TONY BLAIR’S authority was shaken by two surprise defeats last night that weakened his Bill to create the crime of inciting racial hatred. Key measures were lost by a majority of just one after he failed to stay for the crucial vote.
In a humiliating blow to Mr Blair, who has a 65-seat Commons majority, 21 Labour rebels voted with Opposition MPs while at least 40 more were absent or abstained.
It soon emerged that Mr Blair had returned to Downing Street after being told by Hilary Armstrong, the Chief Whip, that there was no point in staying for the crunch vote after an earlier measure was lost by a majority of ten.
In what proved to be a disastrous miscalculation, however, Mr Blair’s absence will be blamed for the loss of key clauses designed to combat “abusive and insulting” behaviour inciting religious hatred.Of note though is that Gorgeous George Galloway did manage to turn up and vote for censorship, thereby marginally increasing his woeful tally of attendence at the Mother of Parliaments.
The Danish prime minister, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, stood firm in his defence of free speech, after ambassadors from 10 Muslim countries complained to him about the cartoons. As he put it: "The government can in no way influence the media."
Our Government takes a rather different approach. The new law will ensure that it will not just be Satanic Verse-style protesters who will try to silence critics, but the British state itself, which will have the power to lock up those who dare to mock Mohammed.
Be in no doubt about the purpose of the legislation. It is those who criticise Muslims who are the target, not those who mock Christians, Sikhs, Hindus or Jews. No other religion has demanded such a law. The Muslim Council of Britain has, however, been lobbying for it since its inception in 1997, and got its way in November 2001, with a clause in the Anti-Terrorism, Crime and Security Bill outlawing incitement to religious hatred. It was explicitly included as a sop to the MCB.
Such is the nature of the fight to defend Western values - half-hearted and supine. The right of a newspaper to publish unfunny cartoons about Mohammed, Jesus or any other religious figure is not a distraction in the defence of freedom from terror. It goes to the very heart of what must be defended.