Speech made by the Rt Hon Steve Baker MP at Bucks New University on the right to freedom of expression in democratic societies. This is an edit of an automated transcript.

What is this thing we call society? It is a terrible mistake to think of society in the Marxist sense: the idea of society as an organism within which people are the components of that organism, with no real agencies of their own, particularly this idea of determinism, that people are just a product of prior history, that history rolls forwards with this sort of ineluctable spirit. It is a terrible mistake to think of society as an organism comprised of components with no agency.

On the other end of the scale, society is a kind of atomized individualism for which people like Ayn Rand are best known. I think that atomized individualism is also profoundly wrong.

The truth is to be found in our everyday experience that society is individuals in relationships. What does that mean? Well, I think that people are acting, thinking, and choosing individuals with shifting subjective preferences; they strive for different things on different days and amongst different people, and who aren’t, however, perfectly virtuous. However hard they strive, they err and fall short, just as they may achieve great things. But they also exist in relationship to one another. Some of those relationships are commercial or transactional. Some of them are charitable involving gifts of time or money or goods and services. Some of those relationships are about love. They are about family and about friendship. And alas, some of those relationships are coercive.

Now, when relationships are coercive amongst individuals, we often call them crimes and we punish them by imprisonment or serious fines. But when a government does it, we very often lord it – we sometimes even idolise it. This is the essence of intervening in society. As a politician, you have to remember that politics is about coercion, the state and law: so what is the state?

I believe the state is a territorial monopoly on the legitimate use of force. And I think some people, some of my colleagues especially, get a bit idealistic about it, but that is what it is. And we should be clear when we pass a law, that what we’re doing is coercing people into doing things or into refraining from doing things on penalty of imprisonment or fines.

These laws are often an expression of culture. So what is culture? Culture is the shared values, beliefs, behaviours and artefacts making up society’s way of life. It might be ethics as well as laws, and it sets people’s expectations, so it becomes a product offering a framework for social interaction. Values beliefs, ethics and behaviours are not only a product of law, and I think again, that is a very important thing to think of, when we come on to freedom of expression.

So politics, this business I’ve been engaged in for 14 years, is about the extent to which legitimate force is used in society, what people are forced to do and refrain from doing on penalty of fines and imprisonment. It’s about collective decisions, which are forced on everyone. So what about democracy?

The purpose of democracy is to enable peaceful changes of government. Karl Popper said you can choose whatever name you like for the two types of governments: the type of government which can be removed without violence, I call this democracy; the other, I call tyranny.

I think that’s very stark, but it is where I’m coming from. So the purpose of democracy for me is to engage with the public, to consult with course to listen, to try and reconcile competing views, all of those things, but ultimately, when you have 75,000 electors to represent in a single constituency, it’s about representation in the system that we have. And it’s about people being able to remove you peacefully if they’ve had enough.

I recognise that if you look at Wycombe historically in General Elections, in any election in Wycombe, about a third of the people don’t vote, about a third of the people vote for another candidate, and about a third of the people vote Conservative. But that means, at best, only a third of the people want you to be there. This is in great contrast to my aerospace career in the Air Force and my software career in startups, where I could keep all my customers happy. If something went wrong, I could just ring them up and fix it. Can I do that in politics? No, of course not. That’s the framework I just wanted to set before you within which I want to treat this issue of freedom of expression.

So why then is freedom of expression important? I believe fundamentally, it is because human progress is made through trial and error. It’s because everything in society is in motion, nothing is at rest. We advance by trial and error because the pace of change is only accelerating, and that is a very uncomfortable reality.

But even in my life, change is only accelerating. All of that points to the need for error correction mechanisms. When we make mistakes, we’d like to correct them. In a free market, error correction takes place by making a loss: prices, profit, and loss. People tend to obsess about profits. But of course, an entrepreneur is told that they’re failing to serve the public with their scarce capital by making a loss. So if you’re making a loss, you get error correction. In science, errors are corrected by the falsification of theories.

But I would say that in society and politics, freedom of expression is how errors are corrected. So in a democratic society, freedom of expression ensures that citizens can discuss critique and exchange ideas better to inform voting, and participation in government. Freedom of expression provides for accountability and transparency for people like me who wield government power as well as being in Parliament. Individuals can question or scrutinise and hold governments to account through freedom of expression.

Moreover, freedom of expression fosters creativity through the exchange of diverse opinions, the sharing of facts, and the discovery of new information. It is what drives advancements in science, arts and culture, social sciences, and politics. It is very important to remember that the free airing of grievances helps resolve conflict and fight injustice. So, the differences can be discussed openly and resolved rather than festering and turning to violence.

Freedom of expression supports individual autonomy, self-realisation, self-improvement and human dignity. Those are amongst the highest goals that we have for ourselves and for other people. Freedom of expression promotes mutual understanding, and with it, social integration and change. Freedom of expression supports education and the enrichment of our minds. It is fundamental to the critical examination of ideas and theories, and foundational to the advancement of knowledge and understanding. I believe that freedom of expression is one of the absolutely foundational values on which our civilization is built.

The alternative to freedom of expression is taboos and tyranny, stasis and regression. It is a theme to which we may return at the end. What do we mean by freedom of expression, the right of individuals to articulate their thoughts, their ideas, their opinions, without fear of reprisal, whether by government law or other people, it might be in speech, writing or publication, the press and other media art, performances or through digital platforms.

But freedom of expression is not absolute. I think very few people would advocate for the freedom to incite hatred or violence, and rightly to do those things is unlawful. Now thank goodness in the UK, we’ve moved on, but one only needs to look at Open Doors to see that today, more than 365 million Christians worldwide suffer high levels of persecution and discrimination for their faith.

We simply cannot take freedom of expression for granted. Neither can we assume it is universally prized, nor that it’s permanent in our own country. So it’s vital that we equip ourselves to defend it and to recognise the infringements of the right to free expression where we find them.

So how should we go about engaging in free expression? Well, with 14 years of political experience in the crucible of free expression, I hope you won’t mind if I revert slightly to my experience over the textbooks. And I’ll give you a few suggestions.

The first one unashamedly comes from my faith, but I think it’s a very practical suggestion. First, we should bear with one another in love. So we should be kindly disposed to those we’re discussing matters with, we should want their best issue interests and we should hold their best interests in our minds; we should think well of them and assume good faith where we can.

But it is very important to remember that many people with serious grievances, people who’ve suffered real injustice, they’ve got those injustices to air after appalling suffering; they will be angry, and they may not be ideally equipped to articulate their suffering, so we need to leave room to hear them despite their anger and the difficulty they may have in conveying both their problems and the solutions that they see. So we should bear with one another in love. And I believe that this is a daily lesson of decent public life.

Second, though, we ought not to carry that principle too far. I do not hesitate to block people on social media when they have little to offer but slander and fury. No one deserves sustained abuse, including politicians. And moreover, each of us politicians included is under no obligation to host and help promote on our own social media accounts. The often offensive comments of others, people are free to be offensive elsewhere. But that’s not to say a law should be passed. That’s to explain that the principle can be carried too far when someone crosses a line.

Third, and this is again, where I revert to Karl Popper. We ought to, I believe, adopt a spirit of critical rationalism. It’s a term popper articulated to describe a way to make rational decisions in the absence of absolute certainty. It means criticism and scrutiny, but it also means more than that: we ought to accept that knowledge is provisional, conjectural and subject to revision. We might hold opinions that we cannot falsify. For example, on matters of faith. We ought to recognise that it’s a fact that these things are not foreseeable fireable, and we should behave appropriately in our discourse, bearing in mind that we should hold on provisionally to these matters and that they’ll always remain non-falsifiable matters of faith and debate.

We should adjust our judgement of matters according to whether discourse and argument can be verified or falsified. Let’s be clear about the kind of arguments and debates that we’re having on disputable matters will always remain, just that we might possibly in discussion make bold conjectures. But if we do so we should be willing to subject them to critical testing to establish their truth or usefulness. We ought to be rational when choosing between competing theories and ideas in a spirit of mutual improvement, judging what is good based on how it survives critical discussion. This is the essence of what Popper called an open society, one capable of making social progress and correcting errors in government.

Very simply though, we should apply some tests to everything we say and write. this is something I tell my staff in every induction that I do for a new member. The five questions we should ask ourselves about everything we say, everything we write first

  1. Is it true? If it’s not true, we’re not saying it.
  2. Is it necessary to say this?
  3. Is it beneficial?
  4. Is it rightly motivated?
  5. And finally, do we have permission?

These tests are so frequently ignored or rejected. And a plea I want to enter at this point is we also ought to always exercise some virtue. We should always exercise virtue even though we will always fall short. So when we are expressing ourselves freely, I hope that we would say that we have hope in the future, that we have faith in human progress, that we have love for one another, that we’re in pursuit of justice as we pursue social progress, and that we should have the courage to say what we believe to be necessary and true and right. We should have temperance, we should moderate ourselves in our debates and be polite to others, and we should be prudent.

There’s no need for hysterics. I particularly emphasise the virtue of tolerance and some combination of the above deciding not to proceed with some degree of force to close down with whom you disagree. And I think that this is the most important issue that we face today. Because we seem to have forgotten that to tolerate something, it is not to agree with it. It’s to agree to disagree and to go your way in peace. It’s to live and let live when no harm is done. To be tolerant is to accept that some differences are irreconcilable.

An example would be ideas on the theology of the person of Christ, or even perhaps which is the best football team. This is, of course, tricky territory. Tolerance is not enforcing, by law and culture, the most liberal consensus on any particular issue. That I would say is a choice to establish taboos, to close down society and to return to the Dark Ages. And I extend Popper to say so I think this is one of the fundamental problems of our age.

In my own personal conduct as an individual, I don’t think there’s any doubt that I’m socially conservative. I’m a happily married man, go to church, but I don’t believe I should be able to force my way of life on other people. Quite the reverse. I think that other people should be able to live their lives how they wish, provided they do no harm. And all I really ask is that others who wish to live differently don’t force their views on others and leave room for each of us to choose to live how we wish freely.

With that in mind, as I come to close, I’d just like to reflect on a few ways things can go wrong. unreason, and untruth, whether deliberate or out of ignorance. And I just would say that this morning as I came in, Steve Baker Watch were once again, demonstrating at the bottom of my office drive. They’re almost always perfectly charming to speak, and they’re certainly absolutely entitled to legitimate protest. Of course, they are they’ve got the signs and they’ve got a point of view. But what I would say is that when I look about what they say about me, it bears no relation to my actual views. I’ve always accepted that climate change is real, that we contribute to it as human beings, that we should do something about it, but I’ve raised some questions about the cost of doing so and the rationality of some of those costs, and whether the public could be carried on those points. And I have to say, I’ve largely won that argument at the moment. When you look at what the Government is doing, we’re still going for Net Zero, but we’re doing it in a way that will be more affordable for people who are very hard-pressed.

But when I look at what Steve Baker Watch say about me, it is far removed from my actual views. Well, they’re entitled to do it, but I’m not entitled to help them spread their views. I am often reminded of the poem by Kipling: if about being lied about don’t deal in lies.

We should respect truth and we should respect truth all the time. We should distinguish between expression which is morally reprehensible and that which is criminally punishable things. So there will be some freedom of expression which is morally reprehensible but which should not be criminally punished.

We must not dehumanise our opponents and this is something that I’ve seen time and again in 14 years. People are not very good at disagreeing. Why? Because they’re too proud to admit they might be wrong.

What I’ve found over 14 years is that when people disagree with one-another, they typically are very quick to say that the other person is stupid, or lazy, or evil or corrupt. And I’ve learned that it doesn’t matter how good you are, or well intentioned, how hard you work, how well you inform yourself with ideas and facts. You may be squeaky clear on all fronts, but you’ll still be accused of being lazy, stupid or evil or corrupt. This isn’t how reasonable civilised public discourse should be conducted.

We should listen, reflect, and respond. And we should have the humility to do so because we could all be wrong, including me. The Archbishop of Canterbury, quoting the historian Timothy Garton Ash, recently spoke about the three vetoes used in society freely rather than by force of law. One is the hecklers veto, shouting people down. Next is the offensiveness veto: well, I’m offended so you can’t say that, or your views are problematic and inappropriate. Telling someone their views are problematic is a way of shutting them down. And then finally, the assassins veto. It is a sad fact that some people have refrained from free expression because they fear repercussions, some violent, at the hands of those who disagree.

The real issue is often not regulations or laws, but these vetoes exercised by the public. So those of us in public life, we must expect robust criticism: I certainly do. But there are limits.

Free speech is a good thing, but perhaps only when it’s not just frank but when it’s fitting in the broadest sense, the sense which I’ve elaborated. Sharp disagreement is fine, and it’s welcome. But how it’s elaborated really matters. We must not underestimate the fragility of our civilization when people behave in dehumanising or slanderous ways.

And for that reason, I finish this defence of the right to free expression in a democratic society with a call for civility, for restraint, for judgement, and for humility. Thank you very much.

Comments are closed.