Editor’s Notes: Politicians should think before restricting free speech

Protest can take many forms. For me, in December 2012, it took the form of the front half of a pantomime horse, marching up and down outside the Home Office while Peter Tatchell attempted to arrest me.

It may not sound like it, but this was part of a highly professional, well-funded and high-profile campaign to reform the Public Order Act. The horse/police stunt was to highlight the absurdity of a law that criminalised “insulting words or behaviour” and was in reference to a university student who was arrested for telling a mounted police officer that his horse was gay.

The student joined a long list of people who had been arrested and charged with a public order offence for having said something “insulting.” Street preachers, atheist campaigners and assorted protesters had all fallen foul of Section 5’s ‘insult clause’ and so together with a colourful band of individuals I spearheaded the campaign to reform Section 5.

With a little help from David Davis, Nick Clegg, Rowan Atkinson and Stephen Fry, we were successful. After 18 months of campaigning, the Home Secretary, one Theresa May, finally declared that “insulting” would be stripped from the Act, and that henceforth only “threatening and abusive words or behaviour” would be criminalised.

Read more: Why we should speak out against moves to curtail the UK’s freedom of speech

It seemed like a sensible move, and a victory for free speech and common sense.

Fast-forward five years and the home secretary who liberalised the law is now a Prime Minister determined to extend its reach. Yes, May has pledged to criminalise “intimidation” of political candidates, in response to the rise of what she calls the “tone of bitterness and aggression that has entered public life”.

Just imagine the minefield this will lead to when police are required to respond to a campaigner’s claim of intimidation because someone shouted at them in the street. Legislation of this kind is fraught with difficulty and more often than not it ends up a complete mess.

Low-key strategy

Brexit-watchers could be forgiven for thinking that we’re being outmanoeuvred by the EU. Almost every day, EU officials brief the press about their latest position, threat, red line or objective and yet there is very little of this from the UK government. One explanation, by no means implausible, is that the UK doesn’t know what it wants, has no strategy and so is devoid of tactics. A more charitable interpretation (and one offered to me by a minister this week) is that the UK is simply refusing to meet the EU’s fire with fire. The minister insisted that the UK plan involved quiet diplomacy, building alliances across the member states in the expectation that national interests and sympathies will come to the fore once negotiations come down to the wire. If this is indeed the case, it’s a risky strategy – not least because the British public, parliament and press are being left in the dark, while EU negotiators flex their muscles and appear to steal a march.

Read more: City told to "face the facts" over post-Brexit financial services trade

A Good Time to be a Girl

To Bloomberg’s swanky new offices, for the launch of Helena Morrissey’s new book, A Good Time to be a Girl. (Look out for a review in Monday’s City A.M.) The City grandee and equality campaigner was pleased to launch her book in the week the country celebrated the centenary of women’s suffrage. The week’s events put me in mind of a project I launched while working for the Institute of Directors (IoD). Looking into the IoD’s history I was intrigued to learn that in 1926 members unanimously elected Margaret Mackworth as president. Mackworth became Viscountess Rhondda on the death of her father in 1918 and inherited most of his company directorships – well over 30 of them. She was a remarkable woman and a proud suffragette – arrested and detained for blowing up a postbox in 1910. She survived the sinking of the Lusitania in 1915 and devoted her life to the cause of female suffrage and equality. The IoD now holds an annual Rhondda Lecture in her memory.

Read more: 'Not the City I recognise': Morrissey launches Presidents Club rival event

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