OF all the delusions we labour under in this supposedly free society, the fiction of free speech is one of the most enduring.
In reality we have no such thing. And it is by no means clear that we should have.
Our words, as much as our actions, can have consequences. Just ask any Islamist cleric jailed or deported for inciting hatred.
You can’t ask Derek Bentley, because he was hanged in 1953 for allegedly telling his friend Chris Craig to “let him have it” just before the 16-year-old Craig shot a policeman. Whether he meant “shoot him” or “give him the gun”, his words had doubly tragic consequences.
You might ask Francis Maude, the cabinet office minister, whether he feels responsible for the 40 per cent burns that put Diane Hill of York in hospital last week.
When Maude suggested motorists take the “sensible precaution” of filling up jerry cans with petrol in case of shortages he was wrong. Dangerously, stupidly, irresponsibly wrong.
Mrs Hill took that “sensible precaution” and ended up in a critical condition as a result.
Was Maude culpable?
My friend Jeremy thinks not.
“In a free society stupid people should be able to say stupid things,” he said. “If other people then act on them, that is ultimately their responsibility.”
Perhaps. But as a government minister, does Maude not have some responsibility for his words, and the effects they have?
The excuse “I was only following orders” may not exonerate the perpetrator of war crimes – but that doesn’t let the officer who issued the fatal order off the hook.
Maude was only issuing advice, not an order, but it was deeply bad advice delivered with the authority of office.
Jeremy concluded: “Maude is not personally responsible for that woman’s injuries, but his position as a fit and proper person to hold ministerial office in a UK government should now be challenged.”
I’d certainly agree with the second part of that.
Government responsibility for the panic buying that left some filling stations empty of fuel before a delivery drivers’ strike has even been called can hardly be denied.
Like a Mexican wave, an outbreak of racism or schoolyard bullying, the fuel-buying frenzy is an irrational behaviour that generates its own barely stoppable momentum. It’s one of those social phenomena which shows we’re not as far advanced on the other mammals as we like to think we are.
As with a run on a bank, it only has to be reported that it might happen to ensure that it does.
In this case, the instigators were the government, whether by inept accident or cynical design, I couldn’t say.
Either way, the rights or wrongs of the delivery drivers’ case have been swept aside in the hysteria.
The matter is complicated – and neither ready headlines, mass hysteria nor, it seems, this government are made for dealing with complexity.
THERE used to be a T-shirt slogan: “The trouble with political jokes is… they tend to get elected.” Which is, I suppose, a sort of political joke itself, though not a very funny one.
Then there’s this, which isn’t very funny either – not because it isn’t true, but because it’s too true:
“Conservatives say if you don’t give the rich more money, they will lose their incentive to invest. As for the poor, they tell us they’ve lost all incentive because we’ve given them too much money.”
Laugh? I nearly grimaced.
This paints such a precise and painful picture of the present British government that it has to be hotly topical.
Yet in fact it’s a quote from comedian George Carlin, who happens to be (a) American, and (b) deceased. He died in 2008, aged 71. A good man gone.
Funnier, and definitely topical, was a Haldane cartoon in last week’s Times.
One be-suited man to another: “If you’re on a tight budget we can arrange access to Nick Clegg.”
Works on so many levels.