Update: U.K. Commons revolt on bill curbing religious speech

by Walter Olson on February 4, 2006

Civil libertarians take a stand in Britain: by single-vote margins, the House of Commons has surprisingly voted to water down significantly the bill introduced by the Blair government to attach legal penalties to various types of speech critical of religion. In particular, the bill “was stripped of measures to outlaw ‘abusive and insulting’ language and behaviour as well as the crime of ‘recklessness’ in actions that incite religious hatred.” Earlier, the House of Lords had heeded protests from free-speech advocates including comedian Rowan Atkinson by lending its support to amendments to the bill. “In a humiliating blow to Mr Blair, who has a 65-seat Commons majority, 21 Labour rebels voted with Opposition MPs while at least 40 more were absent or abstained.” (David Charter, “Religious hate Bill lost after Blair fails to vote”, The Times, Feb. 1; Greg Hurst and David Charter, “Racial hatred Bill threatens our civil liberties, say rebels”, Feb. 1; Greg Hurst and Ruth Gledhill , “How comic’s supporters kept their heads down and used their cunning”, Feb. 2). Earlier coverage: Jul. 16, 2004; Jun. 11, Jun. 27, Aug. 17, Oct. 19, and Oct. 29, 2005.

The Blair government’s primary motivation for the bill is considered to be to cater to the sensitivities of British Muslims, and many commentators (such as Charles Moore) make the obvious connection with the situation in Denmark (see Feb. 1). Meanwhile, violent threats continue against Danes, cartoonists, and liberal-minded Europeans generally. And some 500 lawyers in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, are supporting a project “to take legal action against” those who insult or demean the founder of their religion with one goal being “to enact laws that would incriminate abuse of religions and prophets in all countries,” as a spokesman puts it. (P.K. Abdul Ghafour & Abdul Maqsood Mirza, “Lawyers Vow Legal Action in Cartoons Row”, Arab News, Feb. 4). Michelle Malkin has much, much more (plus this).

{ 2 comments }

1 Ted 02.04.06 at 9:27 am

This is a much bigger deal than the average American reader might realize, because a prime minister losing a vote happens maybe once or twice a career, because he or she has the hypothetical ability to “whip” members of his or her party into line.

Inside-baseball (inside-cricket?): the bill failed in part because the Tories adopted a tactic of hiding MPs so that Labor wouldn’t have an accurate vote-count. As a result, Labor let some MPs go home (including Blair himself, who’s notorious for never showing up to vote and mingle with common backbenchers), and ended up short a vote. Especially amusing bit: the Tories got the idea from a recently brought episode of “The West Wing.” So we actually have Hollywood liberals to thank for this one.

2 Samson Isberg 02.04.06 at 10:01 pm

Thank God.
But the fact that it was such a narrow victory is frightening. That the British of all people should be on the verge of sending their liberies down the drain like that…and now that our Embassy is burning and the staff is fleeing Syria for their lives, Jack Straw goes public all sympathetic to the insulted feelings of the terrorists.
The British has had a narrow escape, but for how long?

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