Free for All?
"Americans travelling to England always observe more similarities to our country than differences. I've been here only a short time, but I've noticed that the tradition of free speech – exercised with enthusiasm – is alive and well here in London. We have that at home too. They now have that right in Baghdad, as well."
(George W. Bush in speech to London's Banqueting House, 19/11/03)
No.6 (on seeing a No. 2 election support march go past): "It looks like a unanimous majority."
No.2: "Exactly, that is what's worrying me. It's bad for morale. Some of these good people don't seem to appreciate the value of free elections. They think it's a game."
( Patrick McGoohan and Eric Portman as No.6 and No.2, in1960's drama series, "The Prisoner")
Coverage of George Bush's recent visit to Great Britain has concentrated as much on the thickness of the walls of the presidential Cadillac as on the implications of his visit and of his relationship with the British prime minister. Commentators were generally united with regard to one surprising feature of this visit, however; the ok – and believe me, ok was surprising – nature of the jokes in the speech Bush gave to London's Banqueting House on November 19th. Tacitly acknowledging the level of protest seen on the streets of London, Bush jokingly pointed out that some Londoners would prefer to see him dangling in a Perspex box over the Thames, a la David Blaine. However, he went on to point out, in the quote given above, that, "the tradition of free speech.is alive and well here in London.They now have that right in Baghdad as well." General nods of vague respect all round. For surely, after all, even if we don't always agree with this particular evangelical Texan, Free Speech is emphatically a Good Thing, is it not?
It can be easy to become complacent about having a free press, or indeed, freedom to think as we please, in a country where the publishing of most political material is permitted, and membership even of apolitical pressure groups like Amnesty International does not warrant arrest or torture. However, we have a responsibility to ensure that the concept of freedom of speech is not ridden over roughshod by politicians keen to portray their indiscriminate warmongering as lofty, god-fearing idealism. This small sentence from George Bush reveals an attitude towards the tradition of so-called free speech that seeks to emasculate protest. In doing so, he portrays those who marched through the UK's major cities during the presidential visit as nothing more than walking, talking symbols of the fact that he and his great friend Mr Blair, in their relentless promotion of 'democracy', are doing a swell job.
Political marches are not generally undertaken for their own sake. One does not march for the right to march. This is a key fact that Mr Bush fails to acknowledge. Obviously there are exceptions to this rule – many choose public protest over a variety of issues as an alternative to traditional democratic methods because they feel that the old methods are ineffective. Others are drawn by bright spectacle of public protest and the lure of an alternative to establishment politics. However, and this is particularly the case with regard to the Stop the War marches of 2002-2003, protest marches typically happen because people feel that the traditional democratic methods – voting, lobbying of local MP's, political party activism – have simply failed to work. When a political situation gets to the stage that the only way to get a message heard is to stand on the street and scream through a loudhailer until your protest is acknowledged, this is not a sign of a great democracy in action. It is the sign of a government that fails to listen to its people. As Richard Eyre said of our political leaders in a recent article for "The Guardian": "They applaud undemonstrative demonstrators because, they say, they are the evidence that protest is a part of our domestic heritage and our democratic privilege – the right and privilege to be ignored, of course."
This is not to say that the right to protest is in itself not important – far from it. True freedom of speech and thought is the pearl in the oyster of any working concept of democracy. My concern is (in danger of extending this metaphor too far) to ensure that the pearl itself does not turn out to be fake – that we are not sold a version of free speech which defines protest against a government as an indication of that government's democratic success. Through Bush's particular brand of doublespeak, those who chanted for his downfall are implicated in his continuing success, hailed as symbols of his personal fight for a free world while baying for his blood in the streets.
This is an issue which goes beyond conflicts between right and left, or between hawk and dove. Leaving aside our attitudes towards the Iraq war, or the US government's current "war on terror", Bush cuts to the heart of the notion of democracy – of what it is to have an independent political voice. His line of thought portrays protest marches as a kind of pageant, a jolly if somewhat rowdy sign of a free country. But freedom of speech and thought are worthless if they simply constitute the right to be ignored.
Fans of the 1960's cult drama serial, "The Prisoner", may laugh when I argue that worrying parallels can be drawn between George Bush's ideal democracy and the political institutions of "The Village". (For those who have not seen the programme, "The Village" is a place where retired/resigned secret service agents – people who simply know too much – are incarcerated under holiday camp conditions. The majority settle down and comply, as life in the Village can be pleasant for those who conform and do not ask difficult questions.) However, I would point them towards a certain episode, "Free For All", in which the Village has its annual election for the position of No. 2, who acts as the general leader of the Village.
Support marches for the current No.2 to remain in his position appear across the village in the form of pageants, including brass bands, placards and matching clothing. This worries the powers that be, as it indicates a lack of true democracy. As No.2 puts it in a public speech: "People of the community. There has been recently a lack of opposition in the matter of our local election. This is not good for our community, and reflects an acceptance of things as they are." The irony being that those who do not accept things "as they are" face either torture or death. Another candidate, No.6, is persuaded to stand for election, which is of course a sham.
I do not wish to push the analogy of "The Prisoner" with our current political system, for fear of succumbing to paranoid conspiracy theories. However, a clear comparison can be drawn between the workings of Village democracy and Bush's applauding the London protestors for exercising their right to free speech, and in doing so, implicitly supporting his government's policies. The leaders of The Village and the president of the USA share an attitude which encourages the trappings of democracy while ignoring that which lies at democracy's core – the right to be listened to and to have genuine political choices. This attitude makes a mockery of any political activity by negating choice, turning freedom of speech into the empty freedom to sound off into a void.
The end of "Free For All" has No.6 win the election, and become the new No.2. His position is quickly revealed to be a sham, as he is beaten up and tortured after trying to encourage the Village's inhabitants to escape.
The end of Bush's visit to Britain was not so dramatic. Finishing off his trip with fish and chips in a country pub, George and his wife flew home in a self-righteous haze of democratic splendour, safe in the knowledge that the president would continue to: ".raise up an ideal of democracy in every part of the world." If this ideal of democracy is based upon the people's right to be ignored, then I would be just as happy to live under the pseudo-democracy of The Village as under the false freedom of a Bush government. At least in The Village there would always be the chance of bumping into Patrick McGoohan. Beyond that, there is not much to choose between the two.
Be seeing you.