WE have a Hindu Prime Minister with an Indian wife. We have a Muslim mayor of London, and a Muslim leader of Scottish Labour. The Home Secretary is Buddhist and is married to a Jewish man. Only one of the great offices of state is occupied by a white man, and his wife happens to be Chinese.

You might be thinking: “So what? None of this is remarkable. No one has so much as batted an eyelid at it. The religious and ethnic diversity of modern Britain is part of who we are. That such diversity should now have reached the very top of government and politics in Britain is welcome, but hardly startling. It was only a matter of time.”

Such, certainly, is one view of modern Britain. But consider now the following.

Last week the SEC was required by the sheriff court to pay nearly £100,000 to the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association for illegally terminating a contract. The SEC, which is controlled by Glasgow City Council, was found by the court to have discriminated against the Billy Graham Association in cancelling an event at the Hydro at which his son, Franklin Graham, had been due to speak. The reason for the cancellation was that objectors disliked and disapproved of Billy and Franklin Graham’s message of evangelistic Christianity. The decision to terminate was religious discrimination, the court found, and was contrary to the Equality Act.

Or consider that this week the Society of Authors, a trade union for writers which is, as you would imagine, ostensibly committed to upholding freedom of speech, will hold a crunch meeting at which long-simmering rows between its chair and two of the UK’s highest-profile authors (JK Rowling and Philip Pullman) will come to the fore, not least because the Society’s chair has apparently nominated someone to join its management committee who holds the view that “debate is an imperialist capitalist white supremacist cis heteropatriarchal technique that transforms potential exchange of knowledge into a tool of exclusion and oppression”.

That’s right, the Society of Authors would appear for the time being to be run by someone sympathetic to the idea that views should not debated if we dislike and disapprove of them, for debate is somehow imperialist, capitalist, supremacist, and heteropatriarchal and serves not as a means of enlightening and educating, but is only ever always a slave to the dark forces of exclusion and oppression. And these are the people who are supposed to protect writers’ freedoms.

Finally, consider this week’s story about free speech – or the lack of it – on campus. Students at the University of Cambridge, it seems, cannot cope with the arrival in college of distinguished visiting speakers who hold views which the students dislike and disapprove of. As a result, they are to be offered tuition in the basics of free speech – that is, in the principle that we should hear views with which we disagree so that we can better forge arguments of our own capable of winning over hearts and minds.

How can you show that an argument is wrong-headed, capricious or otherwise mistaken unless you first listen to it and learn how to construct a counter-argument capable of beating it? I know this is to engage in those imperialist, capitalist, supremacist and heteropatriarchal arts of debate, but you would have thought that University of Cambridge students would be better educated than to find themselves in need of lessons in something as elementary as hearing the other side.

These episodes, concerning the SEC, the Society of Authors and the University of Cambridge, shine a rather different light on the intolerance of modern Britain from the cosy complacency or the self-congratulatory back-slapping we may feel as a result of the welcome and overdue ethnic diversity of the new PM, his senior ministers, and others at the top of British politics. Given episodes such as these, it is indeed remarkable that a Hindu man with an Indian wife, two Muslim men, a Buddhist woman with a Jewish husband, and a white man with a Chinese wife have achieved the positions of leadership they hold. We should remark upon it, because it was never only a matter of time.

In a country genuinely committed to diversity and inclusion, such a thing would perhaps be routine. But we are not such a country, and the notable success of Rishi Sunak, Sadiq Khan, Anas Sarwar, and Suella Braverman must not be allowed to obscure the fact that in freedom’s endless battle to overcome intolerance, matters are getting worse in Britain right now, not better. There is a rising tide of intolerance in Britain today, as our commitment to diversity of opinion and freedom of expression recedes and wanes.

There are those who dislike free speech with a passion. They find it oppressive and exclusionary to hear views with which they disagree. They want to live in a self-righteous, highly policed echo chamber, where everyone thinks the same, and where challenging views, new views, alternative views are silenced.

But there is another way of being. A plural, multi-cultural and multi-ethnic society can never be an echo chamber. There are many of us, and we disagree. Those disagreements need to be voiced – and heard – with respect. Disagreement and diversity of opinion are to be cherished, not crushed. That is the broad-minded, open, and tolerant society I crave, not least because listening to those with whom you disagree is always more interesting than simply having your own prejudices reconfirmed for you over and again.

Those of us who want a free society, in which we can argue and debate and disagree and contest each other’s opinions and test each other’s arguments, can no longer take it for granted that ours is such a society. Those of us who want a free society are going to have to fight for it.

Adam Tomkins was a Conservative MSP for the Glasgow region from 2016 to 2021.

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