Ann Widdecombe at the NLC
Posted by jonathanfryer on Friday, 25th January, 2008
The Gladstone Club took the adventurous decision to have the Rt Hon Ann Widdecombe, MP — aka Doris Karloff (pace the Daily Mirror)– as guest speaker at its annual dinner at the National Liberal Club last night. The place was pretty packed, as we had all come along hoping to be challenged, and duly were. Her chosen theme was Freedom of Speech, though that did not stop her ranging over a whole spectrum of issues and anecdotes, some funny, most feisty, and some downright disturbing (well, for a true Liberal, anyway).
I was struck by what seemed to me to be a basic inconsistency in her argument. She defended the right of the Oxford Union to host a debate at which Nick Griffin and David Irving spoke, even if what they said might be offensive to Jews, Muslims, immigrants or whoever — a position I can intellectually sympathise with. But she then said it was perfectly all right for printers to refuse to print flyers announcing a Gay Rights march. To me that sounded like giving bigots a free rein to attack groups they disapprove of, but not to allow people to promote their rghts. This inconsistency she justified, when questioned, on the grounds of individual conscience.
Now, I can understand why someone might have a conscientious objection to carrying out an abortion, or doing active service in the army. But I do not see that the right to be prejudiced against particular sections of our diverse society should somehow be sacrosanct. Fifty years ago, one could sometimes see in the windows of lodgings ‘No Blacks or Irish’. That today is, quite rightly, illegal. Recent legislation relating to the equal provision of services irrespective of sexual orientation has remedied a glaring lacuna in the law. It was good to have the opportunity to hear Ms Widdicombe outline her views. But even better to have the opportunity to tell her why I think she is wrong.