One of the supposed advantages of being British which those who oppose independence are so proud of used to be the freedom to criticise the government, the monarchy, the army, the establishment, or the myths and sacred cows of Britishness without any repercussion. This was the much vaunted tolerance which we were always told was one of the defining characteristics of Britishness. During the 2014 independence referendum campaign Better Together supporters made much of this, some even going so far as to say that deprived of the moderating influence of Westminster, Scotland would rapidly descend into an intolerant authoritarianism where those deemed to be insufficient or unenthusiastic in their Scottishness or who refused to participate in state-sponsored anglophobia would be hauled off to re-education camps where they would be strapped into chairs and subjected to high decibel renditions of Harry Lauder and Fran and Anna music until they confessed the error of their ways.
Better Together supporters took it for granted that freedom of speech was a core British value, one which was guaranteed by a Britain which they viewed as one of the most robust and secure democracies in the world. There would never in the UK be any threat of laws such as the Spanish legal ban on insulting the royal family. In April last year a pro-independence and anti-fascist Catalan rapper Pablo Hasél was sentenced to a prison term of nine months for insulting the Spanish royal family, insulting the Spanish armed forces and police and for praising banned organisations including the pro-independence Basque and Catalan paramilitary organisations ETA and Terra lliure (Catalan for Free Land). According to Spanish law any person who defames or insults the king, the queen, their ancestors or their descendants can be imprisoned for up to two years.
One of the tweets which the Spanish courts used to justify the claim that Hasél was a supporter of terrorism, a claim which he strongly denies, was pointing out that Joseba Arregi Izagirre, accused of being a member of ETA, was tortured to death in a Madrid prison in 1981 by serving members of the Spanish National Police.
Another pro-independence Catalan rapper, Josep Miquel Arenas Beltran, known as Valtònyc, was arrested at the age of 18 for a song whose lyrics were ruled by the Spanish High Court to insult the monarchy, glorify terrorism and slander on the person of the king. He was sentenced to three and a half years in prison but fled to Belgium in 2018, the day before he was due to report to prison to begin his sentence. The Spanish authorities attempted to have him extradited but in October 2021 the Belgian Supreme Court ruled that the offences he was found guilty of by the Spanish courts infringed his right to freedom of speech and refused to allow the extradition.
Such laws are widespread, particularly in authoritarian states, under Turkish law it is illegal to insult the Turkish nation, the Turkish Republic, Turkish government institutions, and Turkish national heroes. It is also illegal to insult the President of Turkey, many countries, including France, Germany, and Poland make it an offence to burn or desecrate the national flag.
Of course we were always assured by the apologists for Westminster that nothing like this could ever happen in the UK. You can burn any flag in the UK as long as you own the flag and you don’t cause damage to anyone else’s property. We are told it’s a part of the freedoms guaranteed to us by the British state. But such confidence is misplaced. In 2006 the prominent Conservative MPs Michael Fabricant and Daniel Kawczinsky signed a House of Commons motion calling for legislation to make it a criminal offence to burn or desecrate the union flag.
As part of his self-declared war on woke culture, a pathetic attempt at attention seeking if ever there was one, Rishi Sunak is now proposing that if he becomes Prime Minister he will expand the definition of extremism which prompts state intervention to include those who “vilify Britain” and so that those identified as “vilifying Britain” are referred to the deradicalisation Prevent programme. It’s unclear what this means exactly but it sounds deeply sinister. The Tory Party itself has become a vehicle for extremist, dumbed-down English nationalism.
Sunak seems to have in mind those who seek an open and honest acknowledgement of Britain’s many historical sins, the legacy of the slave trade and colonialism, apologies for great wrongs committed by the British state such as the Bengal and Irish famines, the genocide of the aboriginal population of Australia. It is a long and inglorious list. But campaigners also seek a righting of modern day wrongs such as structural and institutional racism. These demands have the Tories clutching their metaphorical pearls, pearls which were no doubt stolen during an imperialist foray into some nation which was unfortunate enough to end up as a British colony. So they have decided that the real problem here is not structural racism or the airbrushing of the crimes of Empire, no, the real problem are those Britain vilifiers who want something done about it. Sunak has pledged that his focus would be on “rooting out those who are vocal in their hatred of our country”. Former counter-terrorism chief Sir Peter Fahy, who was also chief constable of Greater Manchester police, said that Sunak’s plan was “straying into thought crimes and political opinions.”
Truss’s campaign criticised Sunak’s plan, but mainly on the grounds that it doesn’t go far enough.
In recent weeks we have seen culture secretary Nadine Dorries intervene to protect a plaque in Oxford celebrating the British Imperialist robber baron Cecil Rhodes after attempts to have it removed from Oriel College in Oxford. Rhodes was an overt racist who wrote that the “Anglo-Saxon race” was the “first race in the world, and that the more of the world we inhabit the better it is for the human race.” Rhodes nakedly imperialist and colonialist ambitions caused him to be a controversial figure even during the heyday of the British Empire. When Rhodes died in 1902, his obituary was damning, with one newspaper editorial saying: “The judgment of history will, we fear, be that he did more than any Englishman of his time to lower the reputation and to impair the strength and compromise the future of the Empire.”
However in modern Britain it is less acceptable to the government to be critical of Cecil Rhodes today than his contemporaries were during the height of British imperialism and colonialism. It is a very short step from categorising those who “vilify Britain” as dangerous extremists to ruling that those of us who seek independence from Westminster rule for Scotland and Wales are dangerous anti-English extremists.
And let’s remember that we were told that Boris Johnson was a unique aberration and that once he was out of office calm, sensible and grown up government would be restored. But no, batshit insanity is the new normal. This level of authoritarian madness is here to stay. The nationalist extremists that we really need to worry about are those in the Conservative party.
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