Victoria Coren nails us all bang to rights: “Freedom is the most important thing of all”

by Stephen Tall on August 4, 2013

Occasionally a column comes along and chimes with a lot of what you’ve been thinking. All at once. I’ve had that experience today with Victoria Coren’s Observer column.

Vicky Pryce and the high cost of being unlikable
Vicky Pryce has been stripped of her honour and humiliated anew. Is that really what you wanted?

Ostensibly it’s about the decision to strip Vicky Pryce of her honour from the Queen. But actually it’s much more of a reflection on the mean-spirited streak within us all.

Not just the Labour MP Andrew Gwynne, who took it on himself to channel that ever-present mean-spirited streak. Not just the cowardly internet bullies who target women with rape and bomb threats from a safe distance to parade their machismo. Rather it’s about the continuum from the judgey unkindness of revelling in another’s humiliation to the casual obscenity of cyber-bullies who try to silence their targets.

But it’s also about how we should respond: by making plain our disagreement and disapproval without knee-jerk calls for bans on the stuff we don’t like. And there’s a well-deserved poke at the Lib Dems for our inconstant belief in liberty:

As the Lib Dems warm to their new-found power, enjoying law-making and authority – particularly in their readiness to seek greater press restrictions rather than enforce current law more effectively – I worry if anyone is a true liberal any more.

I wonder if anyone still thinks it’s possible to disapprove without trying to silence, censor or punish. I wonder if there’s anyone left who thinks freedom (including the freedom to offend and disgust) is the most important thing of all.

I don’t like internet trolls. I don’t like certain sorts of intrusive reporter and nasty columnist. From afar, I don’t warm to Vicky Pryce. But I’m sure there’s plenty about me that they wouldn’t like either. We still need to rub along together.

Compassion is still more important than disapproval, surely? Pryce has suffered enough. I hope Andrew Gwynne is wrong in his doubtless faith that “the vast majority of the public” desired to see her punished further and that our biggest problem is career MPs who are out of sync with the rest of us.

But if he’s right, I am afraid that’s worse.