This debate comes after a few years of increasing suppression of civil liberties and human rights here in the UK. Freedom of speech is about engaging with all sorts of ideas, biases and creeds to make up the public discourse. As a Green, I am well aware of how important it is to talk and try to convince people about the environmental crisis—especially those in power who can actually do something about it, however little. I might regard this Government as political enemies, and as arrogant and repressive, but I think it is worth engaging and very much hope they feel it is worth engaging with Greens.
I like the way people in society at the moment are questioning whether schools named after slave owners ought to change their names, or whether country houses need to explain to their visitors the dark side of their history by putting front and centre how their owners made their fortunes. All that is part of robust debate; if some people feel uncomfortable, perhaps they should be.
There are things I do not like. I do not like Russian bots on Twitter and the made-up Facebook profiles that distorted the discussion about Brexit and still seek to destabilise our democracy. I do not like the way social media gives the impression of free and equal debate, but has in fact allowed dark money to contaminate that debate and to give those with money the ability to divide and rule. Nor do I like the way some social media platforms created algorithms that promote rage and division. Social media should give us the chance to share information, reach out and engage, but instead it is often designed to reinforce the bubble culture of people finding others they can agree with. I definitely do not like the way some women have been silenced and de-platformed for raising concerns about what they see as an erosion of their rights. I also do not like discourse that is rude and threatening, because that is another way of silencing people who are just trying to be who they are inside.
In the UK at the moment there is a huge gap between respecting our political enemies and the sort of legislation this Government are introducing, which attempts to crush dissent. The assault on our democracy by this Government is the biggest threat to freedom of speech and even freedom of expression. That is the threat that deserves most of our attention, because each bit of legislation we pass here is making that threat grow. This Government are silencing campaigners and turning dissent into a crime while rewarding the lobbyists and money men. They are removing democratic safeguards on ministerial power while setting up a special unit to filter freedom of information requests that might reveal something damaging to them.
Things were far from perfect in the past, but the last decade has seen a vast extension of the repressive state. The old normal was undercover police spying on campaigns for justice, such as those of Doreen Lawrence—now the noble Baroness, Lady Lawrence—and a thousand other non-violent campaign groups. The new normal is giving those undercover police legal immunity for any crimes—this came through your Lordships’ House. The old normal was D notices that stopped the public finding out national secrets like the bunkers that sheltered the rich and powerful in the event of nuclear war, but the new normal is referring school kids to Prevent for supporting the eco-warriors of Greenpeace.
The old normal was the Special Branch holding files on Labour Ministers. The new normal is putting tens of thousands of people on databases as domestic extremists. I am proud to say that I was on that police database for domestic extremists while a member of the Metropolitan Police Authority, fighting, at the time, for the traffic police to get more resources to deal with road crime. Caroline Lucas, at the other end, was labelled a domestic extremist, as was a local Green Party councillor and thousands of others. We were elected to give a voice to hundreds of thousands of people who voted Green, yet we were watched and monitored by the police.
While I welcome this debate on freedom of speech, I feel that we in your Lordships’ House actually can and should do more: we should be a watchdog by protecting the right to effective protest and stopping the worst excesses of state power. That starts with rejecting the draconian powers in the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, which we are currently dealing with and which will be with us next year as well. That rejection of those measures would be a defence of free speech.
Finally, I was in your Lordships’ House yesterday and wanted to take part in a debate. The Labour Benches were quite full, so I sat on the Bishops’ Bench. When I tried to speak, I was told that I could not speak from there. I tweeted about it, and someone tweeted back:
“Ridiculous they can stop you speaking the truth from the wrong seat but in the other house they can’t stop you from lying from the dispatch box.”