Over at the Torygraph Mary Kenny's son, occasional Catholic Herald columnist Ed West blogged on the contentious theme "Is Britain the world's first politically correct totalitarian state", to which the enfant terrible of Militant Secularism, Max Dunbar typed out a response which may as well be entitled Political Correctness isn't what it's cracked up to be.
Yes as we all know, this-is-political-correctness-gone-mad is indeed a well-worn press release and tabloid copy cliché, so much so in fact, that it's given birth to yet another well-worn broadsheet cliché: political-correctness-is-a-tabloid-invention. Indeed some BBC broadcaster or another wrote a book exploring that theme which was serialised in ... The Catholic Herald recently.
But where was I? Is Britain the world's first totalitarian PC dictatorship or even a PC dictatorship of any kind?
Er no, that would be Canada where penning a nutty letter to a local newspaper gets you hauled in to a Human Rights Tribunal which isn't conducted according to common law principles governing presumption of innocence, rules of evidence and public trial and orders that you cease expressing your opinion in private email.
That said, there have been some disturbing examples in the recent past of British citizens being made to feel that their rights to freedom of speech were less than wholly respected.
West wrote: [T]here are just too many cases of people being arrested for homophobia, racism or other thought crimes for this to be treated as anything other than state policy. Of course Britain isn’t Orwell’s Oceania or Bolshevik Russia yet, but it is a tyranny nonetheless.
To which Dunbar replied:
Do you know anyone who’s been arrested on such a charge?
Given that the legal offences of homophobia or racism don't exist, one might think he had a point.
But, laydeez and gentlemen of the blogosphere jury, let me present to you the cases of George Staunton and Harry Hammond.
In 1999 George Staunton daubed the slogans 'Free Speech for England' and 'Remember the 1945 War' on a Toxteth building for which he was arrested and charged with racially-aggravated criminal damage, though the charges were eventually dropped.Harry Hammond was an Evangelical Christian with Aspergers Syndrome who was given to taking the biblical injuction to spreading the good news rather literally, parking himself in The Square in Bournemouth and evangelising away to anyone who happened to be passing. One day in October 2001 he hoisted aloft a double-sided placard bearing the legends, Stop Immorality, Stop homosexuality and Stop Lesbianism. A crowd of onlookers gathered around him which included a number of people who took such exception to Hammond's message that they subjected to him a number of assaults. Fistfuls of soil were hurled at him, someone poured a bottle of water over his head and another person tried to pull the placard from him with such force that he fell to the ground.
However, as Peter Hitchens noted, when two police officers turned up, it was Hammond they arrested, though they disagreed with each other about whether this was the right thing to do.
A more experienced male constable, Wayne Elliott, thought that Mr Hammond should be protected. His younger female colleague, Nicola Gandy, thought that he should be taken in. Her view prevailed, but at the trial the two officers - incredibly -- gave evidence on opposite sides, PC Elliott appearing for the defence, while PC Gandy spoke for the prosecution.
PC Gandy has since defended her actions by saying, 'He was provoking and inciting violence with highly inappropriate behaviour. My agenda was to try to maintain the peace. I was not very impressed with Mr Hammond's conduct. I don't think he is a very good representative of the Christian faith.'
Hammond was charged under Section 5 of the Public Order Act and in 2002 was convicted, fined £300 and charged £365 in costs. He died before he could appeal the judgement. However a posthumous appeal on the basis of the Human Rights Act failed. And a further appeal to the European Court of Human Rights was dismissed.
I might also mention the cases of Mr and Mrs Roberts a retired Lancashire couple who in 2005 were interrogated by police for 80 minutes for their "homophobic views" after they'd rather dottily asked their local council if their Christian literature could be displayed next to literature for gay people, or of Lynette Burrows who was contacted by police after she'd made some nasty comments suggesting that boy children would at risk if placed with same-sex adoptive couples on a Radio Five Live phone-in debate. Her expressed opinions are ugly, bigoted and plain wrong but should she be visited by the plod for making them? Of course not.
Ok, let's get a sense of proportion here; the UK doesn't qualify as a politically-correct tyranny but ... but ... but the examples I have cited demonstrate that well-meaning socially-liberal values have come into conflict with the very liberties which should be their natural bedfellows. Sniggering at ritual denunciations of political correctness in tabloids should not blind us to this fact.