A collaborative blog for Current Affairs and Policy Debate

Blooming Stupid

In Europe, Events, Foreign Affairs, Ideology, Parliamentary Spotlight, Party politics on December 10, 2010 at 4:25 pm

By polarii for The Daily Soapbox

Calling anyone a Nazi is a serious allegation. When it is unfounded, it is also extremely offensive. Particularly when you are a German. Such thoughts did not perhaps pass through the mind of UKIP MEP Godfrey Bloom, when he made such a remark in the chamber of the European Parliament. Or maybe they did, and he meant to cause grave offense. In either case, he was forthwith ejected by a vote of members, and had to be escorted out. The incident raises strong questions of what people can and cannot say in a democracy which guarantees free speech.

I’ll just make my position absolutely clear – the comments Bloom made were completely wrong and inappropriate. But that’s tackling it from quite a staid dignified British view; as well as one that respects the targeted MEP, Martin Schultz (SPD). But that, to a certain extent, is beside the point. The question is whether Bloom has the right to say such things whether I approve or agree with such sayings or not.

We must first consider that Bloom is a UKIP MEP for Yorkshire – one of the regions that elected a BNP representative. Given that it has also elected a UKIP member and two Conservatives, we can infer that it’s a pretty Eurosceptic constituency. Moreover, those voters that voted UKIP want to see the EU brought down as soon as possible; consequently, if Bloom believed that making such comments as he did would accelerate that process, he might argue he had a democratic mandate to make them. However, I somehow doubt that most Yorkshiremen would even wish to hear those comments, much less associate themselves with them. While they might distrust the EU, and resent its level of control, that does not mean they see Europhiles as Nazis.

But on a broader level – Bloom has been elected by the people of Yorkshire to represent them how he deems best; and he is accountable through the ballot box whenever there is a European election. By having him barred from the chamber for a period of time, the EU Parliament implicitly denies the people of Yorkshire to receive their full representation for a time. The converse is that the people of Yorkshire should also have to accept the consequences for electing an offensive idiot, and the European community generally is condemning a most malicious attitude. In the multi-member constituencies of the EU, the people of Yorkshire also have other representatives, to whom they could turn should they be unable to wait the brief period of time until Bloom returns. But, if they were single-member constituencies, the problem would be exacerbated. And it may be that the people of Yorkshire have particularly strong views on an issue that comes up while Bloom is suspended, and their MEP is unable to cast his vote.

The balance here is between rights and duties, freedoms and consequences. Bloom has the right to speak howsoever he wishes – but, as an elected MEP, he has a duty to speak in accordance with acknowledged norms of the European Parliament. He has the freedom to be racist in the chamber, but he must also accept its consequence – suspension. Similarly the people of Yorkshire – they have the right to elect their representative, and the duty to choose him wisely. And even if they supported their representative to the hilt, the rest of the Parliament feels they have sufficient support in their constituencies to vote for his suspension.

But I think it is unreasonable to exclude him from voting; it is his speech that has earnt him this suspension, not his voting. To suspend people from debate is one thing; denying people the right to be democratically represented is another. If he could still vote, the Parliament could maintain its decorum, and the people of Yorkshire could maintain their voice in it, albeit in truncated form.

Some justify this course of events using the notion of a free market of ideas, and saying that this sort of speech doesn’t contribute new ideas, and merely tarnishes the ideas already in the market. While this has merits from a certain viewpoint, it nonetheless reduces someone’s inalienable right. It says that there is only value in free speech insofar as one uses it to contribute, rather than it simply being of immense value itself. This, for a while, muddled the issue in my thinking. Bloom has the right to say what he will, and he must accept the consequences of what he says. His ‘contribution to the free market of ideas’ is neither here or there. It may be of consequence to whatever debate was going on at the time, but, insofar as his right to speech is concerned, it is incidental.

One point that Nigel Farage made in the debate about whether to suspend Bloom is that several people in the European Parliament regularly label members of his group as Nazis with relative impunity. No-one bothered answering that point in the debate, and, to my knowledge, no-one has bothered since. If that is the case, there is an imbalance that Farage is right to complain about. But otherwise, the right thing seems to have been done.

One last thought – Bloom was twice offered the opportunity to apologise. If he had done this, he could have retained both his seat and whatever point he had happened to be making at the time. Instead, he lost both. While it takes guts for a politician to apologise, over such an unimportant thing, it surely here must have been the right thing to do. I don’t think there is any credit to be had anywhere on this issue. Better not to call people Nazis.

  1. […] However, the popularity that these European results suggest is not mirrored elsewhere: it has far fewer local government representatives than the Greens. It has previously enjoyed the backing of one Tory defector in the commons and a few more in the Lords, but it has never won a Westminster seat through the ballot box. At the general election, the eloquent Farage failed to beat the Speaker and an independent, coming third. The party has struggled to shake off allegations of racism and has fallen foul of normal rules of decency in the European Parliament. […]

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