It is 101 years since the death of John Gott, the last person imprisoned in Britain for blasphemy. A secularist speaker, Gott died from the toll that prison conditions took upon his health.
Even at the time, the farcical sight of a part-time tubthumper and full-time trouser salesman being jailed for insulting Jesus provoked widespread outrage. Hence his was the last, anachronistic public prosecution.
In 2008, after years gathering dust, the law was tidied up by legislation making clear that blasphemy is not a crime. So – officially for 15 years, and practically for a century – we have no blasphemy law in this country. We have a society in which all are free to profess their beliefs, and to dispute or disrespect any deity, prophet, book or idea.
Or do we? The statute might be clear, but blasphemy still seems to be punished.
In 2021, a Religious Education teacher in Batley was forced into hiding with his family after showing pupils a cartoon of Mohammed. So far as we know, he is still there.
Last year, Cineworld pulled all screenings of The Lady of Heaven, by Kuwaiti Shia cleric Yasser al-Habib, after protests, citing “the safety of our staff and customers”.
Recently, in Wakefield an autistic 14-year-old was suspended from school, reported to police by his teachers, and subjected to death threats for the alleged scuffing of his own copy of the Koran in an incident his headteacher says had “no ill intent”. The boy’s mother has pleaded for forgiveness, saying he is “petrified”.
We may not have a blasphemy law, but three factors combine to produce something which looks a lot like one.
The first are those who protest in such a way that businesses feel “the safety of staff and customers” is at risk, and those who issue violent threats to teachers and children alike. Clearly some people wrongly believe they have a right not to be offended, to the extent they feel entitled to threaten others.
Second is the failure of police and other authorities to defend the rights of those subjected to such a threat. If the law won’t stop and punish intimidation, then those authorities effectively allow a parallel blasphemy law to be enforced.
The third and most troubling factor is the way parts of the British state actively assist such censors. It was the boy’s teachers who chose to report one child dropping another child’s book to police as a possible hate crime. It was West Yorkshire Police who decided that merited investigation and then chose to register it against the child’s name as a “non-crime hate incident”.
The effect is to give a veneer of state backing, and practical aid, to would-be censors, restricting and intimidating their targets using official powers.
In the most recent case, a boy who allegedly sent a death threat – a crime – in the most recent case was merely “given words of advice” by police, while his victim was suspended, investigated, registered for a “hate incident”, and left “petrified” for his physical safety. Who was more harshly dealt with?
These are not accidents. For this to happen, a whole series of people in authority have to choose this path.
West Yorkshire Police’s decision to record a “non-crime hate incident” isn’t the product of absent or unclear guidance. The College of Policing’s official guide on the topic is explicitly clear that this should not have happened: “Incidents should not be recorded where they are trivial, irrational, or if there is no basis to conclude that an incident was motivated by hostility”.
Officers chose to disregard that. Since the issue blew up, the force as a whole has continued to do so. Why?
We seem to have forgotten how fundamental rights work. They aren’t negotiable, or marginal, or optional, they are fundamental. The clue is in the name. Employing the language of tolerance or kindness to justify contravening them doesn’t make doing so any more legitimate.
Such rights include the right to freedom of expression, and emphatically do not include a right not to be offended. Is it nice to mock somebody’s religion? Not really. But it must nonetheless be allowed for a society to be free.
This applies to the freedom of religion, too. The blasphemy law that convicted Gott protected only one faith, Christianity, as the state’s official religion. When you think about it, such a law can only ever privilege one faith at a time.
It’s in the nature of religions that to believe in one means disbelieving the others – proclaiming, however loudly or quietly, your own to be true and its competitors to be mistaken or worse.
The right to blaspheme is therefore part and parcel of the freedom of religion and conscience. It helps to guarantee the liberty of all believers and unbelievers to observe their belief and unbelief as they wish, despite the disapproval of each other or anybody else. It’s a great irony that those who wish to punish blasphemers are themselves protected by the very rights that they wish to override.
A child might not know these principles yet, and could be forgiven the error, but if a teacher or a police officer doesn’t have an instinctive knowledge of them, and instead strays so easily into trampling them, that suggests our society and state are failing to inculcate essential values at every stage and level of life.
These are old, bloodstained lessons: hard fought; hard won down the centuries; hard learned through crisis, disaster and error; but still, it seems, easily forgotten. We pat ourselves on the back for being a more liberal society than Gott faced in 1921, but underestimate how quickly it is possible to slip back to the very censorship he opposed.
Mark Wallace is Chief Executive of Total Politics Group and director of ConservativeHome, a blog that is independent of the Conservative Party