Free speech: official cuts

A ban on all public meetings and processions was imposed by the Greater Manchester Council in August. Other local authorities have considered such a measure and announced that their halls shall not be let to the National Front and “extreme left-wing” organizations. This reaction to the violent disturbances at Lewisham and Birmingham in August was not unexpected. The councils say they have a responsibility for public order and the protection of property, which take precedence over legal rights of speech and assembly. The ordinary apolitical citizen agrees, on the reasonable grounds that he doesn’t want to have his windows broken or be exposed to danger through rioting.


All right: grant the validity of that. What about “free speech”? The Manchester ban is on everyone, and the Salvation Army and the Scouts have complained that it is unfair to them. (Should the ban last several months, it will be interesting to see if it is applied to the annual Catholic procession in Manchester.) In London, local restrictions and authorities’ reactions have already obstructed the holding of socialist meetings. The position now is that the elbow-room to argue a case in public has seriously diminished.


This is precisely what socialists forecast as an outcome of efforts at “confrontation” by the Socialist Workers’ Party and other groups. In pursuing a policy of violent attack on the National Front meetings and demonstrations, and thereby opposing the law, they put existing facilities at risk. It is a lesson which advocates of violence for political purposes refuse to learn. Eugene Debs was once quoted as saying that when a policeman’s club struck a demonstrating worker’s head, if the worker listened carefully he would hear the echo of the vote he cast at the last election. More correctly stated, what should be heard is that the state has superior force to support legislation: confrontation cannot win.


The SWP’s contention is that something must be done to prevent the National Front from flourishing. The course they have chosen is probably just what the NF want, and is irrational in every way. If attacking the NF because it is a repressive movement produces repression, what is achieved? Less than nothing. A sensible line of action would be to urge everyone to ignore the NF’s marches and not provide them with audiences—to treat them as mature people treat other cases of indecent exposure, by taking no notice. But underlying the SWP’s policy is the idea of taking charge of a situation and acting above the heads of all and sundry: in short, assuming leadership.


However, the SWP and the local councils are not the only people to whom, like the National Front, democracy is of little consequence. The majority of the working class, because they support capitalism, do not comprehend and therefore do not value democracy. The present restrictions on meetings have been accepted with little demur in the frame of mind that the need for a quiet life justifies them. In the western world legal rights are eroded or vitiated in this “soft” way. Thus, in the last twenty-five years public meetings out of doors have been made all-but-impossible in most areas not by dictatorial edicts but by traffic, parking, town planning, and regulations arising from them. The Civic Amenities Act of 1967 ended free bill-posting and chalking as means of advertisement for organizations without money. All these things represent public preferences for facilities for the motor-car, clean cities, etc.; and each of them takes for granted that free speech is not to be bothered about.


The matter is thrown into sharper relief by a proposal to raise the candidate’s deposit in parliamentary elections from £150 to £1,000. The argument for such a change is a frankly anti-minority one. The head of Parliamentary Research Services, F. W. S. Craig, said in a book published on 22nd September:


At least three thousand candidates are likely at the next general election unless the £150 deposit is increased . . . unless the deposit is increased the next election will undoubtedly provide a very large number of ‘crank’ candidatures.
‘I would have thought that a deposit of £1,000 would not be unreasonable considering that every candidate is entitled to send one free communication through the post to each elector’, Mr. Craig says.

(The Times, 22nd September)


The deposit is forfeited by any candidate who gets fewer than one-eighth of the total votes cast, and most minority candidates accept the likelihood that they will lose their deposits. The cost of a candidate including printing, hall hire etc. for the Socialist Party of Great Britain is currently about £650; if the deposit rose as suggested, it would be £1,500.


An alternative put forward in The Times of 6th October was to restrict candidates to those from parties with certain numbers of members and supporters The writer, Michael Steed of Manchester University, agreed on the need to keep minorities away from the media and the free post, but did not think high deposits would be a sufficient deterrent. In fact an election is a rare opportunity for a minority to make its existence and its case known. The SPGB does not receive big donations from wealthy organizations as the Labour and Tory Parties do; the money for election campaigns is squeezed out of our limited funds, and a thousand-pound deposit would have the intended effect.


There has been no sign of an outcry against these proposals to prevent us and other minorities from addressing voters on a level with the major parties. The response has been similar to what happened in 1960, after the SPGB had established that party political broadcasts arranged by the Labour, Liberal and Tory Parties with the BBC were a breach of the Representation of the People Act. Under the Act, every candidate in an election was entitled to the same facilities. So the system was amended to give broadcasting time in proportion to the number of candidates fielded—that is, to appear to comply with the law while still keeping minorities out.


The smug patrician’s-speech view is that we live in a democratic and “liberal” society. The reality is that socialists have to struggle to make the most of limited means of “free speech”, against pressure from opponents who plead necessity but are glad to find excuses for further restrictions. If election deposits are raised or some other procedural obstacle created, and as a result we find it impossible at times to put up candidates, we will do what we have done in the past: urge workers to write “Socialism” across their ballot-papers. But the real answer is to build a strong socialist movement. With growing numbers we shall be better able to resist the pressure to box us in, and to push outwards all the time. Socialist consciousness is democracy-consciousness, and its spread is the only positive answer to all repressions.


Robert Barltrop