Having the free space to challenge opinion and perceived convention is key to progress in politics, the movement for civil liberties, in business and generally in all aspects of life. It is rare for articles on free speech to be given space in our media, so I was delighted to see Carolyn Leckie write on this topic in The National and both parties kindly allowed me to post the article to share with others. The following text is as printed on the 8th of December:
I once had a fleeting run in with Quentin Tarantino. He had come to Glasgow to promote his film Death Proof and I was amongst a group of feminists protesting against what we considered to be glorification of misogyny.
Quentin wasn’t exactly pleased to see us. At one point he wagged his finger in my face, while angrily denouncing us.
He didn’t get the irony of defending his freedom of expression by denying ours.
Freedom of expression is an idea that almost everyone supports in principle. But as soon that principle is put to the test in the real world, the consensus falls apart and the arguments begin.
When three Renfrew SNP councillors last week demonstrated their contempt for the Smith Commission report by publicly burning a copy, reactions were polarised. They were also confused.
Thinking about whose freedom is being defended helps me make sense of it.
Some people might regard the actions of the three councillors as crass and tasteless. Others might see them it as harmless piece of political theatre designed to make a bold public statement, like tearing up a leaflet or walking out of a conference.
In my view, the only thing the councillors were guilty of is a lack of tactical nous. You don’t need to be around much in Scottish politics to recognise a scene ripe to be exploited by opportunistic, faux outrage.
What are the ‘outraged’ challenging exactly? You may not agree with protesting against Tarantino – but at least that demonstration was based on a coherent political analysis. Our world systematically exploits, objectifies and kills women in their millions. Feminist protestors are challenging abuse of power and oppression of women.
Who were the maligned councillors oppressing? No one. They were making a point, however insensitively. When one Labour MP compared their actions with those of the Nazi regime, he spectacularly fails to understand power and tyranny. The Nazis were intent on systematically wiping out every trace of the ideas contained in the books he ordered to be burned. One charred copy of the Smith Commission report prevents no-one from reading it.
The real risk here is that the manufactured ‘offence’ of the nae-sayers has a chilling effect on the diverse, vibrant democratic discourse unleashed by the referendum.
Which is exactly what some politicians want. In a speech last week, Gordon Brown said – rather vaingloriously for a soon-to-retire backbench MP – that he was “pressing the reset button” because “it’s time to move on from two years of talk of constitutional change.”
And, conveniently, diverts attention from the really momentous news of the week – like truly radical land reform and conclusive fiscal proof that we’re far from ‘better together’.
But that doesn’t let us Yes voters off the hook. Supporting independence is not equivalent to supporting every policy that comes out of the SNP Government.
Take the Offensive Behaviour at Football legislation which has led to political expression being criminalised. One Celtic fan was arrested last week at Tynecastle for wearing a ‘Free Palestine’ T-shirt. Under pressure to justify the arrest, SNP MSP John Mason bizarrely agreed that wearing a ‘Yes’ badge could have you up before the Sheriff. Seriously? That’d be a pretty scary precedent.
Don’t get me wrong, I’ve had a few train journeys ruined by tanked-up football supporters. But it wasn’t the content of ‘The Sash’ or ‘The Boys of the Old Brigade’ that bugged me. It was the total lack of respect for other passengers, the volume and the aggression. The issue is men in tribes behaving badly.
There’s a few folk on Twitter who think the way to independence is to act like some monolithic ‘united’ bloc that should voluntarily suspend all critical faculties until Independence Day has been and gone.
This is not the way to a better country. I have disagreed fervently with SNP policies while sharing a friendly platform with SNP Ministers on the Yes trail. That is one of my abiding joyous memories of the campaign. Ideas – conflicting, contradictory, sometimes chaotic – were given a space. They were welcomed and nurtured. Lots of people disagreed with me. Brilliant.
Can we carry that on, please? It’s such a contrast to the petty point-scoring and political trivia that predated the referendum.
We all have a responsibility to create an environment where political ideas can thrive without an Arctic freeze descending on passionate flames. And to contribute to a democracy in which governments can make ‘U-turns’ and be praised rather than vilified. It’s difficult, though – especially when your opponents are entirely focused on ruthlessly exploiting the slightest mistake.
But I don’t think the right response is to batten down the hatches. If that happens, the hope, empowerment and energy unleashed by the referendum will be snuffed out. Sometimes flames don’t always spread in the direction you’d like them to. The price of a genuine movement is that you can’t control it.
But that’s preferable to the dank and dismal alternative of politics as they were. Good folk I know on the No side will recognise that.