AS 2022 draws to a close, let us recall some of its events.

A mob at the University of Edinburgh prevented the showing of a film, Adult Human Female. Women in the Scottish Parliament were thrown out of Holyrood for wearing the colours of the Suffragettes. Jerry Sadowitz’s show at the Edinburgh Fringe was cancelled. A bill was proposed by the UK Government which would have required social media platforms to remove from the internet lawful content deemed by anonymous regulators, against unwritten and unknown criteria, to be somehow harmful.

Cineworld cancelled its showings of a film, The Lady of Heaven, because a group of Muslims disliked it. Sir Salman Rushdie was stabbed, losing the sight of an eye and the use of a hand, for writing a novel. Maya Forstater won her case in an employment tribunal against employers who had discriminated against her because complaints had been made about views she had expressed on the topic of gender and sex. She was compensated – but she did not win her job back.

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The Society of Authors took to thinking that writers who engage in debate are seeking not to educate and enlighten but to oppress and exclude. The University of Cambridge took to offering its students safe spaces from visiting speakers – that is, one of the greatest and oldest universities in the world was reduced in 2022 to insulating its students from debate rather than teaching them how to make arguments capable of winning debate.

In a review of the year it is clear who the loser has been. This has been a terrible year for freedom of speech. The courts, as in Forstater’s case and all too many others like it, are doing their best to remedy the growing injustices of the war against free speech.

Some politicians are noticing, and offer support to those hounded for exercising their liberty of speech (none more so in Scotland than Joanna Cherry KC MP, with whom I have many disagreements, but who is proving herself a formidable advocate of free speech). Some writers are also noticing, none more so in Scotland than the brilliant and courageous JK Rowling.

Across the Yes/No and Left/Right political spectrums, robust and informed defence of free speech can still unite the best of Scotland’s journalists and commentators, from Kevin McKenna in one corner to Alex Massie in another. But increasingly, these men and women of principle appear as distant islands threatened by a rising ocean.

As a country we are rapidly losing our grip on freedom of speech. We no longer value it. We think of it as a relic, a white male privilege, a dinosaur. What we crave, instead of the robustness of debate, is the cosiness of an all-inclusive conformity, where no-one is challenged and where making everyone comfortable is all that matters (no matter how bonkers, unfair, or downright stupid their groupthink may be).

In the main, the threat to free speech in modern Britain is coming not from the Government—although both the Scottish and the UK governments do from time to time promote laws that do more harm than good to free speech. For the most part, the threat to free speech is coming from within society and, in particular, from within that (ironically) vocal and noisy segment of society which is so assured of its self-righteousness that it can brook no debate, tolerate no dissent, and accept no rival view.

The Herald: MP Joanna Cherry is one such politician advocating for free speechMP Joanna Cherry is one such politician advocating for free speech (Image: Newsquest)

Today’s social censors are reminiscent both of the early-modern church (which hounded those it labelled “heretics” to the point of inquisition and torture) and of the pre-Enlightenment state (which labelled its critics “seditious” and threw them in jail). This is no longer the age of heresy or sedition. But it is the age when disagreement is escalated into giving offence, when giving offence is escalated into a hate crime, and when people are losing their jobs and their livelihoods simply for the “crime” of speaking their minds.

If free speech is the loser of 2022, the political left is equally clearly its winner. Yes, the UK still has a so-called Conservative government, but not one that pursues recognisably Conservative economic policies. Britain in 2022 has the highest tax burden since the Second World War, along with sky-high borrowing, to pay for unprecedented levels of public spending.

Whatever the problem we face, our answer is for the Government to throw more money at it. The left has so obviously won the argument on tax and spend that the right has given up trying to compete, and now merely implements, albeit sometimes through rather gritted teeth, what a Labour Chancellor would do.

In Scotland, it is even worse. Income tax goes up and up and barely a voter moves their support from government to opposition, so blithely have we become used to the absurd and manifestly unaffordable notion that our present levels of public spending are sustainable in economic reality just because we would like them to be in political dreamland.

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Which begs the question: where does the political right go from here? The answer is obvious – if the left, for the time being, has so occupied economic policy as to lock it down, the Right will look for its fights elsewhere. A culture war is coming to Britain, as it has long since raged in the United States. This month’s skirmishes over trans rights and gender self-ID are just the beginning.

In 2023 politics will neither disappear nor go away, but it will move decisively away from old battles over tax and spend to occupy, ever more belligerently, new arenas of identity and gender. Free speech is at greater risk than ever of becoming not merely a casualty, but a target at which partisans take aim. Those of us who believe in it are going to have to fight for it.

Adam Tomkins is the John Millar Professor of Public Law at the University of Glasgow School of Law. He was a Conservative MSP for the Glasgow region from 2016 to 2021.