Sunday, 22 April 2007

It must be the internet: we’ve mentioned the Nazis!

An excellent post from Jonny Wright has encouraged me to break cover on the suggestion that the EU should ban holocaust denial throughout the Union’s 27 members. I probably don’t need to revise the background. Suffice to say that there are two questions: should one ban holocaust denial? And is it right that this should be legislated upon at an EU level?

I have written before on the subject of banning holocaust denial. There is something truly grotesque about the attempt by some pseudo-historians and anti-Semites to rub the extermination of millions out of the pages of history. If any false-theory or misguided belief deserves to be banned it is this.

But it doesn’t. No matter how distasteful holocaust denial may seem, it is as nothing compared to the dangers of legislating against people's freedom of speech. It is trite beyond belief to equate one’s opponents with the Nazis, but when one begins to impinge upon the fundamental freedoms upon which a liberal society is built, one takes a first step down a slippery and dangerous path. Freedom must also include the freedom to be wrong, and liberty requires tolerance of those whose views challenge or even disgust us.

Why, anyway, are we so afraid of this tiny minority of twisted fools, that we should seek to muzzle them with the full force of the state? If we are so sure of our truths, can we not defend them with evidence and reason, rather than legislating to protect them? Let the holocaust deniers shout from the rooftops; they just draw attention to an evil that might otherwise fade into the distance.

As for European-wide legislation, it is neither necessary nor warranted. There is no compelling reason why EU member-states need to harmonise their laws on freedom of expression (though if they happened to all adopt a policy of tolerance towards opinions with which they did not disagree, I would rejoice!). The EU remains – at least for now – an single economic market, onto which has been grafted a few additional competences such as justice and foreign affairs co-operation. We remain 27 nation-states, each perfectly capable of deciding for itself what laws need apply in its jurisdiction.

The EU recognises this: it has a principle called “subsidiarity” that says that decisions should be taken at the level nearest the citizen (a principle that might usefully be applied within nation-states!). Sadly, the EU has always treated the subsidiarity clause with contempt. Like all bureaucracies, the Eurocracy seeks constantly to expand its powers. To our shame, Liberal Democrat euro-parliamentarians are all too ready to assist that creeping arrogation of power.

Thus this proposed law is the worst of both worlds, and highlights the fact that the EU is not in practice a liberal institution. The EU exists to further the free movement of goods, services, capital and labour and so foster greater harmony and co-operation between nations. In the process it has expanded its responsibilities far beyond what is necessary to achieve these goals, taking decision-making – and thus power – ever further away from the citizen.

As liberals we can be proud of our support for the Union, but that support must not blind us to its faults. We must not become partisans for the Union against our principles or the wishes of our countrymen. If we are going to fight to keep Britain in the Union, we must fight twice as hard to keep the Union liberal. If we fail in that, we will fail the British people twice over: we will saddle them with an illiberal institution; and when eventually it becomes to much to bear, we will share the blame for Britain’s withdrawal.

1 comment:

Jonny Wright said...

A great post Tom. I'm glad I was able to help inspire you to it! I think your views on Europe are spot on, especially as far as the Lib Dems are concerned. We can't present ourselves as the party of localism on the one hand, whilst being inconsistent when it comes to subsidiarity.

If we're going to develop this argument, we could start to argue for a very different sort of constitutional treaty for the EU: a radically decentralising treaty, which takes a completely new look at the EU's exclusive competences, and gives some very explicit protections to areas that are best dealt with at a national level. Any constitution that couldn't offer that sort of protection would effectively be a blank cheque, and it would be impossible to get the British public on-side.