« Home | Sun-watch: homophobia and Huntley's mother. » | A century of deaths. » | Front page-watch: Yesterday's news, today. » | de Menezes: The 'complete and utter fuck-up' gets ... » | File-sharing shame. » | Hamas election victory: The revenge of Sheikh Yass... » | Sir Ian Blair: "Media is institutionally racist". » | Sun-watch: Outting by force. » | Don't be ethical. » | Jodie Marsh: Of Guardians and girls. » 

Wednesday, February 01, 2006 

Humiliating defeat for government over "religious hatred" - bring on ID cards!

When a government gets defeated when it has a majority, it somewhat reaffirms your belief that democracy and free speech actually still do exist. Many were delighted when the government was humiliated on its outrageous attempts to introduce up to 90-day detention for "terrorist suspects", but yesterday's defeat was even more worth savouring.

The bill was meant to outlaw "incitement to religious hatred". Labour has tried repeatedly to get the bill through parliament, and each time has been rebuffed, mainly because of the chilling effects in its unaltered form it would have had on freedom of speech and expression. What some have suspected is that Labour pushed it so hard this time, and indeed, put it in its manifesto purely so that it could win back support that it lost from Britain's Muslim communities - who aren't currently protected under the race laws which prohibit hatred against Jews and Sikhs. The problem with the legislation - and this is where it gets down into the dullness of the English language, is that as often with this government, it was drafted far too broadly. While I felt the law was not needed in the first place, as other similar pieces of legislation in Australia for instance, have only led to different churches and religions filing complaints against one another, with few other prosecutions. The other obvious matter is that you can choose your religion, and that freedom of speech relies on being able to make fun of others and criticise them. You can't choose the colour you are when you're born, but you sure can decide to disown the religion you might have be born into. That is the vital difference.

The bill had been altered in the Lords in many ways, and the government compromised on some, but refused to agree with the changes made to the two most vital parts. The bill as the government wanted it would have made "a person who uses threatening, abusive or insulting words or behaviour" towards a religion a criminal. As above, once we lose the freedom to be abusive and insulting, we may as well shut the Houses of Parliament, as Prime Minister's Questions would have to be stopped. The Lords therefore removed "abusive and insulting", but the government reinserted it and was defeated. The other issue was that if a threat was made against a religious group, it had to be intentional. Under the bill someone could be prosecuted for being "reckless", as in being silly and not serious. Again, the Lords amended the bill to make sure that someone could only be prosecuted if they were intendedly threatening. The government refused, and was defeated.

The moral of the story would be simple, if it wasn't for the government's apparent incompetence. The second division of voting was only lost by one vote, and the Dear Leader himself decided not to bother to use his, meaning that he could have swayed the balance. The first was lost by ten votes - but only 27 Labour MPs rebelled against a three line whip to join the Tory and Lib Dem opposition (Gorgeous George Galloway voted with the government, probably because of the ethnic diversity of his constituency) while 24 Labour MPs didn't vote; mainly because there were in Scotland campaigning for an upcoming by-election. In other words, the whips got it completely wrong.

That the government only lost on a bill which would have had such an effect on free speech by chance is bad enough, but it's deflected from the real issue. The government was dead wrong, and once again we had to rely on the unelected Lords and the Tories who were more opposed on political grounds than for concern for civil liberties. Still, it's a defeat, and on a bad bill. Hopefully this will galvanise opposition to ID cards, and if the government doesn't significantly compromise - on education.

Share |

Links to this post

Create a Link