John Adams wrote that the real war for American independence was won in the hearts and minds of the people, with the help of newspapers and pamphlets, which “enlightened and informed” public opinion. Freedom of expression, which the American colonists inherited from the British liberal tradition, was thus a catalyst for the creation of a new nation. In Britain today, however, the public seems to be losing interest in such liberty: a December 2021 YouGov poll found that 43 percent of respondents valued protecting people from offensive or hateful remarks over the right to free speech.
It’s no wonder that so many Britons feel this way—especially when their own police are out enforcing a new social-justice regime. When they’re not busy having their squad cars decorated in rainbow flags or virtue-signaling on Twitter about their pronouns, the police are busy telling the public how to think, having dedicated a vast amount of time, money, and resources into “raising awareness” and encouraging people to report their neighbors’ supposed hate crimes. In February last year, police in The Wirral showed up with a digital advertising van informing shoppers that “being offensive is an offence.” Meantime, a recent report found that in the last five years, almost 1 million burglaries have gone unsolved.
Consider a recent case deemed worthy of police involvement. When nonagenarian World War II veteran Captain Tom Moore managed to raise more than £30 million in donations for the National Health Service, he became a media sensation and was knighted by the queen for his charitable work. He died last year at 100, and the nation paid tribute to his philanthropic benevolence. Glaswegian Joseph Kelly, though, saw things differently. He tweeted a photo of the World War II veteran with the words “The only good brit soldier is a deed one, burn auld fella, buuuuuurn.” Offensive to many, no doubt. Kelly deserved critical scorn—but not prosecution. Authorities recently convicted him of sending a “grossly offensive” tweet under Section 127 of the 2003 Communications Act, which makes it against the law to send “by means of a public electronic communications network a message or other matter that is grossly offensive or of an indecent, obscene or menacing character.” What about free speech? Adrian Cottam, the sheriff who convicted Kelly, offered this answer: “The prosecution does interfere with freedom of expression, but it is a necessary interference.”
The U.K now has some of the most authoritarian restrictions on free speech in Europe. The basis for much of Britain’s censorious legislation is the concept of protected characteristics—identities deemed vulnerable and enshrined in the Equality Act of 2010. Initially, that law had a noble intention: to fight prejudice and discrimination against minority groups. Unfortunately, the protection of a select group of people in the name of “equality” has made equality under the law no longer tenable, and the Equality Act itself has wound up chilling freedom of speech. Engaging in whatever authorities may deem hate speech can bring police to your door.
This threat is not theoretical. According to official statistics, the police in England and Wales recorded 124,000 hate crimes between March 2020 to March 2021—a 9 percent increase from the year before and more than double that of five years ago. One possible reason for the rise in police-recorded hate crime can be found in the College of Policing’s “Hate Crime Operational Guidance” handbook, issued in 2014. It defines hate crime as “any criminal offence which is perceived, by the victim or any other person, to be motivated by a hostility or prejudice based on a person’s race [or religion, sexual orientation, disability or transgender status].” Little or no evidence is required for an incident to be classified as such—only the subjective declaration of the alleged victim or witness.
The erosion of free speech in the United Kingdom hasn’t occurred overnight. Brits have been heading in an illiberal direction for years, with the instinct to protect individual feelings over freedom of expression steadily gaining ground. Other changes in the British character have played a role, too. Displaying courage and stoicism in the face of adversity—once known as having a stiff upper lip—was long viewed as a quintessentially English trait. Today, not so much, especially when public energies are more engaged in legislating against whatever one might find offensive.
Proliferating identity groups continue to seek protection from offense under the law. Last December, the Law Commission published recommendations on the reform of hate-crime law. It suggests expanding the concept of hate crime to include prejudice against the disabled and LGBT people. Stonewall, an LGBT charity, has welcomed the commission’s proposal to include “asexual” within the protected characteristic of sexual orientation; it also urges expanding “transgender identity” to include “transgender or gender-diverse identity,” which contains “transsexual man or women” and “non-binary.” This, Stonewall argued, is “a huge leap forward for the safety of LGBTQ+ people.”
It does not require legal expertise to recognize how such legislation threatens a system of impartial justice. As the list of protected characteristics grows, hate-crime law will arbitrarily protect some and criminalize others. The concept is ultimately subjective. Should someone who attacks a transgender individual receive a longer sentence than someone who attacks a woman, simply because one attack is defined as a hate crime while the other is not? What makes one attack more hateful than another?
Some signs of resistance are emerging. Members of Parliament recently voted to remove a House of Lords’ amendment to the Police, Crime, Sentencing, and Courts Bill that sought to make “misogyny” a hate crime. Laws already exist that deal with the most severe crimes: domestic abuse, murder, and sexual assault. If someone is stabbed, say, the accused should be judged objectively on the available evidence pertaining to the deed—not on whether he was thinking forbidden thoughts.
Legislating further against hate will almost certainly mean more censorship in the U.K. As protected categories grow, the state will increase its power to censor and even arrest those expressing contentious views in the public square. The right to speak freely was once regarded as a birthright bestowed on any free-born Englishman. It is up to Britons to recognize what is at stake.