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Free speech and discussion - crucial to Britain

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Free speech is under threat – and in fighting for it workers can’t allow themselves to be sidelined by divisive laws and policies…

How do we solve problems? The first step is to recognise that a problem exists. The second is to decide what we want to achieve. The third is agreeing on the best way to achieve that aim, and so solve the problem.

To improve the lives of everyone living in Britain we need a productive, skilled nation. The working class of Britain, the vast majority of the people living here, has the ability to create such a country and such a future.

To realise that capability we must be able to practise free speech, not as an abstract, stand-alone freedom but as an essential tool for free discussion before deciding on action to be taken.

Free speech of workers has always been threatened. We’ve always had to assert the right of free speech under capitalism. Current attacks come from a number of directions and too many of us are staying quiet as a result – or being forced to keep quiet.

In recent years laws have been passed in Britain that purport to improve public discourse or remove harms. Instead they have reduced free speech and created subjective categories of hate speech.

Many of the laws on hate crimes and hate speech have been poorly drafted. They allow a crime to be defined as a hate crime if a victim or witness perceives the crime to be fuelled by hate towards race, religion, disability, or gender. But when perception is allowed to determine reality, no defence is possible. A statement by a witness who did not perceive the action as a hate crime would not count.

These laws have also created “non-crime incidents”, where something that isn’t a crime can still be recorded by police forces if someone perceives it to have been fuelled by hate.

The Metropolitan Police resisted calls to ban pro-Palestinian marches in case slogans included some that could be perceived as hate crimes. Mark Rowley, the Met commissioner, said, “[a march] could only be stopped if there was a threat of serious disorder.”


The interpretation of hate crimes has been further muddied by judges and case law – and by lobby groups with vested interests, such as Stonewall.

Far from improving public discourse, legislation has created a weapon for someone to threaten other workers for simply expressing their view or even raising concerns – resulting in fines, the loss of income or even imprisonment.

Faced with this, many people play safe rather than speak up at work or at union or other meetings. This is not healthy; we need to recognise it as a problem.

For a number of years, in higher education and elsewhere, visiting speakers have been silenced. Described as de-platforming, invitations have been withdrawn because of claims by some individuals that they would find the mere presence of the speaker distressing or even harmful.

In these instances a vocal, aggrieved, minority not only bar speakers, but deny anyone else who might attend the event an opportunity to hear what is said and to respond.

‘Hate crime legislation has created a weapon to threaten other workers…’

Research published as No Platform: Speaker Events at University Debating Unions suggests that students and conference organisers are playing safe and staying away from topics that could be considered controversial. The research report found that a wide range of unlikely speakers had been prevented from speaking – from Alex Salmond and Tony Blair to Liam Neeson and Harry Enfield.

This too is not healthy for us as a class. Having others decide who we can and cannot hear weakens and enfeebles us.

During the Scottish referendum of 2014 we saw extreme behaviour from a small number of activists. They felt empowered to drown out views they disagreed with – and to slander those that held those views.

We’ve seen such intolerance and polarisation repeated over many other issues: Brexit, separatism and devolution, Covid policies, net zero, transgender ideology, the Russian invasion of Ukraine, NATO, Israel and Palestine. People stay quiet for fear – of being labelled stupid and bigoted, of ruining relationships, or of expulsion from their political party.

Yet we need to be able to discuss any topic that affects Britain. We do not solve problems by hoping they go away. Or by shouting down views we don’t want to hear. Instead, we need to hear views we disagree with, identify their weaknesses, and be prepared to listen and learn.

Behind this trend of polarisation and self-censorship, other ruling class actions are directly aimed at stifling dissent and the free speech of working people. They hope transnational finance capitalism can then rule unfettered.

After the collapse of financial markets and banks in 2007–2008, public anger about the damage done by large banks, financial institutions, and multinational corporations was at an all-time high. The British and other national governments suddenly saw a need for checks on the gambling of financiers.

This was a hostile environment for finance capitalists, at least for a time. They saw their ability to continue freely increasing their wealth threatened.


By 2012 the largest investment corporation in the world, Blackrock, came up with the bright idea of rebranding itself as so virtuous and civic-minded that it could define its own regulation. The vehicle it has used to do this is Environment, Social and corporate Governance, ESG for short. The aim was not only to give the multinational corporation access to limitless growth but also to gain quasi-governmental powers.

By refusing to invest in companies unless they have “good” ESG credentials, Blackrock has pressured companies around the world to jump through hoops. The UK government took little persuasion to fall into line. It passed legislation requiring all British listed companies, all banking and insurance companies and companies with more than 500 employees to show ESG compliance in their annual reports.

But who defines the terms environment, social and corporate governance? An army of ESG specialists and advisers has sprouted. Many companies sub-contract their responsibilities to these organisations. Most advise that “environmental” means implementing CO2 reduction goals, that is, net zero. And “social” means anything related to the UN’s stated social goals on issues such as gender parity, racial justice, and poverty reduction.


One of the largest specialist firms is B Global Network, a network of organisations that provide firms with advice and accreditation. It was reported that Nigel Farage was debanked by Coutts bank so that it could retain its B Corp accreditation.

The more zealous supporters of ESG require companies of all sizes to police the political views of their customers – and their employees. Some companies now require their employees to undergo “carbon literacy” training.

And public sector bodies are keen to join in – from central government to schools and the NHS. The NHS, for example, requires its suppliers to publish a carbon reduction plan.

This dogma is a problem for free speech and an obstacle to workers in trying to create a productive and skilled nation. Organisations adopting this nonsense appear to have lost sight of their purpose – for example, making cars, transporting food, educating children, caring for the sick – at the expense of ticking ESG boxes.

The solution to these problems starts with more of us speaking up and taking responsibility, without making martyrs of ourselves. Companies and organisations can and should decide their own definitions of the terms environmental, social, and governance. That’s taking responsibility, professionalism at work, and a great example of how ESG can be tamed – until we get rid of such tentacles of finance capitalism in our lives.