A Quango Free Speech Fandango

Do you know what a quango is?

I didn’t, until I read Jackie Ashley’s commentary in The Guardian entitled “Livingstone’s suspension is an affront to democracy” with this marvelous subhead– “Londoners voted for a mayor they knew to be outspoken. They don’t need a faceless quango to protect them.”

Quango is a Britishism for quasi-autonomous non-governmental organization (QUANGO). Quangos are nominally independent bodies, developed largely by the Tories as an alternative to official government agencies.

The quango in question, the Adjudication Panel for England, has suspended Livingstone, mayor of London, for what many see as anti-Semitic comments.

Here’s Jackie Ashley’s account of those remarks:

So his now notorious late-night exchange with a reporter from the London Evening Standard, who happened to be Jewish, was pretty unexceptional by Livingstone standards. His relations with the paper are dire and he accused its man of being “a German war criminal” and “behaving just like a concentration camp guard … doing it because you are paid to”. Then he described the reporter’s employer as “a load of scumbags and reactionary bigots”.

Robust, certainly: but does this really warrant his suspension as mayor of London for four weeks, from Wednesday? Who, you may want to know, has the power to suspend someone with a huge democratic mandate anyway?

Ashley complains that it is anti-democratic for this three-person quango to discipline Livingstone. She also defends him against the suggestion of anti-Semitism:

You may or may not agree with Ken’s views on the Middle East, but to move from his hostility to the actions of the state of Israel to suggest that he behaved in an anti-semitic way is gross. He has made clear, on these pages and elsewhere, the distinction between his loathing of the Holocaust and his admiration for the Jewish people, on the one hand, and his anger about Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians, on the other. He has worked with the Board of Deputies of British Jews against the National Front. His hatred of the Mail group is connected to its pre-war admiration for the Nazis. He has to be allowed his strong views.

As a free speech advocate, I couldn’t agree more with Ashley’s call that Livingstone (dubbed “Red Ken” for his hard left politics) should “be allowed his strong views,” even when, as in this case, they are needlessly insensitive and hurtful.

The response to speech we don’t like, should be…more speech, to borrow from Justice Brandeis. Unfortunately many in the European Union lean towards the “social responsibility” school, which inevitably leads to legislation banning “hate speech” and, as can be seen in the Livingstone situation, government oversight of political discourse. Not good. In the United States, most attempts at enforcing politically correct speech have occurred on college campuses–and are increasingly being resisted.

Let’s agree with Ashley that Livingstone should be able to trumpet his often bizarre and provocative views without fear of removal from office or governmental reprisal, but also without accepting her notion that he is free from anti-Semitic inclinations.

This is man, after all, who is on record as arguing that Britain’s treatment of the Irish was worse than Hitler’s of the Jews; who gave Sheikh Yusuf al Qaradawi (an Egyptian cleric banned from the U.S. because of his advocacy of violence) a warm welcome to London; and who begins tossing around the word “Zionist” whenever he discusses Israel and the Palestinians. Note well: Livingstone’s most objectionable comments to the London Evening Standard reporter came after the reporter had identified himself as Jewish.

(The Anti-Defamation League has few doubts about “Livingstone’s record”).

At best, Livingstone is a boor. At worst, he is infected with the virus of anti-Semitism, despite his recent claims that his maternal grandmother may be Jewish. The sunshine of free speech is the best disinfectant.

Copyright © 2006 Jefferson Flanders
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