Geert Wilders, the Dutch far-right MP, is visiting Britain today, having successfully appealed against the ban imposed on him by the Home Office in February. He is a populist, anti-immigration demagogue whose ideas are alien to the values of a free society. He urges that the Quran be banned. He depicts European Muslims as a monolithic force whose high birth rates are inexorably leading to an Islamic takeover. While in Britain, he intends to meet Lord Pearson of Rannoch, a member of the anti-European UK Independence Party. They will discuss a possible showing of Wilders’s brief film Fitna, which describes the Quran as a fascist book. Wilders is, in short, a toxic joker. But his entry to Britain is a cause for celebration.
The reasoning applied by Jacqui Smith, then Home Secretary, in barring Wilders was an assault on the notion of freedom of speech and conscience. It was censorious, paternalist and heedless of liberal values. A three-person tribunal upheld Wilders’s appeal this week. The judges spoke wisely. They declined to associate the public good with ministerial fiat and insisted that a banning order had to be justified. They ruled that even if there had been evidence of a fundamental threat to society, it would still have been wrong to ban Wilders. The preservation of free speech was more important.
There are pragmatic and principled reasons for welcoming the judgement. But first note the Home Office response. A spokesman declared: “The decision to refuse Wilders admission was taken on the basis that his presence could have inflamed tensions between our communities and have led to inter-faith violence.”
This is a circuitous but unmistakable way of saying that Wilders’s statements in the UK will offend many people. So they will. And the force of this as an objection to allowing Wilders to state his views is nil. No one has a right in a free society to be protected from anguish. If government sees its task as caring for the feelings of its citizens, then it can abridge any individual right in the supposed interests of social cohesion. That is a pernicious principle. The only legitimate course to adopt towards people who are offended is to leave them to get over it.
Banning visitors on grounds that their presence may “lead to” violence is an impossibly broad principle. If a visiting speaker’s message is direct incitement to violence, then there is a body of law to deal with it. But the notion that the message might provoke others to violence, and that those outraged feelings should be assuaged before it does, is another matter. It gives an incentive to protestors to adopt the most heated posture and rhetoric, and to blame social disruption on the offence that has been caused. If government signals that it is prepared to clamp down on speech that provokes a sufficiently militant opposition, then militant opposition will result. Give the incentive to one religious group, moreover, and others will adopt the same tactic.
Wilders is an unlikely champion of the free society, but liberalism is tested by hard cases. He has done the right thing by challenging the British government’s ruling. His presence is a small but not a trivial blow for the erosion of censorship.
Oliver Kamm is a leader writer for The Times.