Did you see David Cameron’s entry for the Turner Prize yesterday? It was weird. The kind of thing you’d laugh at if it wasn’t so disturbing.
You must have seen it: the Dadaist/surrealist art ‘happening’ where he said he was defending the concept of British values by attacking British values. Marcel Duchamp would have been impressed. I know I was.
The work was titled Extremism Bill Plans, and even that title contained a little joke of the kind we’ve come to expect from artists like Tracey Emin, Salvador Dali and David Cameron – the plans really were quite extreme.
Under them, in the name of liberalism and freedom, he suggested some of the most chilling attacks on freedom and liberalism the western world has seen in years.
In his speech (it wasn’t an art happening at all! Aren’t I clever? Satire!), David Cameron said much that was true and good, as one would expect of a thoughtful, intelligent person wanting the best for his country.
But he made one terrible error: he gave in to fear. Fear of the ideology of Islamism (and its most recent and glamourous embodiment, ISIS) has led him to become confused and desperate enough to genuinely think he is defending British values when in fact he is attacking them.
'British values' is a problematic phrase, anyway. 'Who decides what are British values, and how would we all ever agree on them?' asked an astute colleague of mine when discussing the PM’s speech. And what are these values? If any of them are (and Cameron’s speech suggested) liberalism, tolerance and freedom of speech, then what our beloved leader has outlined today is an exercise in 1984 doublespeak of the highest order.
Under the PM’s plans, it is not merely ideologies and ideas that promote violence that he would seek to criminalise and ban. He would seek to silence or indeed arrest those who express ideas that are not illegal and that don’t promote violence.
His justification is that, 'no-one becomes a terrorist from a standing start. It starts with a process of radicalisation. When you look in detail at the backgrounds of those convicted of terrorist offences, it is clear that many of them were first influenced by what some would call non-violent extremists.' Which sounds like it makes sense until you ask: 'what counts as non-violent extremism?'
You see, David Cameron says: 'We believe in respecting different faiths but also expecting those faiths to support the British way of life.' But what Bible-believing evangelical can see no problem with that? What if the British way of life one day becomes Mammon-worshiping consumerism, porn-addiction, gluttony, alcohol abuse, the glorification of war and the worship of idols (perish the thought)?
After all, every abortion-clinic bomber started off hearing a message that said that our Christian faith is more important than our society’s values. And frankly, as an evangelical, I reject violence, but I agree that Jesus is more important than the Queen. I believe that there are moral laws above Britain’s laws, that my allegiance is to God first and if I must choose between God and anything else – money, friends, power, Kim Kardashian, Kanye West or the Royal Family and all their corgis – it is my duty to choose God. If that makes me an extremist, lock me up.
Actually, please don’t. That sort of thing sounds cool, but only when it’s not a distinct possibility. I promise I mean no harm. I’m too pretty for prison. I’ll never last. PLEASE DON’T ARREST ME.
My point is this: it’s one thing to arrest people when they are planning to plant bombs, kill people or overthrow the government by violent means. It is really quite another to arrest them because they one day might do that, based on the fact you disagree with some of their ideas and don’t think they are 'British enough' – as if that phrase had any meaning at all in a society as diverse as ours.
We all know people with some radical, extreme ideas. Conspiracy theorists. Calvinists. Charismatics. Communists. Vegans. Environmentalists. Britain First supporters and Socialist Worker readers.
I have friends in all these camps and I think some of their ideas are crazy. But so far I don’t get to decide for everyone in Britain what ideas are crazy. I don’t see why David Cameron, Theresa May or anyone else who went to a posh school and represents about as much diversity as the cast of Downton Abbey should either.
It’s not just that by trusting our Government to define what ideas are allowed and what are not will be dangerous to Christians (though, generally, they will).
To (badly) paraphrase Jesus, even the pagans defend their own religious interests (though, generally, actual Pagans don’t). And it’s more than defending our Muslim brothers and sisters that is needed – since many of them agree with David Cameron. This is about defending something bigger. A value that is more than British: freedom. It’s a word so misused I hesitate to write it, but there is no other.
For our society to be free, we must be free to think what we want to.
We must be free to discuss those ideas (and to have them argued against by Government and anybody else). If we are not free to do that, we are not free. If someone decides in advance which ideas are allowed, we are not free. If we are prevented from sharing our ideas, we are not free. If the Government, in the name of “British values” (or “democracy”, or “freedom”, or “apple pie, mom and the American Way”), tells us parameters within which we may think and speak, (even accepting we are not advocating criminal acts or violence), we are not free. And when we lose this freedom, the others are sure to follow.
It’s often said by simple folk that Islamist terrorists hate us because of our freedom. If David Cameron is allowed to get away with this attack on our liberties, he will, in a sense, have been successful in protecting us from ISIS and the like. Because there will be precious little freedom left here for them to hate.