Should we be worried about Blair's free speech?

The cancellation by Tony Blair of several events on his book tour this week due to fears of disruption by anti-war protesters has led to a misplaced concern in some quarters over the former Prime Minister’s “free speech”.
Guy Aitchison
10 September 2010

The cancellation by Tony Blair of several events on his book tour this week due to fears of disruption by anti-war protesters has led to concern in some quarters over the former Prime Minister’s “free speech”.

Blair Protest, outside the Iraq Inquiry, London, Blair inside

Whilst it’s unsurprising to find devoted acolytes of Blair, who are still prepared to defend the Iraq invasion, such as LabourList columnist Paul Richards, denouncing “Trots” for daring to publicly challenge their hero, concerns have also been expressed by two respected commentators on these issues.

Blair had been due to attend a book signing in Waterstones, Picadilly, followed by a launch party at the Tate Modern on Wednesday, but  pulled out of both events because of the “inevitable hassle” it would cause the public and the burden it places on the Metropolitan police

Padraig Reidy, of Index on Censorship, describes Blair’s decision as “practical, but hardly ideal”. He doubts the protests would have turned as “violent” as they were in Dublin where protesters threw eggs and shoes at Blair, but notes that the fear that they might has clearly informed Blair’s decision. In which case “a literary event has been closed down due to fear of violence” which “sounds like mob censorship”, according to Reidy.

Writing on the New Statesman blog, David Allen Green, a lawyer who blogs as “Jack of Kent”, agrees with Reidy from “a principle-based” standpoint. He concludes by asking “should all people of goodwill now shout out: For Tony Blair and Free Speech?”

It would be too easy, perhaps, to point out the irony of people agonising over the free speech of a former Prime Minister who did so much to undermine that right when in office, so let’s stick to why civil libertarians shouldn’t be adopting Green’s rallying cry.

The first point, and a crucial bit of context to this discussion which always bears repeating, is that although Blair is a “mainstream democratic politician”, as Green notes, he is also responsible for a war which led to the deaths of well over a million people, producing four millions refugees, sectarian violence and torture and increasing regional instability and the threat of terrorism. There is a compelling case that this was also an illegal war and that Blair should be facing a tribunal in The Hague.

Yet, judging by his media appearances, Blair has clearly learnt nothing from the disaster in Iraq, and in the course of promoting his book, has been agitating for military aggression against Iran. In this context it is impossible to regard these book signings as simply another benign “literary event” and the protests, by extension, as somehow inappropriate or an over-reaction. These are events used by a prominent politician, with considerable influence on the world stage, to promote an aggressive and militaristic ideology and worldview that has caused wide-scale destruction and loss of life. The people who choose to exercise their democratic right to protest outside the book signings are, as they see it, fulfilling a moral imperative to publicly condemn Blair’s crimes and prevent further ones.

And while passions run high these were to be, despite various smears, explicitly non-violent protests. Stop the War Coalition had called for peaceful protests outside Waterstones and the Tate Modern; there was no incitement to violence, or suggestion that protesters should physically try and block Blair and others from entering the venues.

The decision to cancel the event was Blair’s and not that of the protesters or the police. Blair explained his decision on the grounds that he “didn’t want the public to be inconvenienced by the inevitable hassle caused by protesters” and wanted to avoid an “extra strain on police resources, simply for a book signing." It wouldn't be too cynical, given who we're talking about, to suggest that concern for his public reputation also played a role in this decision, but crucially it was his call.

The fact is that protests will always be an inconvenience to the public in some way - that is, after all, how you get your point across – and police time and resources will have to be taken up if they are to fulfil their legal duty to facilitate the right to protest. Protesters, acting in the belief they are raising urgent moral and political concerns, can hardly be expected to weigh up these considerations in some kind of cost-benefit analysis – the cost and inconvenience of protest is something we all agree to put up with as the price of living in a free society. 

Whilst anti-war protesters are making use one of the few outlets they have to remind us of Blair’s crimes, the man himself will never lack a platform for his views. Since the publication of A Journey we have been subjected to, what Gerry Hassan has dubbed “Blair Week”, with endless sofa appearances, newspaper interviews, and wall-to-wall coverage and promotion of his book by the BBC, of the kind that got them into trouble when they did it with U2’s album.

Instead of the book signing, Blair opted for an appearance on ITV's This Morning with Phillip Schofield and Holly Willoughby for what was doubtless a cosy chat. There will be many more such appearances to look forward to in the months ahead as Blair seeks re-entry into British public life.

So whilst we can all agree with Green that “defence of free expression is often most important when the beneficiary is unpopular”, let’s not go rushing for our copies of Voltaire just yet.

Prime Minister Tony Blair
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