The Millicent Fawcett Statue is for My Great-Grandmother

The Millicent Fawcett statue by Gillian Wearing has been unveiled in Parliament Square today. It is the first statue in the square to depict a woman.

Millicent Garrett Fawcett led the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS). This was a distinct organisation from the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) led by Emmeline Pankhurst. Unlike the ‘Suffragettes’, Fawcett and the NUWSS eschewed militancy and violence, an approach which appealed to my great-grandmother, Marjory Ingle. Continue reading “The Millicent Fawcett Statue is for My Great-Grandmother”

Social Exclusion at the Top

Ant McPartlin’s drink driving conviction and record £86,000 fine in Monday gives me an excuse to finally publish a post that has been sitting in blog purgatory for eight years.

Ant’s car crash is the latest example of fabulously wealthy TV and sports stars behaving badly in vehicles. Yaya Touré was handed a record-at-the-time £54,000 fine for drink-driving in 2016. Further back in time, we may recall the former Chelsea defender Ashley Cole was clocked doing 104mph in his Lamborghini, and John Terry has a penchant for parking in disabled bays.

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“No Problem Is Beyond Solving”

Joseph Jefferson as Dr Pangloss, by John Singer Sargent (1890)
Joseph Jefferson as Dr Pangloss, by John Singer Sargent (1890)

In the past few weeks I’ve been having debates with good people whom I respect deeply about the limits of freedom of expression. When Britian First were banned by Facebook I suggested that the extremists in our society might be moderated and rehabilitated through dialogue.

When I have made this point, my friends have criticised me for being naiive. The bigots are irredeemable (they say) and the best strategy is therefore to cauterise their movement by silencing it wherever we can.

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Rights and Responsibilities

Markus Meechan

A quick thought about the nature of ‘responsibility’.

In the Meechan case this week the judge at Airdrie Sheriff Court said:

In my view it is a reasonable conclusion that the video is grossly offensive. The description of the video as humorous is no magic wand. This court has taken the freedom of expression into consideration. But the right to freedom of expression also comes with responsibility.

On the Sky News debate programme The Pledge, presenter Nick Ferrari echoed this sentiment.

With the right to free speech comes a responsibility to use it wisely. This a sentiment I hear a lot and it seems sensible. Personally, I am not convinced it is the rhetorical silver bullet that most people think it is. I can think of examples where a speaker might actually think it very responsible to mock or to offend someone who they believe deserves it. And when journalists expose Official Secrets (as the Guardian did when publishing the testimony of Edward Snowden) there were plenty of people ready to call this kind of publication irresponsible. So ‘responsibility’ is in the eye of the beholder. Continue reading “Rights and Responsibilities”

Notes on the Nazi Pug Thing

The Nazi pug

In Airdrie, Scotland, a man named Markus Meechan has been convicted of posting a grossly offensive video on his ‘Count Dankula’ YouTube channel. He taught his girlfriend’s dog to give a Nazi salute in response to the phrase ‘gas the jews’.

It’s clearly a joke. In fact, he explains as much in the video itself:

Mah girlfriend is always ranting and raving about how cute her wee dug is, and so I thought that I would turn him into the least cutest thing that I can think of, which is a Nazi.

This is clearly in poor taste. However, making offensive jokes should not be a criminal offence. Continue reading “Notes on the Nazi Pug Thing”

A Litany of the Ways In Which Facebook Corrupts the Spirit of Free Speech

Following my short appearance in a BBC news report yesterday, I had hoped to publish a companion blog post here, making all the free speechy points that were edited out of my contribution. Instead, I strayed off piste and ended up with this litany of complaints about Facebook. A useful aide memoir for the future, with a couple of useful insights, maybe.


When it comes to free speech, even the most hardened advocates tend to draw the line at incitement to violence. “Your right to swing your arms ends just where the other man’s nose begins” wrote Zechariah Chafee. Freedom of expression is not absolute, and when people publish text or video that is likely to provoke violence, it is legitimate to censor that content.

Inciting violence and hate is what Britain First group appear to have been doing, so the Facebook decision to ban their page feels righteous. Good riddance? Nothing to see here? Move along?

Not quite. This development is still problematic and draws our attention to the unexpected role that social media plays in our politics. We have been discussing these problems for years without, in my opinion, coming any closer to solving them. Continue reading “A Litany of the Ways In Which Facebook Corrupts the Spirit of Free Speech”

Hard Borders in London and the Napoleon of Notting Hill

On Monday morning, the Foreign Secretary Rt. Hon. Boris Johnson MP was asked on BBC radio what the British Government’s vision of the border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland would look like, should the UK leave the EU Single Market and Customs Union. In a garbled answer about the power of technology to facilitate frictionless trade, he put forward this analogy:

There is no border between Camden and Westminster, but when I was mayor of London we anaesthetically and invisibly took hundreds of millions of pounds from the accounts of people travelling between those two boroughs without any need for border checks whatever.

He was presumbaly referring to London’s Congestion Charge. Journalists and social media users spent the rest of the morning mocking this wholly inappropriate analogy with the centuries old troubles in Ireland.

https://twitter.com/ianpatterson99/status/968494962341015552

All this made me think about one of my favourite books, The Napoleon of Notting Hill by G.K. Chesteron. In that story, written in 1904 but set in 1984, a whimsical king named Auberon Quin (appointed by lottery, the population having long since given up on both democracy and hereditary monarchy) decrees that each London Borough becomes its own city state. He sets about creating coats of arms and other heraldic items for each. Continue reading “Hard Borders in London and the Napoleon of Notting Hill”

Afua Hirsch on the ‘Marketplace of Ideas’

Afua Hirsch

Last year I wrote a blog post where I suggested that the marketplace of ideas probably doesn’t exist and asked what that meant for free speech.

A week later I wrote a follow-up in which I posited a Cartesian defence of the marketplace of ideas: I know that such a marketplace does exist because I have personally changed my mind about many things.

In Prospect, the author, barrister and broadcaster Afua Hirsch has written an interesting essay on the ‘fantasy’ of free speech and how we ignore power dynamics in our free speech debates. Within the piece, Hirsch makes this observation:

And here we reach the heart of the matter. In an ideal world, views from privileged people who want to keep things the same would—like all other views—be presented in a marketplace of ideas, competing fairly with the perspectives that challenge it. This is how free speech is meant to work.

But free speech doesn’t work like that. The marketplace of ideas, like many other markets, has monopolies, rackets and biases. Long-established “suppliers” of opinions with entrenched positions in “the sector” enjoy huge advantages. Marketplaces, inevitably, require merchants, arbiters and traders to work well. Why? Because the space in which they operate is rarely level.

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Notes On A ‘Civilised’ Debate

Mary Beard
Historian Professor Mary Beard posted a picture of herself in tears after being accused of racism

Over the past few days a debate has erupted concerning a tweet posted by the historian Mary Beard. Here it is.

This Tweet provoked a furious backlash from people accusing her of a kind of veiled colonialism. Professor Beard wrote a follow-up blog to clarify her remarks and posted a photo of herself in tears. One of her Cambridge University colleagues, Priyamvada Gopal, posted a scathing critique of Beard’s tweet and clarification, writing

I’m afraid that your good intentions notwithstanding, it is precisely this genteel patrician racist manner and this context of entrenched denial in which your tweet on Haiti, ‘civilised’ values (scare quotes noted but not enough, I’m afraid) and disaster zones was received. … Your subsequent blog post, to not put too fine a point on it, did little to help your cause and is regarded by many as a ‘no-pology’, a stubborn refusal to see what was wrong with your original post and taking refuge instead in the familiar posture of wounded white innocence.

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The Heady Life of an NUWSS Organiser in 1909

Votes for Women, you say? Today is the perfect time for me to share some extracts from The World of an Insignificant Woman by Catherine Thackray, which is a biography of my great-grandmother Hilda Marjory Sharp (nee Ingle).

Marjory (as she was known) was born in 1882 and was a teacher and social worker. In 1909, when she was 27,  she secured work as a paid organiser for the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies, organising meetings, rallies and petitions. Her activities are detailed in Chapter 4 of the book. The excerpt below is taken from pages 78 to 81.

What is fascinating and slightly depressing about this account is how many of the free speech challenges faced by the NUWSS and Suffragettes remain today. The problem of people shouting down political speakers with whom they disagree still persists one hundred years later. And the comment from the Men’s League that they never suffered the same level of abuse as the women is echoed by our contemporary experience of female politicians receiving far more abuse on social media than their male counterparts.

You can buy The World of an Insignificant Womanonline as hardback or paperback, or download a free eBook in EPUB, Kindle, or PDF format.

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