Nick Cohen in the Observer is one of those writers who can either completely nail a subject (like here), or make a right pig’s ear of it (like here, which appears to have been written in order to generate those 400+ comments).
This week, he manages to do both.
The column is about the case of Paul Chambers, was arrested under anti-terrorism laws for a tweet he made back in the snow in January, joking that he would blow up Robin Hood Airport if it didn’t open to allow him to visit his girlfriend (who he also met on Twitter) in Northern Ireland (you can read his own views on the case here). Not the best joke in the world, but perhaps an understandable venting of frustration.
Cohen, for much of his article nails this. Not only is it a complete waste of time. It’s more than that: there’s something vaguely sinister about the way the CPS seemed to want to find any law they could to charge him. Not just that, but to be convicted under anti-terrorist laws for, say, a joke like this, the CPS don’t need to show that you had any intent, to actually carry out the act: just that you made the comment. As Cohen says:
People joke like this all the time. When they say in a bar: "I’ll strangle my boyfriend if he hasn’t done the washing up" or post on Facebook: "I’ll murder my boss if he makes me work late", it does not mean that the bodies of boyfriends and bosses will soon be filling morgues.
So far, so good, you’re with Cohen. Alright, this perhaps wasn’t the best thing Chambers has ever done, but not, in the grand scheme of things, that important.
Then, it all goes wrong and we get this:
Beyond the law lies the politics. The hounding of Paul Chambers stinks of Labour authoritarianism. The prosecuting authorities showed no respect for free speech.
I don’t care what the polls say or how unpopular the coalition becomes – Labour must change the settled view of the majority of Britons that it is the party of politically correct jobsworths or it will never win another election.
Huh? First, where is there any evidence that Labour were behind this? I can sort of see where he’s coming from: Labour were hardly reticent about coming forward with new anti-terror legislation and seemed much more interested in the security threat than in protecting civil liberties. And that may well have encouraged cases like this. But this case appears to have been driven by the CPS, desperate to find any way they could to get Chambers.
But where the argument truly falls down is that phrase "[Labour] is the party of politically correct jobsworths". Sorry, where did "political correctness" come into this? I genuinely, really, don’t understand: whom he Chambers alleged to have insulted/offended? Why bring PC into the debate?
More than that, the term "political correctness" ought to be dropped, no matter what side of the debate about it you’re on. C’mon guys, we’re out of the 1990s now. It doesn’t show brave, free speech; it’s just an empty cliche that’s largely meaningless now.
And what’s so wrong with what political correctness is supposed to stand for in any case? It’s quite simply respecting other people who happen to be different from us. It’s not making value judgements about them, their beliefs, their culture based on our own stereotypes. It’s recognising that language we may have used in the past to describe others may be offensive to them and that, actually, that might mean we have to stop. It means that, just occasionally, we have to make allowances for other people’s ideas: this isn’t pandering, or giving in, or surrendering our own culture – it’s just good manners. Civility. Tolerance – the things that Britain’s supposed to be good at. As Diarmaid MacCulloch says in the introduction to his book "A History of Christianty", when explaining why he uses the names for groups that aren’t offensive to them, even if they’re unfamiliar to us:
Some may sneer at this as ‘political correctness’. When I was young, my parents were insistent on the importance of being courteous and respectful of other people’s opinions and I am saddened that these undramatic values have now been relabelled in an unfriendly spirit.
So "political correctness": nothing to do with the Paul Chambers case and nothing more than being "courteous and respectful". What’s all the fuss about? Let it drop, please!