The other battle of the comics
Anyone looking for tea-leaves to read in battle for hearts and minds in Europe may note that a law which might have prohibited publication of the Danish cartoons was narrowly defeated in the UK. The Brussels Journal reports:
On 31 January 2006 the British House of Commons narrowly defeated – with just 283 votes against 282 – New Labour’s Racial and Religious Hatred Bill, intended to prohibit speech or artistic expressions deemed insulting by religious communities. This was a narrow yet historic victory for freedom of expression, as well as a victory for Parliament against a despotic-minded Government. Liberal-Democratic spokesman Evan Harris commented: “The Government just failed to understand that they can’t take liberties with freedom of expression.”
On the occasion of the House of Commons vote, familiar maxims on liberty were aptly invoked in various debates, e.g. against the British Government’s plea that the bill was “necessary” to make multicultural coexistence possible (an argument invoked by governments across Europe to impose similar censorship laws). William Pitt the Younger was quoted: “Necessity is the plea for every infringement of human freedom; it is the argument of tyrants; it is the creed of slaves.”
Regarding the argument that this curtailment of freedom of speech is only a small concession to an acute societal need, Edmund Burke’s words were repeated: “The true danger is when liberty is nibbled away for expedience and by parts.”
Against the argument that many things people say about other religions are ill-informed or prejudiced, Mahatma Gandhi was quoted: “Freedom isn’t worth having if it does not connote the freedom to err.”
One of the heroes of the hour was apparently Mr. Bean. The Times of London reports:
Rowan Atkinson's supporters in Parliament mounted a sophisticated ambush to defeat the Government over its laws against religious hatred. To borrow a phrase from the comedian’s television series Blackadder, they had “a cunning plan”. They realised that only 25 to 30 Labour MPs might rebel and that in a trial of strength with government whips they would lose. So, instead of seeking publicity to gain momentum for a rebellion, they opted for stealth and targeted lobbying. ...
The campaign prised wavering individuals from disparate groups to eke out the narrow victory. On the defeated side the search for scapegoats has already begun. Fingers are already being pointed at Labour Whip Hilary Armstrong for having failed to carry the measure despite the party's superiority in the House of Commons. The Independent reports:
Downing Street tried to shrug off the defeat as a "one-off" and a "cock-up". Mr Blair's official spokesman said: "It happened. I'm sure every effort will be made to make sure it doesn't happen again." ... Earlier, the Prime Minister's spokesman denied Ms Armstrong was about to be sacked, saying Mr Blair still had "enormous respect" for her. But among Labour MPs there was a general expectation yesterday that Ms Armstrong would be out in the next cabinet reshuffle.
As the repeated and unceasing submissions of the European Constitution to the electorate illustrate, it's unlikely that Parliament has seen the last of this issue.
The only quote I could find from Mr. Bean appropriate to the occasion is this: “We are in the stickiest situation since sticky the stick insect got stuck on a sticky bun.”