There is a conflation in Matthew Syed’s piece in the Sunday Times today between “democracy” and “freedom of speech”. They are, however, not the same thing. Freedom of Speech is a necessary condition for a society or state to be democratic, but only part of it.
Back in the 1980s I lived in colonial Hong Kong. It was a benevolent dictatorship in which freedom of speech was present to a high degree but it was no democracy !
Choosing who leads us is another condition for a democracy – proper elections. Does Britain pass this test ? Much less well than other European countries because of our electoral system. For many of us our votes simply don’t count because of First Past the Post.
Then there is our choice of who is our head of State. Again Britain fails the test of freedom of choice. A constitutional monarchy is a democratic cop out. Surely a Head of State should be free to comment on important issues of the day and not be chosen by privilege of birth.
Public Services are vital to a nation’s wellbeing. But should the provision of them be primarily driven by private companies’ profit motives? The P&O Ferries debacle gives us the answer. It’s not alone – if you doubt that check your next gas or electricity bill. The postcode lotteries on healthcare and education favour the better off over the less well off. Is that democratic ?
What is the ideal mix of societal norms is subjective and freedom is certainly in that mix. And yet the astonishing Freedom to live, work and love across 27 European countries was taken away from us with no effective opposition. There were protests, but they got nowhere.
The defence of democracy rhetoric is common to those who have scant regard for it. The Home Secretary said “The freedom to protest is a cornerstone of our democracy. But it doesn’t give anyone the right to criminally vandalise private property or stop the hardworking majority going about their daily life.” The missing element in Ms Patel’s statement is in a democracy who decides? She clearly believes that she does.
I want to be able to stand on my digital soapboxes and say what I like. My views are sometimes censored or removed by the guardians of the medium, especially Times Newspapers! And even Twitter has banned comments from, for example, the outspoken but eminently decent Carol Hedges! Who decides ?
One thought on “Democracy is about a lot more than Freedom of Speech”
At GCHQ they have banks of commuters that monitor phone conversations 24/7 of targetted terrorist suspects. The algorithms are programmed to pick up certain keywords. When highlighted the suspect is looked at more closely and operational MI5/6 takes over.
It’s basically the same with Twitter and other social media. If you make a comment containing certain keywords the machine signals a problem and you are either sanctioned or the post removed by moderators, whoever they are. You may even become a person of interest to GCHQ. Who knows how many dissident identities are buried in the vaults waiting to be scrutinised..
So you ask the valid question “who decides”. The answer is a machine programmed by a policy created by unelected faceless functionaries, who more or less are publically unaccountable.
This then is the modern world clearly predicted by Orwell and Huxley. Free speech is desirable for democracy until it crosses a line then it isn’t.
The current government has turned the screw with recent legislation that puts us all in the frame, restricts protest and freedoms even further.