Over the weekend, a candidate was arrested for addressing his potential voters. Clear aside the incidental details, scrape away the mitigating circumstances, and ponder that elemental fact. Paul Weston, standing for election to the European Parliament (against me, as it happens, in the South East) was arrested in the middle of a speech on the steps of the Winchester Guildhall.
When such a thing happens in Burma or Belarus or Bahrain, we report it in suitably shocked tones. Yet here it is happening in Britain, without any discussions on the Today Programme, any Amnesty vigils, any complaints from Liberty. To repeat, a candidate was arrested for making a hustings speech.
It is perfectly true that the candidate was attempting to provoke. He almost certainly set out with the intention of getting himself in trouble, thereby publicising his message and winning sympathy votes. He was quoting, through a megaphone, a passage written by the young Winston Churchill 1899, which says disobliging things about Muslims. Sure enough, as Weston must have been hoping, the few headlines there have been have focused on this aspect of the story: «Man Arrested for Quoting Winston Churchill».
This isn’t about the provenance of the speech, though. Churchill’s words are not Holy Writ. He was a an extremely prolific author, and was just as capable of writing bilge as anyone else. Nor is it about whether you agree with Weston. A few people do – many of them seem to troll this blog from their mother’s basements – but, as I hope we shall see on polling day, their numbers are negligible.
Nor yet is it about the propriety of Weston’s behaviour. Most British people are diffident when it comes to discussing religion, and consider insulting an entire faith the height of loutishness. Weston likes to pose as a defender of British values; but religious pluralism is one of those values as, frankly, is courtesy.
None of this, though, is relevant. In a free society, we tolerate eccentricity up to the point of madness, boorishness up to the point of intimidation, obnoxiousness up to the point of incitement. While Weston’s behaviour was narcissistic, there is no evidence that he was inciting violence.
Why should it fall to me to defend him? Where are the lion-hearted liberals who are so quick to denounce political arrests in distant dictatorships? I realise that «political arrest» is a strong phrase, but it’s hard to think of any other way to describe a candidate for public office being taken into police custody because of objections to the content of his pitch.
This is not the first time that the police have invented a right not to be offended, and chosen to elevate it over the basic freedoms we used to take for granted. I often wonder, as a Hampshire ratepayer, whether my local constabulary might not spend less time on politics and more on catching criminals (it hit a low point over Christmas when it chose to investigate for racism the man who had put up this sign).
The point of having elected Police Commissioners is to bring the priorities of local coppers into line with those of the community they serve. I can’t see any reaction from the Hampshire and Wight Commissioner, Simon Hayes, to this case, though I’ve asked him via Twitter. You might like to ask him yourself.
Opprinnelig i The Telegraph den 29. april 2014.