Lockdown has been a miserable time for everyone, but dare I say what’s made a lot of people feel even worse is the ongoing culture wars. There doesn’t seem to be a day that goes by without someone being “cancelled”, from Piers Morgan leaving to GMB for questioning Meghan Markle’s account of her time in the Royal Family, to Davina McCall being attacked for defending men, to, yes, the demise of Mr Potato Head. The silent majority has been wanting some leadership here.
Enter Liam Fox. Yesterday, quite unexpectedly, he delivered a brave and much-needed address at the Adam Smith Institute titled The Perpetual Battle for Free Speech. It covered an enormous amount of ground, from setting out the historical and current importance of free speech, to criticising Scotland’s Hate Speech Bill, to Fox confessing his guilt at not defending Jo Brand, who came under fire for a politically incorrect joke. I recommend readers watch it below:
Why did this matter? For lots of people, Fox’s speech will be reassuring as a measure that the Government is paying attention to the culture wars. In recent times, MPs haven’t seemed exactly enthusiastic to get involved. Take Boris Johnson, for instance, who Sam Coates from Sky News asked earlier in the year “is Joe Biden woke?” Yes, it was an awkward question. Yes the PM didn’t want to insult the President of the United States. But his response – “I can’t comment on that” paired with a pained facial expression – emphasised a general tendency to tiptoe around the culture wars/ free speech debate/ whatever we are calling it now.
Part of the reason MPs don’t want to get involved in these matters is, of course, the pandemic. Who wants to defend Piers Morgan when they are sleep deprived or have thousands of emails about Covid-19 restrictions? But it’s also a tricky area to navigate and easy to get “cancelled”. As Fox said in his speech: “The first question that anyone today might ask is ‘Why would any politician in their right mind voluntarily enter into the minefield that is the Free Speech debate’.”
It increasingly seems to me that MPs don’t have much choice in the matter, unless they want to stop watching TV, reading papers and basically tune out of the news. We seem to be going through what I call the “Twitterfication” of society, meaning that any idea and sentiment that looks “popular” on social media now moves into the real world, in a way that’s incredibly out of sync with what most people want (as I have previously written about here).
Conservatives have some good ideas for dealing with the culture wars, and some tough fighters (Liz Truss’s speech about the Fight for Fairness, for instance). One of the most interesting ideas for defending free speech comes from the Department of Education, which set out rules for universities to follow on this topic, and has essentially used funding as a bargaining tool in the matter (“if you don’t protect free speech you will not get it”, is the plan).
These are important steps, but we need MPs to share opinions too. Ultimately we’re in a battle of ideas, and the Government needs to talk more than it does legislate. Although crucially, Fox points out that this battle is “everybody’s business. Whether it is online abuse, the bullying mob of the intolerant, the cancel culture, no platforming or unwarranted government intervention, it is up to us all to speak out in defence of those at the receiving end, whether we find the prospect comfortable or not.”
Often the culture wars are framed as a “Conservative” issue; that Tories want one, and so forth, a thesis that seems completely unsupported by how few want to get involved. The truth is that these matters transcend party lines, and require everyone across the political spectrum, MP or otherwise, to stand up for a tolerant society where people can share and debate their worldviews. Furthermore, we cannot allow people who try to “cancel” others or close down debate describe themselves as “liberals”. It is simply not true.
Either way, Fox’s intervention was a great step forward. It brought me back to my time studying social psychology, where I learnt about how people can challenge “the crowd” (ours now on social media). Most of it simply comes down to one person speaking up, and then others follow. Let’s hope Fox’s speech gives many people the impetus to get loud.