Monday, 5 November 2012

Freedom of Speech and Protest in Bradford

First written 12 September 2010

As I write this in Taipei, Taiwan’s ever more breathtaking capital city, the temperature is quickly climbing to the mid-30s, and we depend on cool, but dry and defiled manufactured air for sleep. We are currently sandwiched between two typhoons, though the local weather forecast reassures us that we will not feel the effects except for some thundery showers. In the heat, girls’ shorts are getting shorter and tighter, and I have realised that the true measure of getting older is when you start to look at the mothers instead of the daughters. Meanwhile, Taipei bustles along on its capital city business, and the news is of unemployment levels, concerns about the cost of the ‘Flower Expo’, and the usual round of elections, scandal, infidelity and corruption (this time within the Taichung police force). International news is largely non-existent, except on ICRT, a local radio station where the heavily American-accented presenters present heavily American-accented news.

Today, however, my thoughts are elsewhere. It is Saturday 28th August 2010, and it is only 6am. In my hometown of Bradford, the city in which I was born, nurtured and schooled, and which I left with a smile and a determination to never look back, it is still Friday 27th. On Saturday, Bradford will host what are amusingly called ‘static demonstrations’ by the English Defence League (EDL) and Unite Against Fascism (UAF). The EDL had planned a march through the city, but a citywide petition put a stop to it. For the first time in its one hundred day history I can applaud the actions of the Conservative-LibDem coalition government. In preventing the EDL from marching the government has not only prevented the ugly face of mass politics from getting uglier, and hence no doubt has saved a lot of innocent people from insult and injury; the government has also listened to the people. The petition was organised by Bradford’s Telegraph & Argus, the only local newspaper I have read wherever I am in the world.

The prospect of the march has filled columns in the T&A for several months and has generated much correspondence to the editor both for and against. Few, if any of the letters published in favour of allowing the march to proceed claimed to support the EDL and its overt racism. Instead, the correspondence tended to profess defence based on the right of free speech in a democratic society: As liberals, are we not undermining our own principles by denying to the EDL the same rights we champion for the minorities they attack?

Freedom of thought and speech is a precious commodity. We do well to fight for it, claim it, protect it and advocate it for those who in too many places around the world are denied a voice in the name of national development, religion or security. Voltaire was correct: ‘I may not agree with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.’ But he was only partly correct, for those who campaign for a blanket freedom of speech as a universal right to say whatever one wants whenever one wants miss an important caveat: With freedom comes responsibility, especially for the welfare of one’s fellow men, and especially for your neighbours. Freedom of speech does not and never should be used as a licence for hate, abuse, intolerance or incitement which is precisely the agenda of the EDL.

Bradford was once a proud city. You can see it in the very architecture of the city, especially around Little Germany, Bank Street, the Wool Exchange and City Hall. Their Gothic texture reveals the stature that Bradford enjoyed as a 19th Century powerhouse – Worstedopolis – which rivalled both its near-neighbour Leeds and the cotton capital across the Pennines. Bradfordians born today are in illustrious company: J.B. Priestley, W.E. Forster, Titus Salt, Richard Oastler, Frederick Delius, David Hockney, Edward Appleton. We can also just about lay claim to the Bronte family, and as the birthplace of the Independent Labour Party. Radical politics are in the very fabric of the city.

Visiting the city today it is difficult to sense this pride or any awareness of ownership. The much discussed regeneration of Bradford is frustratingly sluggish, with large holes in the middle of the city irritating the locals on a daily basis. Talk of a reflecting pool near City Hall cannot compensate for the city’s erosion since the 1980s. The old Odeon Cinema, once a dominating display of grandeur and where I first queued to see Star Wars in 1978 is now the proverbial blot on the landscape, left to turn green in its retirement. The Odeon’s deliberate decline is a disgrace, as is the refusal to rescue it, and successive councils should look upon it with shame from the City Hall across the road.

Yet one source of continuing pride is Bradford’s multi-cultural and cosmopolitan character. Any journey through Manningham, Great Horton or Leeds Road will demonstrate the colour and vibrancy of a city which, although it has serious economic problems, has reason to celebrate its multi-ethnic character. By 2001 Bradford had the second largest Asian population in a UK city, and only 18.9% of the total population are from South Asia. Members of the EDL do not need to worry; the white population is still dominant, comprising almost 79% of the population. Contrary to Daily Mail-style horror stories, the ethnic minorities also work, pay their taxes, raise families and face the same problems as everyone else; while welfare dependence and social ills such as crime and drug abuse can be found in all communities. These problems do not care about the colour of your skin or the original home of your parents. And we must not forget that Bradford's textile industry, the foundation of its previous prosperity, was partly built on immigration - from the Germans who settled here in the 19th century to the South Asians who kept the mills working throughout the night in the 1960s and 1970s.

If Bradford cedes to racism, allows the thuggery of fascism to raise its ugly and violent head in the city, uses a minority population as a scapegoat for the plight that successive councils, governments and businesses have failed to deal with, the struggles that generations of working class men and women, including members of my own family, fought both in the streets of Bradford and in the killing fields of Europe and Asia will have been in vain. While it is no longer fashionable nor ideologically sound to profess that working classes of the world should unite, they should nevertheless understand, sympathise and tolerate the problems faced by their working class neighbours wherever they are from or the colour of their skin. Hiding behind the veil of free speech is not only moral cowardice, it is shameful and demeans those individuals and groups across the world who are denied the liberty to speak and publish freely.


Bradford did not let me down; the ‘static demonstrations’ passed off relatively peaceful with the eruption of few incidents. Bradfordians came together in a peaceful manner to demonstrate their solidarity against both groups who wanted to march on Saturday 28th. It seems that the city of my birth still has fire in its belly and a commitment to peaceful living after all.

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