St Stephen’s Hall, Houses of Parliament, Westminster. IMage: Snapshots of the Past, via Wikimedia Commons.

In the last fortnight, the National Secular Society participated in two quite different discussion events in London. Both events contributed to the debate on how and why Britain should continue its movement towards greater secularisation, why religious privilege should be abolished, and the extent to which free speech should be a fundamental democratic principle.

On Wednesday 10th May, the Free Speech Union hosted FSU In-Depth: Blasphemy law by the back door, in central London. The speakers included the NSS’s CEO, Stephen Evans. He was joined by Dr Rakib Ehsan, author of Beyond Grievance: What the Left Gets Wrong about Ethnic Minorities; Emma Webb, director of the UK branch of the Common Sense Society and a member of the National Conservatism conference committee; and Ben Jones, the deputy director of the FSU cases team, who has recently completed a PhD on British ex-Muslims. The meeting was chaired by the FSU’s founder and director, Toby Young.

On Wednesday 17th May, the NSS hosted Future of church and state in Committee Room 5 of the Houses of Parliament. Stephen Evans chaired a disparate panel consisting of the veteran Labour journalist and long-term secularist Polly Toynbee; Martyn Percy, former Dean of Christ Church, Oxford; Tommy Sheppard, a Scottish National Party MP and chair of the All Party Parliamentary Humanist Group; and Jayne Ozanne, a gay evangelical Christian activist.

In the ‘culture wars’ which are so fracturing British society at present, the NSS occupies a finely balanced position.

On the one hand, the society has been a strong critic of the imposition of de facto blasphemy laws by religious groups in the UK. Opposition to blasphemy laws and the free criticism of religion, as Evans observed at the FSU meeting, have long been key aspects of secularism. This goes right back to 1883, when GW Foote, the second president of the NSS and first editor of the Freethinker, was imprisoned for publishing cartoons that were blasphemous of Christianity. Secularists, from a political perspective, have always resisted the authority adopted by religious institutions and their power to impose their doctrines on wider society.

In recent years, probably dating back to the fatwa against Salman Rushdie in 1989, the main drive to rein in free speech about religion in the UK has come not from Christians, as in the nineteenth and much of the twentieth centuries, but from hardline Muslim organisations and leaders. This was made clear in the Batley Grammar School case, the Jesus and Mo cartoon mug case, and, earlier this year, the Wakefield Koran-scuffing case. The NSS has certainly been vocal in criticising the readiness of secular authorities, including schools and the police, to sacrifice the teacher who showed a cartoon of Mohammed in class, or the student who dropped a Koran, to the wrath of religious demagogues.

As Evans also pointed out, the NSS and the FSU – along with other organisations, including Humanists UK – have criticised the definition of ‘Islamophobia’ that was proposed by the All Party Parliamentary Group on British Muslims and subsequently adopted by Labour, the Liberal Democrats, the Green Party, and all of Scotland’s political parties. According to this definition, ‘Islamophobia is rooted in racism and is a type of racism that targets expressions of Muslimness or perceived Muslimness.’ But this invocation of racism enables it to be used as a way of silencing people who criticise Islam, said Evans: as Charles Bradlaugh, founder of the NSS, put it, ‘without free speech, no search for truth is possible.’

The problem is with what Young, who makes no secret of his right-wing sympathies, calls the ‘woke’ left – many of whom, particularly at educational and arts institutions, seem to have fallen over themselves to adopt this muddled concept. When the law academic Steven Greer was accused of Islamophobia by the Bristol Islamic Society – falsely, as was later proven – it was his own progressive colleagues, as well as the university authorities, who were involved in his ostracism and effective ‘cancellation’.

On the other hand, Rakib Ehsan argued that freedom of expression was the ‘friend’ of socially conservative minorities, such as the Muslim community in which he had grown up. He explained that one of the reasons he supported free speech was that he wanted to be able to criticise the teaching of some forms of sex and relationships education at his children’s school. In doing so, he accepted that the right to criticise extends to everyone. (Readers may recall the controversy surrounding the protests by conservative Muslim parents in Birmingham in 2019 against the teaching of LGBT relationships at a primary school.)

George Orwell, one of the greatest of free speech advocates and a socialist, declared, ‘If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.’ The FSU has duly adopted this as one of its slogans. In ironic contrast, the Guardian seems of late to have become ambivalent about Orwell’s legacy, including these very words.

Such points of tension raise fundamental questions. If there should be free speech about religion, should there also be free speech about other equally emotive subjects, such as race or transgender debates? Where is the line to be drawn, in any of these cases, between criticising ideas and criticising persons? How far should either notions of offensiveness, or parents’ rigid views about any subject, influence what is taught in schools?

The attitude of the FSU was clear: ‘free speech’ simpliciter should be added to the list of ‘British values’ that are affixed to the classroom wall in schools across the country. At a time when many in the Conservative party are trying to replace the Human Rights Act with a British Bill of Rights, the ‘British values’ list almost seems to have become a mini-manifesto for the Bill. Those on the left may see the whole idea of ‘British values’ as a distasteful form of nationalism, as well as overly authoritarian. And yet it was the left-leaning and nationalistic SNP that introduced Scotland’s Hate Crime Act 2021, which restricts speech about a range of protected characteristics, including, to a lesser extent, religion.

Among Britain’s neighbours, free speech on religion and other matters is currently under threat. As Young pointed out, the Criminal Justice Bill 2022, currently passing through the Irish Parliament, looks like an attempt to reintroduce blasphemy offences into a country that has only just formally abolished them. The Bill would criminalise behaviour that is ‘likely to incite violence or hatred’ against a person or group on account of protected characteristics, including religion, provided such behaviour is done either with intent to incite violence or with recklessness as to whether violence is incited. This seems like a dangerously low bar. The European Union is also considering whether to extend ‘the list of EU crimes to hate speech and hate crime’, which may have a similar effect.

For its part, the FSU is in turbulent waters: although it claims to be a ‘non-partisan, mass-membership public interest body’, its director’s sympathies make it all the easier for progressives simply to dismiss it as a right-wing organisation. On the same day that the NSS was meeting to discuss church and state, Young gave a talk to the National Conservatism conference entitled ‘A Dispatch from the Woke Wars’ – a move unlikely to endear him to the left.

Progressives who have endorsed the Islamophobia definition would doubtless claim that criticism of Islam by an organisation like the FSU can all too easily slip into xenophobia and hatred of Muslims and immigrants generally. This is an area fraught with controversy. It certainly increases the delicacy of the NSS’s position, as the representative of ‘secular liberals’ who support free speech on religion but categorically oppose what the NSS describes as ‘anti-Muslim bigotry’.

National Conservatism emphasises ‘God and public religion’; the list of talks at its conference included such titles as ‘Faith, Family, Flag, Freedom’. Its supporters would doubtless not have approved of many of the secularist campaign aims discussed by Stephen Evans, Polly Toynbee et al.; indeed, the week before, Young had interrogated Evans as to whether the NSS’s opposition to state-funded faith schools was not just ‘dogmatic secularism’. The proposals mooted by the panel included removing the bishops from the House of Lords, disestablishing the Church of England, abolishing prayers at the beginning of Parliamentary sittings, and removing state funding from faith schools. Abolishing the monarchy was mentioned, though the NSS itself does not have a position on this issue.

Although all the speakers were broadly secularist, there were differences of emphasis, and a few tensions, between the religious and non-religious stances represented.

On the non-religious side, Tommy Sheppard focused on the removal of bishops from the House of Lords and the replacement of Parliamentary prayers, which he said ‘offends against our sense of democracy’, with a ‘secular moment of reflection’. Polly Toynbee, for her part, poked fun at the anachronistic moments in the coronation, including the ‘Wizard of Oz’ anointment behind a screen. She read out the oaths which the king swore to ‘maintain the laws of God’ and the ‘Protestant reform religion’, and described the event as a ‘shocking wake-up moment’ for those who had not expected so much religion to be involved. She also highlighted the continued opposition to assisted dying legislation by bishops and other religious representatives.

There was something of the sermon in Martyn Percy’s thoughtful speech, in which he compared the Church of England to a ‘overcrowded vestry cupboard’. He focused on the Church’s numerous involvements in child sexual abuse scandals and safeguarding failures in recent years, right up to the present. He also made the point that the Church has its own system of canon law which still ‘trumps common law’. The solution, he said, quoting Michael Caine, was to ‘blow the bloody doors off’ and clean it out from top to bottom.

Jayne Ozanne said that she was not opposed to religious leaders in the House of Lords, as long as they were required to ‘earn the right’ to be there rather than entering ex officio. As a gay Christian, she bemoaned the way in which the bishops in the Lords used their position to push for exemptions to legislation which had the effect of discriminating against people like herself. She also criticised the Church of England’s ‘institutional homophobia’.

In the Q&A session, however, Ozanne warned Toynbee to ‘careful about ridiculing religion’ in the context of the coronation. Toynbee responded tartly that it was ‘not a question of being rude about what some people think of as sacred’, but of the ‘ludicrous’ intersection between religion and the monarchy.

One of the issues which was rather glossed over was how disestablishment would occur in practice. Given the nearly five centuries in which the Church of England has been intertwined with the secular state, there are likely to be far-reaching legal and practical difficulties in disentangling them. This does not mean it should not be done, but, as with any major constitutional change, it will take time and resources, and the devil will be in the detail.

Another problem raised by the discussion goes back, once again, to the culture wars. If Britain is so divided on so many fundamental issues, from Brexit to ‘British values’, from immigration to the definition of ‘woman’, it is very unclear how we as a society are going to be able to reach a consensus on what collective traditions and ideas, if any, we want to adopt. One of the key arguments made by monarchists and supporters of the established church has long been that church and king, and their associated ceremonies, are historic traditions that provide Britain with some sort of identity. Right-wing commentators delight in painting the aims of secularists and humanists as purely destructive, and as leading to a cultural and moral wasteland. This is clearly wrong; but more needs to be done to counter this narrative.

Ultimately, in modern Britain, there seems little necessity to retain an established church, or even a monarch. But the case for their abolition would be strengthened if more consideration were given to what exactly is going to happen once they have gone.

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  1. Emma, while regarding free speech as a virtue of the first order I find it increasingly and troublingly difficult to grasp where the boundaries lie. It seems we have this in common. Your article poses many good questions but provides few answers. I suppose nobody can provide the right answers without answering the right questions.
    You say that the NSS has no position regarding abolition of the monarchy. Its founder, Charles Bradlaugh, was the leading republican of his day and his republicanism was broad and grounded in an opposition to inheritance and aristocratic privilege in general. He was part of a radical tradition which first found its popular voice in the writings of Thomas Paine. More recently the NSS has been concerned to highlight the religious nature and roots of the coronation and the monarch’s status as Head of the Church of England. I find it difficult to understand how a head of state without a democratic mandate can claim legitimacy without resort to the divine. Isn’t that what the coronation ceremony is about and must be about? I can’t help concluding that freethinkers opposed to religious privilege must be republicans whether they like it or not. What greater privilege can there be than to anointed head of state by the Almighty?
    You conclude by suggesting that too little consideration has been given to what might replace the monarchy. Absolutely. Too often I find monarchists’ first objection to a presidency is their wheeling out a nightmarish, divisive, Trumpian vision. But it doesn’t have to be that way in a parliamentary democracy. How about a head of state indirectly elected by the legislature with closely prescribed and acutely limited, emergency and ceremonial powers?

  2. Re the monarchy, how about replacing with either the Irish or German models. Either would be far better than the inbuilt hereditary privileges assigned to the royal family and the descendants of William the Conqueror.

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