On hate crime and free speech

September 12, 2016 5:56 PM

In an essay published in 1938, the novelist EM Forster gave two cheers for democracy: "One because it admits variety and two because it permits criticism… Two cheers are quite enough," he wrote. "There is no occasion to give three." Forster thought that no political system - not even democracy - should be turned into an icon. What mattered, he thought, was that individuals should have the chance to live as best they can.

On this Forster was right. While democracy is a good thing, as anyone will tell you who has experienced the alternatives, it isn't something we should worship, and it shouldn't be a creed we try to impose on the world.

Freedom of expression is a good thing, but so is protection from hate speech. We all want to be free to voice our views without fear, but we also want to be free from being insulted or stigmatised. The two freedoms will always be at odds, for they protect different and competing human interests. Both are universal human values, but they'll never be reconciled in any kind of harmonious whole.

Yet when it comes to a civilized society the values of human decency can be demonstrated through a few words that in this chamber I hope and believe we can all agree upon despite our political, social and economic points of views and differences- And those words are respect and tolerance.

These words are only powerful and meaningful if they are exercised with due diligence. For to me, they demand care and patience if they are to be shared and appreciated. Without such care and patience they can be abused taken over dressed up with emotive feelings of anger and rage aimed to show the extremes of disagreement leading inevitably to intolerance to others and breeding an atmosphere of fear.

The recent referendum, had a democratic mechanism for the voice of the people to be heard but regrettably it's presentation, content and delivery was in my opinion bereft of respect and tolerance which played a significant role in the rise of hate speech and hate crime during and after the campaign and result. To some of us the nasty taste of the result was not the outcome but the way it was achieved.

The consequences far reaching: 6000 reported hate crimes reported in just 4 weeks. The death of MP Jo Cox, the death of a Polish man at the hands of 15/16 year olds and more deserve the respect of mentioning.

The government too has taken steps and I am led to believe prosecutors will be urged to push for tougher sentences for people committing hate crimes, following a rise in incidents after the EU referendum.

A £2.4m fund will also be set up for security measures at places of worship.
The Home Office said its action plan aimed to encourage people to report offences and boost support for victims.
Prosecutors will be issued with fresh guidance on racially and religiously aggravated offences.
They will also be encouraged to push for tougher sentences by urging courts to use existing powers to increase penalties in hate crime cases.

It is hoped this will improve confidence in the Crown Prosecution Service's response to such crimes and in turn, boost reporting rates.
The Home Office said it will also be targeting work to prevent hate crime on public transport and tackle attacks on Muslim women.

It is not just the responsibility of government to take action, it is the role of responsibility of us all as parents, teachers and law abiding people to play our part by leading by example. We need to be vigilant so that these words are not just words for a moment in time but are insurance to protect the values we hold of respect and tolerance and that hate crime in all its forms has no place in this country.

Who knows, one day we may even raise a glass together for at least two cheers for democracy

The author, Andy Graham, was a Liberal Democrat who fought David Cameron in the Witney at the last General Election.