it ? Because we don’t like being on the losing side ? Because we’re just being “hysterical” as an unrepentant Boris Johnson wrote in The Sunday Telegraph yesterday ? No. It is because it is transparently clear that this hugely important decision was not just horribly wrong and against all common sense, communal well-being, plain evidence and everyone’s self-interest ; the process of arriving at it was manifestly corrupt, flawed, unsound. The result has therefore no integrity and is bogus, a pretence, a con. The British electorate has not spoken. We have merely been had. We have accordingly mispoken. As a nation we have delivered nothing but a noisome belch.

For the UK referendum result cannot be a democratic result, a proper decision, if it was not honestly, democratically, arrived at. And it was not. On the contrary, it was achieved through the extensive and blatant abuse of democracy, making a mockery and cruel joke of a way of governance centuries old, which once could be claimed as one of the UK’s greatest gifts to the world. That world has been watching aghast as we have now self-destructed, like some vast family of disturbed adolescents kicking the hell out of each other, football hooligans filling the airwaves, who only know how to rend and tear down.

Just days after the result came through, the after-effects, the after-shocks, have already been momentous enough. There will be many more to come. I am beginning to hope that – in thus offering us a truly appalling self-portrait of the state we are in and the disgraceful quality of leadership we tolerate and the ludicrous systems we accept for arriving at life-changing decisions – the referendum might lead to a thorough and desperately needed make-over. Beginning to hope ? Trying to hope. But I have to hope.

I am going to concentrate here on just one aspect – the issue of language and our reliance on language as the essential life-blood and currency of a functioning democracy.

The totalitarian and oppressive state relies on brute force, armed creatures enforcing the will of the over-mighty. It also relies on closed doors, on secrecy, on the lie. Democracy, on the other hand, relies upon assent and openness, with language deployed as the trusted currency by which positive assent is reached.

And this implies and assumes freedom of speech as a basic right and necessity. We know that in history some people have died for that right and there remain parts of the world where people still risk and face death for speaking freely.

By extension, free speech means freedom of conscience, too. For the right to free speech allows each one of us to give voice to our own true witness and beliefs, according to our consciences, so that in speaking or writing we do not just echo someone else’s preferred line, through being bought off or made afraid or otherwise coerced.

So first, let’s think a bit more about what it means to have the power of speech. After that, I’ll talk a bit about the freedom that must go with it.



I need to talk, to put things into words. Words help me make sense of what goes on inside me and around me. Further, speaking words helps me to connect with other people, to make my way in the world. I could revert to teeth and claws instead of words, but words tend to go better and are a better route to understanding.

I can use words to deceive people, to twist them to my will. Or I can seek the truth through words, and share my explorations with other people, needing their company. In sharing with them, I establish relationships of trust with them. Without trust, the community breaks apart, of course. Without trust you cannot do good business.

All children lie. Lying is a necessary stage of development. And all sensible parents respond without outrage, but firmly : “Yes, you can re-shape reality with the words you use, you can make reality seem the way you would like it, you can make a temporary mirage, but if you keep lying to others, no one will be able to trust you.” The child who understands those words, grows up and becomes a citizen. The child who doesn’t understand is likely to become either a criminal or – on too much present evidence – a democratic politician.

For in principle, we are talking here about two distinctly different modes of being, spurs to action or speech. On the one hand : I must do or say what seems right, to the best of my ability ; on the other hand : I intend to do or say whatever I can get away with, to my own advantage. Languishing in prisons up and down the country are people who thought they could get away with it.


In medieval times, the English word for “free” was shorter by one letter.  “Fre.” And whereas nowadays “free” tends to mean “licence to say and do what I want,” the medieval “fre”  meant something much more akin to “noble” or “large-souled.” I believe those implications remain integral to a state of true freedom and speech is not truly “free” unless it also has integrity and conscience, unless it is awake to and careful of the spoken to.

Geoffrey Chaucer’s “The Franklin’s Tale” offers a wonderful exploration of the meaning and status of fre. One of the Canterbury Tales, it is a story of three people, each one of whom comes separately to a point at which enormous integrity and generosity of spirit and even self-sacrifice is required. The Franklin allows the story to end reasonably happily, but then asks : now, gentil reader, give me your view, which of these three people acted in a manner the most fre ?

Thus I think freedom is more than just individual licence at all costs, or even any cost. I think freedom cannot exist or continue to exist without generosity of spirit and care for good conduct. By definition, freedom requires respect for and service to the truth and to the world, to people around you. Mere irresponsible self-interest is not therefore “free”. On the contrary, it suggests merely the anti-social and even the criminal, a threat to the freedom of others.


So, to repeat myself, Democracy rests and relies upon Freedom of Speech. But true freedom of speech, not licence to lie. And Democracy is all too vulnerable to the lie or self-serving distortion of the truth, or withholding of necessary information, which is the stock in trade of the cynical seller of dodgy goods, the dream-weaver, the demagogue. To survive these turbulent and frightening times, Democracy must have stronger defences to protect itself from the poison of the lie, this abuse of our great privilege of free speech, our precious currency, so that trust and hence community can flourish.

Thus, as many people who commit fraud end up in prison, branded as criminals, I believe politicians and other public leaders who seek to win public support for their views or policies by fraudulent means such as the lie, or misinformation, or inflammatory dog-whistle language, should be recognised, named and shamed as criminals too and severely penalised in some manner sufficient to disgrace them and deter others.

For in these profoundly materialist times we seem to have come to the assumption that language is not material and therefore does not count that much. You can’t touch it, you can’t taste it.  Therefore it’s just an abstraction, just shapes in the air, and so the abuser of language, and of the truth through language, should/need not be held responsible. Indeed, to hold that person responsible, to penalise him or her for wrong-doing, can even be seen as an attack on free speech.

But after the referendum result, can there be any doubt that this approach is dangerously wrong ? Language is vital currency and is what makes us human. It is the life-blood of our community and it is also very powerful – for the good and for the ill. Deliberate misuse of language in order to deceive is an act of material harm and in the case of people in a position of public influence should become a criminal offence. Misuse of language is fraud, it is forgery, it is contamination. It can destroy a world.

In the UK, after our momentous referendum decision, members of the UK’s far right are exulting. Members of the far right elsewhere in the world are exulting too. Racist attacks have increased at an appalling rate, predictably and inevitably. For, all through the referendum debate, the dog whistle was blowing.

To hold the referendum at all was a disastrous miscalculation by a foolish arrogant and irresponsible man, whose world view appears to end at the tip of his Etonian nose. His little problem with UKIP and his own die-hards became at his hands a problem for the whole of Europe and has ended up rocking that continent and even perhaps a political system, as well as threatening to split up our nation-state into ancient fragments. This result will be his epitaph. He will be remembered for nothing else and deserves nothing better.

But it is not just Cameron’s terrible miscalculation on the referendum that did for him and makes him so blameworthy. In some ways he was shafted by the very approach to and conduct in democratic argument and difference that he himself made normal over the years in which he held power in the UK. Remember Andy Coulson, once a Cameron chum and close advisor, then imprisoned, to whom Cameron claimed to have given “a second chance” ? Oh really ? Remember those election debates he avoided “because the Greens would not be included.”  Oh really ?  Remember the claim constantly hammered home that the international financial crisis of 2008 brought on by reckless banks was “all Gordon’s fault” ? Oh really ? Dishonest salesmen know that trick : just repeat it often enough and – true or false –  it will stick. This one stuck. And then – on the advice of Boris Johnson – he made Lynton Crosby his spiritual advisor, that master of the dirty trick and furtive dog whistle, now – following Davie-boy’s success in the election last year –  Sir Lynton Crosby, OBE. OBE ?  Was Davie-boy the British Empire, then, all by himself ?

And that phrase he casually let fall in the House one day, describing the refugees still shivering in Calais as “a bunch of migrants.” Was that carelessness on his part, just the heat of the moment  ? I very much doubt it. Did some spiritual advisor recommend it ? I would not be surprised. Throw ‘em some offal, Dave. You’ll be the one to profit. Self – not humanity, not community. Dog-whistle Dave.

And that intervention he made, when he intervened in support of Zac Goldmith’s disgraceful campaign for the post of Mayor of London, linking Sadiq Kahn to Muslim extremists. Just “the rough and tumble of politics” said Striver-Skiver Georgie-boy, afterwards. Oh well, that’s all right then, whatever the collatoral damage may be. Just a chess game. A jolly rumble. A blood sport. Hooligans drawing blood in the arena, without let or stay, or care for truth or honour, as the world watched, and our children turned away.

Dave’s good in a street fight. He keeps getting away with it. Well done Davie-boy. Or was it so well done ? Suddenly, on a stage and in a storm of irresponsible loutish rough and tumble which he himself has done so much to build, condone and foster, he has been undone, unstuck. The sun has set on him.

But let’s concentrate briefly now on the process and quality of debate that preceded the referendum itself, informing the result if not determining it. It was full of lies, abusing our privilege of free speech in order to win power. All that money we “give away” to the EU which the Leave campaign said it would give to the NHS instead. That lie was painted on the bus that Boris Johnson rode in, a man already twice sacked for lying, once from his journalist job, once from public office, but – until just a few days ago – planning to take over from his Etonian stable-mate as Prime Minister. How many voters did that cynical lie sway ? And what does it say to every child in the land ? Don’t listen to what your wise parents say. Lie like me and you too can climb to the top of the (stinking) pile…

That scare tactic they deployed threatening “us” with thousands of dangerous Turks, a lie and incitement and crude example of racist dog whistling. Individuals are sent to prison for less, for inciting racial hatred. Have those who came up with this idea, those who went along with it, those who did not prevent it, those now seeking to profit from it, have they been brought to book as criminals ? No, they are still celebrating as “victors”.

Votes cast on the basis of lies, misinformation, deliberate exploitation of projected fears, cannot be counted as “the people’s will” ; it is nothing but the result of deceitful, criminal behaviour on the part of the campaigners. In turning our vital currency of free speech into a forgery, a lie, in defrauding the community they presume to lead, in poisoning the democratic process, the campaigners not only invalidate the given result on this occasion, they undermine the future of our society as a whole, destroying the political process, destroying our faith and trust and hope.

As owners of dogs who defecate in the public park are penalised, since they threaten our children’s health there, so politicians and campaigners who deliberately misuse their freedom of speech in order to sway people to their will, should also pay a penalty. And a much larger one than the dog-owners have to pay. For we are not talking here about piles of dog-pooh on the grass where our children freely gambol. We are talking about criminal acts of major import and awful consequence to huge numbers of people. The perpetrators are serious criminals.

John Profumo was Minister for War under Harold MacMillan. He was found to have consorted with prostitutes, thereby endangering national security. He resigned and MacMillan’s Tory government fell soon afterwards. Less well known is what Profumo did next. He became director of The Toynbee Centre in the East End of London, a social work base for helping needy people in that area. He remained in that role for the rest of his life. I believe that in doing so he made up for his misdemeanour and redeemed himself. And probably he did more for Society from that less heady position, than ever he did as a Minister of the Realm.

Profumo took this initiative on his own volition. But it gives me a blue-print for making a proposal that will involve compulsion.

In most walks of life, there are professional codes of behaviour. People who break the code run the risk of dismissal. The code does not necessarily stop abuse, but offers recourse to the abused. But also it can serve to articulate a standard to work by and refer to, an ideal, a reminder of the profession’s essential principles and aims, even an inspiration. The Hippocratic oath of the medical profession can serve as an example.

So that’s the first part of my proposal. That any politician elected to act as a public servant, should sign an oath. It must include a commitment to truth-telling across the board, a commitment applicable across a wide range of activities and possible modes of deception, very closely worded.

But we need more than a code, for there have to be significant penalties in cases of abuse, so that we never again encounter the disgraceful goings-on that we saw in the recent campaign  : anyone, be that person a politician or political operative or journalist or editor or newspaper owner, who abuses the political process by lying as a means of gaining advantage for self or cause, should be stripped of his/her professional role and income and required to provide a rigorous form of community service for a given number of years.

Further, as a means of deterrence, an old medieval punishment should be restored – the stocks. Geoffrey Chaucer and his Franklin would have been familiar with it. Let a reproduction of the old stocks be set up in Parliament Square. Let the guilty individual – be that person the prime minister or some humble apprentice hack – sit in the stocks each evening on Parliament Square for a given period. Let small children be invited along. Let them be equipped with rotten fruit. Let them enjoy themselves. Let the world watch, as it has watched astonished as we in the UK have gone about dismembering our nation, gleefully guided to our shame and disaster by rogues who think they can get away with it.

As we now protect our public parks from dog-pooh, let us protect the democratic process from the loutishness we have been witnessing for so long now, and let it be made more truly and securely fre, for our future’s sake. Let free speech become supportive of trust, our currency restored. Let democratic decision-making be properly informed. Let democracy become worthy again of its name and claim to virtue.

Or have we travelled down the path of disgrace and destruction too far for us to recover ?