February 25, 2009

Geert Wilders is in the US at the moment and will be showing his film “Fitna” in Congress tomorrow, Thursday.

US Republican Sen. Jon Kyl is hosting a film screening at the Capitol building on Thursday for Geert Wilders, a Dutch lawmaker whose film claims that Islam inspires terrorism. Kyl agreed to facilitate the event because “all too often, people who have the courage to point out the dangers of militant Islamists find themselves vilified and endangered,” his spokeman said.

I’d just like to add that you’re lucky, lucky people. No, not just because you’re American and all that and no, not in any cynical sense (although I don’t think that the film is all that subtle a piece, nor am I a great fan of Geert Wilders’ views) but seriously, you’ve had at one point in your country a sensible set of politicians.

Sensible in the meaning of getting the point that there are certain things which are indeed inalienable and which government can’t stop you doing just because they don’t like it: free speech being just one of those things.

One of the little secrets about my working life is that I’m currently half of the press office for the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP and no, I’m not asking for donations, we can’t take those from non-Brits) and it was one of our peers (a member of the House of Lords, think appointed members of the Senate if that helps), Pearson of Rannoch, who invited Wilders over to England to show his film inside Parliament. Just after the original invitation a certain Lord Ahmed (the first appointed Muslim peer) started making noises about bringing out 10,000 demonstrators if it went ahead. He’s denied doing so and the courtesies of private meetings mean no one can confirm or deny that he did.

But that was enough, when Geert tried to come to Britain a couple of weeks later he was banned from entry. No, really, an elected politician from a fellow member of the European Union was banned entry to the UK. Someone invited to come and give evidence to Parliament was banned entry.

Well, as you can imagine, this sort of thing is meat and drink to a politician. Wilders got on the plane and perhaps 90% of the fellow passengers were journalists. There was also a scrum at Heathrow, where he was not allowed to pass through customs but told to get the next plane back. I know of at least one newspaper (even I know the three journalists) that had one on the plane, one waiting for it to land and one standing next to me in Westminster just in case he made it through.

In one sense, all good fun and games as it gives press officers something to do: my principal was on innumerable TV and radio stations and in most of the newspapers the next day. In another and more important sense it’s entirely foul of course.

There are indeed legitimate restrictions on the right to free speech: that old shouting fire in a crowded theatre, or incitement to violence. But when the incitement takes the form of “if you say that then I’m going to riot” then it’s not the speaker who should be banned or tried but the rioter.

Strangely, on the actual day, the only angry muslim anywhere near Parliament Square was Lord Ahmed himself: the other 9,999 didn’t in fact seem to care. Much to the annoyance of the lady from the Dutch radio service. When I said that, well, that heaving mob of bebearded demonstrators doesn’t seem to have turned up she turned on me shouting that I had ruined her story. What could she possibly report if there wasn’t a riot?

There is a more amusing side to this banning of people who would say nasty things: we’ve been spared the “God hates fags” rhetoric of the Westboro Baptist Church. Whether God indeed does so I’ve no idea and don’t feel competent to decide, although I do slightly miss the sight of the Rev. Phelps being laughed at by a British crowd. We rather don’t do that sort of preaching here. Even more amusing is that Lord Ahmed has been found out. He started a three month prison sentence for an unrelated offence this afternoon.

But back to the important point, that you’re lucky, lucky people. You can go along and listen to the rhetoric of a Dutch politician, of a Baptist preacher, as you wish or as you don’t wish. You still have freedom of speech which, sadly, despite having invented the very idea in the first place, we in Britain no longer do.


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