For 13 years I listened to a Labour government tell Britain that university was the answer to the world and its ills. In 2010 I graduated and for 2 years after I could not get a job. I felt the "endless misery" of unemployment that Orwell spoke of in The Road to Wigan Pier. I had an itch to strike back. To prick the bubble of organised privilege, folly, mismanagement and sanctimony.
Writing and cartoons were my tool of choice. Each was an "incredible instrument, part wand, part weapon."
I knew instinctively, as Ezra Klein (@EzraKlein) said, that "The media is as effective and important an agent for change as the legislative bodies."
I knew also that I took on a few responsibilities. To be accurate. To work in the public interest. To be offensive. Yes, offensive. As John Lloyd said: "The whole point of living here is you're allowed to say these things and you are not shot or incarcerated and we can take it on the chin. That's what a free society means."
I knew this was something precious. As David Allen Green (@JackofKent) said: "Being able to openly ridicule and mock those in power - or seeking power - is perhaps a more important right than many realise."
As a cartoonist and writer, it's my duty to offend. As Pulitzer Prize winning female cartoonist Signe Wilkinsonsaid, she's "a paid official offender". As Janice Turner said in her Times piece:"Journalists are always causing offence: it's in our job description." As Guardian cartoonist Martin Turner said, for 300 years cartoonist have been launching "extremely vicious, rude, personal attacks on people." For goodness sake, they're called "ink-stained assassins" for a reason, as The News Statesman put it here.
I also realised that I inherited a debt. A debt to John Milton, who made the original case for free speech in Areopagitica. It was Milton, during the Glorious Revolution, who wrestled the freedom of speech from the teeth of Presbyterian theocrats. I owe a debt to all those who furthered Milton; from Thomas Paine to John Stuart Mill and Rosa Luxemburg and many, many others. I also realised that I inherited a debt from the many great satirists and cartoonists from the inestimable Jonathan Swift and the inimitable Gillray and Hogarth who lit a torch that has been passed down generations, from John Tenniel and to Bernard Partridge, Carruthers Gould, Will Dyson, Poy, David Low, Sidney Strube, Leslie Illingworth, Victor 'Vicky' Weisz, Michael Cummings, and Trog, and right up to today's Steve Bell and Morten Morland.
This is a debt I can only repay by taking hold of the torch and by both defending and furthering these great traditions of free speech, satire and political cartoons.
Speaking of defending these great British traditions, Janice Turner's piece in The Times, 'Show us Jesus & Mo. It's the price of freedom', needs special attention. In particular this remark:
"It was hard to watch Wednesday's Newsnight (January 29 2014) without concluding that Britain has become a very strange place."
Of course, this refers to the man behind the Jesus and Mo cartoon strip. A man who, on BBC Newsnight, had to have his face pixellated for fear of murderous reprisal.
This is outrageous. A scandal. This is Britain. Mother of the free world. The birth place of the English legal system which is venerated and remodelled in 54 nations across the world. The country that gifted the United States of America Habeas corpus. A "leading nation" and "best in class" when it comes to human rights as Adam Wagner (@AdamWagner1) said here. The British created and enjoy the most vigorous freedoms man has known. For all intents and purpose Britain is a "secular democracy" with "secular courts".
However, these classical Enlightenment principles of liberty have escaped a whole section of society. But that doesn't mean that those who understand and cherish these principles should then surrender them because of a vocal, indignant minority. The madness that would see this done must be repudiated. Our freedoms have been hard won and we're not about to give up on them without a fight. On this point we will take a stand and fight. We will not put up with the multicultural masochism Christopher Hitchens spoke of.
The urge and impulse to censor and silence unwelcome opinions will always exist. But it must always be resisted. At the moment it's coming from two sources in particular. One, religious theocrats. Two, the liberal left.
On the religious. Portuguese cartoonist Andre Carillho said: "Normally the people that are more upset [by my illustrations] are religious fundamentalists, independently of the religion." It happens all the time. Only last month a member of the 'Council for Arab-UK Understanding' took offence at The Spectator Magazine's (@spectator) cover cartoon. Rod Liddle slapped that down here.
Christopher Hitchens made the consummate defence of the mockery of the religious, and muslims in particular, here. There he said that muslims and their holy book, the koran, make grand claims: that the koran is the last and final revelation from god to man, that it is the last and final word and thanks to it you need nothing else; but if you have any problems with these grand claims, you can't say anything about it. As Hitchens then said:
"That is totalitarianism defined."
In her defence of free speech, the cartoonist Signe Wilkinson said:
"When new comers arrive on our shores with their deeply held religious beliefs they should be prepared to get in line and have their beliefs scrutinised; as they did in the mid-1800s when New York city, like Denmark today, was awash with poor foreign immigrants who came with their robed clerics and special demands for separate schools. These were of course Catholics, not Muslims, but some cartoonists reacted just the way the Danes did."
The father of American cartooning Thomas Nast drew the cartoon above in in 1871, Catholic bishops as crocodiles with their hats lined with teeth. Surely the precursor of a turban as a bomb
Guardian cartoonist Martin Rowson (@MartinRowson) also wrote a good piece on Index on Censorship (@IndexCensorship) here on why we should all laugh at God. Nobody and no group shall enjoy any special privilege, special protection or exemption from the rough and tumble of life.
On the liberal left. It's self-censorship by political correctness (my blog series on that here). Kenan Malik (@KenanMalik) wrote an article on his blog, 'On the importance of the right to offend' and said of the soft metropolitan left:
"What gives the reactionaries the room to operate and to flex their muscles is, however, the pusillanimity of many so-called liberals, their unwillingness to stand up for basic liberal principles, their fear of causing offence, their reluctance to call so-called community leaders to account."
This taking of personal and third party offence on the behalf of other has become a "horrible behavioural tick". As Douglas Murray (@DouglasjMurray) said, "Since expressing any worries... is undoubtedly terribly bigoted and nasty, we'll all just have to nod our heads, keep our fingers crossed, mouth the same platitudes and all put our collective future in the hopes of Sheikh Mogra." Amy Chua feels it too:
To conclude. Christopher Hitchens said he left Britain for America in large part due to the increasingly censorious climate. He also explained here that, as a journalist, America's First Amendment speech protection is his life. Unfortunately in Britain we don't enjoy the same freedom and protection to express opinions as people in American do. That's why Nick Cohen was right to call for a First Amendment in Britain.
We should never underestimate the power of cartoons, parody and satire to effect material change. They are as powerful as any legislative body. In The Guardian, cartoonist Steve Bell was able to massively discredit John Major by drawing him with his underpants over his trousers. Now he draws Prime Minister David Cameron with a condom over his head. In The Times Brookes has seriously discredited Ed Miliband by drawing him as Wallace from Wallace and Gromit. Now he's drawing Alex Salmond as Mickey Mouse as though an independent Scotland would be some sort of Disney Land.
The US cartoonist Herb Block established the term "McCarthyism" and pulled down the whole rotten edifice of McCarthy's enterprise (see here). This shows clearly how cartoons are a unique check on the powerful and on those who seek power. That's why we can never allow people to silent, censor or shut down cartoonists. People will always, as Boss Tweed did, call for people to "stop those damn cartoons." Cameron and Miliband must be saying it every day. But they know and understand how Britain and its traditions work. As George Bernard Shaw said:
"All censorships exist to prevent anyone from challenging current conceptions and existing institutions. All progress is initiated by challenging current conceptions, and executed by supplanting existing institutions. Consequently, the first condition of progress is the removal of censorship."
Words and cartoons are incredible instruments, part wand, part weapon, and they should be free to do what they do best. Entertain and offend; for that's the only way we change and adapt. That's why, as David Allen Green (@JackofKent) said, we need to install a ban on banning things.