Tuesday, 16 April 2013


The funeral of Margaret Thatcher will take place tomorrow.  In her lifetime, as Prime Minister, she managed to divide the country.  People with firm opinions and uncompromising stances usually do encourage strong views one way or the other.  Since she won three consecutive elections and is still Britain's longest serving Prime Minister for over 100 years, those divisions clearly did not split the country into two equal parts, but the minority that opposed her of course became the most vociferous and violent.

The same will no doubt be the case during her funeral tomorrow.  There are those who still hate her and will go out of their way to show it tomorrow. But those that make the loudest noise, as ever, will not necessarily be right.  Maybe they are incapable of rational argument or perhaps after all this time (Thatcher resigned in 1990) their ineffectual resentment has still not evaporated or maybe they are just hateful, but demonstrating at a funeral will not endear them to anyone, nor elicit support for their views.  Any violence will no doubt be condemned by all political parties.  So such protesters will simply be dismissed as outside normal society.

But a separate debate has arisen which is much more interesting, and important, than whether you still like or dislike Thatcher.  The police have said that, in policing the funeral, they are determined not to prevent freedom of speech.  In this country, I'm pleased to say, dissent is allowed, even in public.  But what is the limit of that dissent?  To what extent is freedom of speech, or freedom of expression, or freedom of movement, restricted by public order legislation?

I am quite firm that freedom of speech should be permitted unconditionally.  At any time, in any place.  If someone wishes to stand up in church and say that religion is poppycock, that's fine by me.  If they want to shout tomorrow that Thatcher was an evil woman, that's OK too.  But they can't expect that theirs will be the only view expressed.  And this is where demonstrations can run into legal difficulties.  Holding up a banner is fine.  Chanting what's on the banner is also fine.  But when have you seen two opposing groups of demonstrators simply standing together chanting their opposing views?  When one group seems to be chanting louder, insults will be bandied, jostling will begin and one group will no doubt soon physically attack the other.  So where does the public order offence begin - when the chanting starts?  When the chanting takes on an aggressive tone?  When physical contact occurs?  When the fighting starts?  And which group committed the public order offence?

We can easily accept that a public order offence may have occurred when we hear a Muslim cleric preaching against the West.  But what of a group dishonouring Margaret Thatcher and preaching against her?  At what stage does freedom of speech spill over into an illegal act?  A public order offence may well have occurred if a milk bottle is thrown at her coffin.  But what if just the milk is thrown?  Or what about holding up a placard covered in hate filled words and chanting hatred against her?  Is this incitement to violence?  Or maybe it's libel, legally punishable defamation?  But at what stage would you be inhibiting a person's freedom of speech - when you take away their placard or when you move them along or when you arrest them?

There have been attempts to quantify freedom of speech for the purposes of demonstrating tomorrow. As usual it all sounds silly.  It's a bit like a contract for behaviour on a date.  This is OK, but that isn't.  In the end, it will depend on the personal judgement of one police officer.  And I suspect it will not be placards or chanting or turning one's back or singing, 'Ding dong - the Queen is dead' or even throwing milk that leads to arrest.

I sincerely hope violence doesn't arise.  And, on the other hand, I hope too that the police will get it right.  If many are arrested, far from turning in her grave, I suspect  that Thatcher will be smiling.  She had no time for trouble makers then and would certainly not have now.

So, even in death she arouses strong views.  But, in the debate over freedoms in British society and the rights of the individual, I think I know where she would have drawn her uncompromising line. 

1 comment:

  1. The only protester moved on by the police, as far as I know, was one shouting obscenities. Those others were all allowed their protest. But I was quite wrong that the protests would lead to major trouble; most of those lining the route seemed to applaud as the cortège passed by.