Speakers Cornered: The Anti-Free Speech Mob Comes To Britain


One of the most beautiful towns in England, Lewes is relatively unspoiled by the twentieth-century British architectural incompetence that has proved so destructive of urban grace, spreading the most hideous ugliness almost everywhere as a kind of metonym for social equality. From Lewes's streets can be seen the lovely, rolling downs of Sussex, and it is curious how the sight of green hills from the center of a town or city (still possible in Dublin, for example) soothes the mind. Among Lewes's most famous residents were Thomas Paine, author of The Rights of Man, and Charles Dawson, the man most likely to have forged Piltdown Man, the hoax human fossil whose inauthenticity was not exposed until 40 years after its "discovery" in 1912. To my great delight, Lewes's High Street has three excellent secondhand or antiquarian bookshops.

I had been invited down to a literary event, the Lewes Speakers Festival, to talk about my recently published memoir of life as a prison doctor, The Knife Went In. I was to be the penultimate speaker, followed by a controversial conservative journalist, Katie Hopkins, who was to talk about her own recently published memoir, Rude.

The event ended in violence.

The festival organizer, Marc Rattray, had informed me in advance that there might be trouble from demonstrators who would want to prevent Hopkins from speaking. No doubt it is a measure of how detached I am from the ordinary life of my country that I had until then scarcely heard of her, for she is either loved or abominated by millions of my fellow countrymen. (I would have guessed, if put to it, that she was an actress or a pop singer.) Some love her because she says things that many think but dare not say, while others abominate her, accusing her of bigotry and spreading hatred-hatred directed at the wrong people, that is.

To say that she is unafraid of controversy or criticism is to understate the case. They are her stock-in-trade. Whatever her other qualities, she is certainly valiant. Now 42, she suffered most of her adult life from severe nocturnal epilepsy, enduring many dislocations of her shoulder as a result, until she underwent a successful operation to remove the epileptic focus in her brain. Many people with such a condition would have retired from life, as it were, especially when the state makes it possible for them to do so, but Hopkins carved out an eminent, or at least a prominent, career in journalism for herself instead.

If she had espoused views other than the ones that she actually holds, she might have expected sympathy and even admiration for her personal courage; but being, on the contrary, an outspoken, not to say militant, mocker of current political pieties, she is herself the object of the most severe objurgation, with no allowances made. In debate, she is uncompromising and fearless. For example, she has expressed the view that people are fat because they eat too much and exercise too little. When faced by an audience in a television studio of grotesquely fat people (or people who would once have been regarded as grotesquely fat, before their obesity became so commonplace), she does not retreat from her view or qualify it in the slightest, as more emollient or pusillanimous persons such as I might do, and instead calls them greedy, lazy, and stupid. This is in marked contrast to the line taken by such publications as The New England Journal of Medicine or The Lancet, which treat obesity as if it were of the same moral order as, say, multiple sclerosis: something that just happens to you. To prove her point, Hopkins deliberately ate too much for three months, put on 60 pounds, and then lost the weight in another three months by diet and exercise. If Hopkins did not exist, it would be necessary to invent her.