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TO BE FREE IS NOT A LUXURY
- A narrow, but vital victory for freedom of speech

Allow me, please, one moment in this beleaguered time to savour a narrow but vital victory for freedom of speech. After a long campaign pitting the writers' organization, PEN, under the leadership of Lisa Appignanesi, along with its allies in both houses of Britain's parliament and a large band of figures from the arts including comedian Rowan Atkinson and National Theatre director Nicholas Hytner, against a British government that has become notorious for its obdurate refusal to get the point of anyone else's arguments, the final House of Commons result went in our favour.

Last week's two Commons votes, which amended the Racial and Religious Hatred Bill to strengthen its protection of free expression and to remove the offences of insult, abuse and recklessness, represented a triumph of democratic freedoms over political opportunism.

In the newspapers, the result was mostly characterized as an egg-on-face moment for Prime Minister Tony Blair, because of his absence from the voting lobbies during a single-vote defeat for his government that could have been avoided had he been present. Attractive though the pleasures of Schadenfreude may be, such commentary misses the point of principle that was at stake.

That the government itself also missed the point is unsurprising. Grudgingly conceding that the amended bill would now pass into law, the government admitted to learning only one lesson from its defeat: that the prime minister probably should stick around to be counted when his next controversial proposals ' on education, for instance ' are being voted on. Which he probably should.

In the aftermath of the Commons vote, Hanif Kureishi described it as 'a great achievement for writers and intellectuals when they unite'. Philip Pullman underlined the need for continued vigilance. Atkinson optimistically saw it as a result in which everybody wins.

They are all right, in their different ways, but Pullman is nearest to the truth: 'Those who think such freedom is a soft luxury...will come back another day and from another direction in order to destroy it,' he said. 'Those of us who know it's a hard necessity must be ready for them.'

My own immediate sentiment after the vote was gratitude for the parliamentary system under which the House of Lords fought a great battle and eventually enough members of the Commons were persuaded to join them.

On reflection, though, my predominant feeling is one of immense relief. We won by the skin of our teeth. A single-vote victory is the closest of close shaves, and had the Labour whips done their jobs better, we would not be in the excellent position in which we now find ourselves.

In a country without a written constitution, however, the amended Racial and Religious Hatred Act now provides a legally binding expression of British freedom of speech that is extremely broad and deep. Unless an intent to provoke hatred can be proved, British citizens now have the statutory right to express their views, no matter how offensive those views may be to others. The so-called 'right not to be offended', which never really existed, has been abolished by law.

Britain may, half-accidentally, have acquired something very like a First Amendment of its own, an unlooked-for development that may yet prove to be the most valuable single thing to emerge from this long, and at times bitter, struggle.

The bill was straight-forwardly conceived as an attempt to appease British Muslims alienated from the Labour Party by its support of President George W. Bush's Iraq policy, but even some Muslims came to feel that they didn't want its alleged protection, and that they might find their own freedom of expression improperly constrained by it.

A government led by as 'faith-based' a leader as Blair will always instinctively seek to appease religious factions. However, it's possible that the government's use of the kind of communalist politics that have bedeviled the Indian political scene has put it out of step with the British people.

This may be the time to seize the initiative, in short. Hytner has already sounded the first note of a new campaign. 'The government should now rise to the occasion,' he says, 'and demonstrate its stated opposition to religious discrimination by repealing the blasphemy laws.'

You wouldn't know it from the genuflections to religion made both by Blair and by the foreign secretary, Jack Straw, but one of the most attractive features of life in contemporary Britain is that, with the exception of the Muslim minority, the British have become a highly secularized people, in whose world-view religious faith does not play a large or central role.

The notion that it's still possible to be jailed for blaspheming against the Church of England is a laughable absurdity to most citizens of the land of Monty Python. The fact that this protection applies only to Christianity is a clear anomaly which other religious denominations regularly use to demand equal protection for themselves. A large majority of Britons would, I suspect, agree that this is upside-down thinking: equal unprotection for everyone is the obvious way to go.

Now that we have seen the relatively happy end of the British government's three separate attempts to pass various versions of what became the Racial and Religious Hatred Bill, without the government's ever seeming to understand the damage it could do to British freedom of speech, how pleasurable it would be to see New Labour, with all its talk of modernizing Britain, doing something that actually did make Britain a more modern country.

So how about it, Mr. Blair' After all, as it said on a T-shirt that I was sent by a well-wisher back in the day, 'Blasphemy is a victimless crime.'

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