If you were asked to name a country where holding certain opinions could prevent you from earning a living, how many of you would name Britain? Yet recently we heard of a man removed from his job on the council because of his opposition to gay marriage. Apparently how we vote is no longer exempt from penalty either – at least if you want to foster children and happen to vote UKIP.
I don’t know about you but I demand the old-fashioned right to say anything I please and if it offends someone – well, that’s the definition of freedom of speech. The same with freedom of conscience: I expect be able to vote or not, in whichever way I like, without comeback. It’s no one else’s business: in fact, they’ve no right to know.
It used to be a truism, didn’t it? That’s how it used to be. But no more. Our sneaking towards fascism is all of a piece with that other current phenomenon disguised as public-spiritedness: accusing people of crimes – whether it’s of racism or paedophilia – without proof.
Where does this leave writers, especially those of crime? Crime novels reflect society and its changes more widely than other genres, which in the present political mood makes them more vulnerable to censorship, not least from writers themselves.
In the area of race, for example, do you as a writer feel free to show not just crime but racist crime being committed by blacks as well as whites? It’s something we hear very little about in the media, so much so that the majority of people probably feel racist for just thinking it happens. But aren’t writers supposed to be more honest and less timorous than that, more than mere propagandists?
In my own novel I touch upon arranged marriages. I’m against them. I think they lead to forced marriages and for that reason should be illegal. Much to my surprise my editor let what I’d written stand. But supposing this amongst other subjects which some would construe as unacceptable had been cut? Would I have defended them to the point of ultimatum? As a first novelist I know the answer is ‘no’. I’d have convinced myself they were unimportant as far as the plot was concerned, even though they completed the picture of the world I was writing about, its cause and effects.
I feel bad about it. I feel a cheat. Novels, even when they’re not great ones, have always been the place where the truth about society can be found while the press and polticians are lying through their teeth. But that’s only in a democracy, where writers weigh their words for no more than artistic effect. And I don’t feel I live in a democracy anymore.
Cant and humbug – according to Byron these are what would be the ruin of Britain. What we’re seeing now is the start. As writers, dare we stand up against them, fight against the prevailing culture of words not to be uttered and opinions not to be countenanced, and maybe in the process make jobsworths everywhere think twice before they bully and sack whomever they disapprove of? In future I’m going to have a go at doing so – as long as my editor agrees, of course.