This is the first instalment of a six part series exploring the British far right’s engagement with the issue of free speech.
For the average Londoner, 6 May 2018 was just another Sunday. But for activists of the British far right, it was a monumental chance for their voices to be heard. Shrouded in heat and humidity, thousands stood shoulder to shoulder just yards from Downing Street at a rally organised under the banner of “Day for Freedom”, waving flags, cheering for speakers, and gathering in support of their right to free speech.
Since that day, the question of, and debate around, free speech in the United Kingdom has only grown more pressing. Everytime you watch the news or open a social media application from Facebook to TikTok, it seems yet another public figure is complaining about “cancel culture” (a reference to the practice of exposing, humiliating, or deplatforming those who have engaged in racist, sexist, or otherwise condemnable or controversial ways); national newspapers are chock-full of open letters bemoaning the supposed suppression of free speech; and campuses are alive with protests and debates around who should or should not be allowed to speak or teach at a given university.
The free speech debate is happening in the UK in unprecedented ways and over the course of the next few weeks, HOPE not hate will release a series of articles exploring the British far right’s engagement with and exploitation of the issue of free speech. In a six part mini-series, these articles will provide insight into free speech laws and traditions in the UK; explore how elements of the British far right idolise the United States free speech tradition in contrast; and explore how the far right are often viewed as both protecting and co-opting free speech.
To illustrate the variety of positions on free speech found amongst the radical right and far right, we will also look at case studies of three radical right or far-right groups emblematic of different factions in the United Kingdom: the populist radical right leanings of Nigel Farage; the anti-Muslim activist and former leader of the English Defense League, Stephen Yaxley-Lennon (AKA Tommy Robinson); and white nationalist group, Patriotic Alternative (PA).
The Current UK Scene
Through rallies, online engagement, and other methods of spreading their rhetoric, far-right movements across the spectrum in the UK have positioned themselves as the only true defenders of free speech. Their rhetoric positions themselves as brave, as the only ones who are not afraid to say what they believe in the face of strengthening hate speech laws, calls for silencing of right-wing beliefs, and accusations of what mainstream society might consider abhorrent behaviour.
This has reached a fever pitch in recent years. In 2018 and 2019 the most discussed topic at major UK far-right demonstrations alongside opposition to Islam was free speech, or more specifically, the supposed suppression of free speech at the hands of ‘political correctness’. More recently, the free speech narratives from the far right have been affected by the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement, the COVID-19 pandemic, and the constantly changing nature of UK politics.
While there are various positions on free speech amongst both mainstream society and within elements of the far right, any discussion of this issue would be lacking without a basic overview of the two (large) umbrellas of opinion regarding free speech: the liberal tradition and the absolutist tradition of free speech.
The liberal tradition of free speech is closest, in practice, to the laws and regulations currently in place in the United Kingdom. Simply put, the liberal tradition of free speech is the belief that free speech should be protected, but that hate speech regulations are important for the protection of other liberties and, more generally, the successful and peaceful functioning of a democratic society.
It is important to note that the liberal tradition of free speech used in this report is markedly different than the so called “English liberal tradition” or “classic liberalism” as defined by the likes of anti-feminist YouTuber Carl Benjamin (AKA Sargon of Akkad). Benjamin, who has defined himself publicly on YouTube and Twitter as a “classic liberal”, calls for a far more universal allowance of free speech claiming on his YouTube channel that “I personally think that everything should be given a platform….even if it is simply just to discredit it.”
On the opposite end of the liberal tradition, and more similar to Benjamin’s understanding of free speech, is the absolutist or fundamentalist tradition of free speech. More aligned with the First Amendment laws found in the United States, the absolutist or fundamentalist tradition of free speech is built on the belief that everyone should have the ability to speak on whatever they want, without any limitations aside from a clear incitement to violence, despite how hateful, harmful or upsetting that speech might be.
Though there is not simply one all encompassing far-right approach to the question of free speech, most far-right groups and leaders fall somewhere between the two ends of the free speech spectrum. Often, activists of the far right, though positioning themselves as free speech absolutists, advocate for speech regulation of those with whom they disagree, such as Muslims, people of color, women’s groups, Jews, immigrants, liberals, socialists and so on.
It is important to acknowledge that for some on the far right, their belief in free speech may be genuine (or at least not entirely tactical), but their understanding of the concept of free speech is deeply flawed. For example, the far right often fails to grapple with the difference between their right to say what they want, with their strong desire to say it wherever they choose. Those on the far right, like all UK citizens, have the (qualified) right to free speech, but they also, like all UK citizens, must be conscious of where they are sharing their beliefs.
Alt-right political commentator Milo Yiannopolous’ 2017 book Dangerous provides an interesting case study here. Dangerous was dropped by the publisher Simon & Schuster and was subsequently self-published, despite intense push back from far-right communities and accusations of censorship. As HOPE not hate has highlighted however, while Yiannopoulos certainly has a right to write this book, nobody has an obligation to publish it. The same goes for visiting speakers at universities; while a given speaker has the right to their beliefs, no university is required to give a far-right speaker a platform. This nuance often results in confusion, which further results in uproar from the far right.
What’s to come:
As our work to investigate free speech and the far right and radical right continues, we will seek to explore next week a brief overview of free speech laws and traditions in the UK to better define the context in which these discussions are taking place, as well as begin to investigate how the far right and the radical right uses the issue of free speech to their benefit.