As the Southgate Preacher is arrested, how is the so-called ‘British value’ of tolerance at play?

Over the weekend this disturbing footage emerged of a street preacher being arrested outside Southgate station in London.

Three troubling things stand out about the arrest. First, the police officer asks what the man is doing. When the man replies, ‘I am preaching’, the officer restates for clarification that he is preaching (and thus understood what was going on) and then states, ‘I am going to require you to go away.’ This is an apparent and overt decision to close down somebody preaching from the Bible.

Second, and more disturbingly, the officer insists the man must leave voluntary otherwise he will be arrested for breach of peace. When the man asks ‘what breach of peace?’ the officer replies, ‘what you’re doing at the moment, you’re causing problems, you’re disturbing people’s days and breaching their peace.’ The officer was interpreting ‘breach of peace’ as speaking publicly and thus disturbing people’s days. Whilst that is not what the law states, were it applied as the officer here tries to do it is hard to see how almost any public noise of any sort wouldn’t be at risk of arrest. Breach of the peace cannot simply be applied to anything anybody doesn’t want to hear – that would be an issue for noise made by building works, market stall holders and a whole host of people doing perfectly legitimate things. The law is evidently not intended to apply this way.

Third, when the man begins to state the message he has been sharing, the officer simply replies ‘nobody wants to listen to that. They want you to go away… I don’t want to listen to that.’ This is chilling. We can insist that those stating things we do not want to hear are breaching the peace. I find it extremely worrying that a police officer can arrest a man for saying things that some people don’t want to listen to. In a free society, those who do not want to listen are free to walk on by and ignore the message. It cannot be right that the police can cite breach of the peace any time somebody says something publicly that some people don’t like. It is interesting that those who do not like the messaging of the Gay Pride events the police are (entirely rightly) not nearly so keen to close down what some people don’t like. It is worrying, however, that such isn’t applied consistently.

Now, there does seem to be more going on. Clearly one of the officers in the video states, ‘you should have thought about that before being racist.’ Evidently there has been some suggestion of racism. We have no video evidence showing any such comments. However, as the Archbishop Cranmer blog noted yesterday:

It is reported that he was being ‘Islamophobic’, but what preceded the encounter with the Metropolitan Police is unknown. In a sense, it doesn’t really matter, because the officers who attended the scene simply asked him to leave: presumably, had an offence been committed, they would have arrested him and taken him in for questioning. They didn’t do that, so the crime for which he was arrested occurred during the one-and-a-half minutes filmed

Archbishop Cranmer blog

What we do have is two officers arresting somebody for saying things that some people don’t want to hear and interpreting such as a breach of the peace.

Here is the problem. What confidence can those who engage in public evangelism have that they won’t be arrested for sharing what the Bible says? How can those of other faiths have any confidence that they won’t be arrested for sharing their beliefs if ‘nobody wants to listen to that’? Interestingly, the Cranmer blog highlight an incident of a Muslim street preacher – who is somewhat more aggressive than the Southgate Christian speaker – but the police take a rather different approach.

It is interesting to notice not only the difference in the way these incidents were handled but it is hard to imagine a Qur’an being prised from the hands of a Muslim preacher the way the Bible was torn from the Christian. It does appear as though the Met Police have a specific problem with Christian preachers. Both – as the officer in the video with the Muslim preacher makes quite clear – ought to have the right to speak.

As I went into Oldham town centre to preach the gospel on Saturday, I was stopped by some folks asking questions about the EU. They were part of various pro-EU groups asking questions about Brexit in the middle of an vehemently pro-Brexit town. I didn’t mind them asking me questions and telling me what they thought. But others who disagree with them might be less accommodating. Should those folks fear arrest from the police because some people don’t want to listen to it? I am grateful that the police – and people of Oldham – seem much more tolerant than the Met on these things.

As I have said a number of times on this blog, we can only have confidence that we will be allowed to freely say the things we want to say if we also allow others to say the kind of things we really wish they wouldn’t say. Nobody is suggesting you have to agree with this street preacher. Nobody is suggesting you can’t equally freely tell him what you think of his views if you so wish. But what you shouldn’t be able to do is stop him from saying it altogether because you don’t like it.

It is not breach of the peace to say what some do not want to hear. It is totalitarian, however, to allow the police to stop them from saying it. For all our talk of tolerance as a British value, apparently we are yet to tolerate views we simply don’t like. If you allow views that you subscribe to already, that is not tolerance but agreement. Tolerance is only tolerance when you are being asked to tolerate what you evidently do not like or want to hear. So you tell me, in the era of so-called British values that we supposedly hold dear, how well tolerance was evinced in this particular incident?