Freedom of speech? Press Freedom? We all love it, and would fight strongly for it – of course we would. Or only if we happen to agree with what is being said or written? Do we really fight as strongly for the right of someone else to disagree with us? Or to talk nonsense? Or to abuse or insult us? Or tell lies? Obnoxious as they may be, those things are just as much about freedom as is the right to speak up for decency and justice.
These thoughts were coursing through my mind during Remembrance Day. I was glad to attend parades and services in Cricklade, Malmesbury, Royal Wootton Bassett, and a delicious curry lunch in Buckley Barracks, Hullavington. My commitment to the Royal British Legion (a long-time member of two branches), the military (served for seven years in TA, now Chair two Parliamentary Military organisations and serve on defence Committee), and local military issues (Lyneham, Repatriations through Royal Wootton Bassett) is well known. So it was deeply hurtful to see the Daily Telegraph repeat an ancient and slanderous story that I had ‘claimed the costs of my poppy wreaths on my Parliamentary expenses’. Simply untrue. Totally fictitious. So should I shout about it? Sue them? Or accept that slanderous lies in the national press - even deeply hurtful ones such as this - are all a part of the freedom of the press for which our military have fought so bravely for centuries.
Again, in one of the Remembrance services I attended, I was disappointed to hear the Minister use the occasion to make some party political points; to spout a load of nonsense about the Prime Minister ‘inviting 3000 arms dealers to our shores’ (actually it was Rolls Royce, Airbus and BAE); and to deliver a blatant pacifist and unilateral disarmament ‘sermon’ to the astonished soldiers and British Legion members in the congregation. Surely Remembrance Sunday sermons should be all about remembering the fallen, whether or not we agree with warfare. But was it nonetheless her right as a Minister to speak unhindered? She was talking nonsense, but presumably she believed it, and felt it her duty to deliver it to the congregation.
The truth is that these freedoms – to speak and write what we like – are hard-won and irreplaceable parts of free Western liberal democracy. Most of the rest of the world would fight (and are doing in so many places) to achieve these rights. So offensive as they be; ill-informed, abusive or slanderous as they are from time to time, we must nonetheless rejoice that we have these freedoms, and pay tribute to the armed forces who have achieved them for us over so many centuries.