Friday, November 12, 2004

You don't have to go to America to find illiberalism

Yesterday, the Vlaams Blok party in Belgium was declared racist by the Belgian judiciary and ordered to close down. This is, in itself, worrying enough - especially given that the VB was the largest political party in Flanders. Hundreds of thousands of voters have literally been disenfranchised in a court. But the linked article raises several points regarding freedom of speech and the political process which perhaps go further. I would like to emphasise at this point I am not arguing in favour of the Vlaams Blok policies. I do not know them well enough; many of their words could be construed as codewords for racism, but of itself, campaigning to maintain the integrity of the Flemish culture is not racist (and indeed, there are imperatives regarding the division of Belgium between Flanders and Wallonia that operate on the political scene). Yet for the judiciary to close the party down is scarcely believable.

The state funding of political parties is a terrible idea. To begin with, it takes money off taxpayers to prolong the lives of political parties which they themselves do not support. By giving political parties a lifeblood, they are immediately made less dependent on the electorate for their existence, and this can only be a bad thing for the engagement of parties with the people. In addition, it is a superfluous use of tax monies. But worst of all, it implies that the state has a right to control political parties. Democracies are supposed to function by allowing the people to choose the representatives that they desire. By making them entirely dependent upon state funding (and in Belgium they are; the maximum personal donation to any political party is 125 euros) the state is saying, in effect, that democracies exist because the state allows it to. Parties are the generous gift of the state, and can be recalled at any time when the state disagrees with them.

In this case, the ruling is a particularly stark illustration of this. From what I can understand, the Flemish half of Belgium (a classic example of a country created through ideology rather than any sense of nationality) has the more vibrant economy, but is somewhat in the shadow of Wallonia, and the European importance of Brussels, a French-speaking island in the Flemish-speaking sea. Understandably, if this admittedly simplified rendering of events is true, the Flemish are seeking to try and assert their culture and their independence. Instead, the voice of the majority of the Flemings has been cut off. Because the state has the ultimate control over the political process, both in granting parties the right to exist, the right to funding and the right to public exposure, it can cut down its opposition in such a manner.

Of course, discussion at the samizdata blog has rightly emphasised that the rights of the Belgians not to have a fascist government to be imposed on them must also be considered. However, this is the whole point behind national and European declarations of rights. Policies pursued by governments must be within accepted constraints that have been laid down for the people by the people. That is why the judiciary exists - to make sure these bounds are not being transgressed; not to deny people their democratic right to have their voice heard.

In any case, if the views of the Vlaams Blok are so dreadful and racist, then Belgium is not going to achieve anything by banning them outright. By trying to silence them, they increase their likelihood of support amongst a constituency that is anti-establishment - and it seems that in Belgium, there is a pretty large anti-establishment vote in Flanders. The question will be asked, why do they seek to silence us? Banning these parties outright is giving fertile ground for conspiracy theorists to develop and work their evil ways. Because the leader of the VB has already stated his desire to found a new party - and rightly so. A democratic society demands debate, even if it is uncomfortable. The way to combat opponents with whom we may disagree vehemently is to defeat them in such debate. If their arguments are incoherent and rambling, then demonstrate this to all and sundry and they will quickly disappear.

In theory, documents like the European Charter of Human Rights are great ideas. They provide the parameters of a democratic society that we should be very careful to transgress. Unfortunately, they are invariably expressed in such vague language that it is very difficult to distinguish their true meaning which, in turn, becomes decided on by lawyers. And so they don't become true expressions of the people at all. Inevitably this ruling will confirm the impression that European countries seek to surpress any dissent from the accepted norms of political engagement. Democratic societies must give people the right to say things other people don't want to hear. It is a profoundly worrying matter that the judiciary in Belgium think otherwise.