Charles Bradlaugh (1833-1891) being arrested in Parliament

This year is the 130th anniversary of the death of Charles Bradlaugh, Britain’s first openly atheist MP. Known by his opponents as the “bellowing blasphemer”, Bradlaugh repeatedly dominated the headlines. He was tried for obscenity, having dared to publish a cheap pamphlet on contraception, and fought a long battle against the establishment for his place in Parliament. For a brief period in the 1880s, he was the leading radical in the country. His fame dwindled after his death, as socialism, which he opposed, became the dominant working-class movement. However, many of the problems with Britain’s laws, constitution and social attitudes that Bradlaugh brought to light have not gone away, or have reappeared in different guises.

In particular, the battle between free speech and censorship is as fierce now as ever. A recent demonstration of this was given by the controversy over the passage of the Hate Crime and Public Order (Scotland) Bill, known as the “Hate Crime Bill”; others can be adduced from Boris Johnson’s authoritarian style of government. It is at times like this that the story of Bradlaugh, and the individualist tradition of liberty that he represents, most needs to be remembered.

Bradlaugh was born and brought up in London’s East End. At 16, he was turned out of the house by his father on the advice of their vicar, having raised questions about inconsistencies in the Bible. He took lodgings with Eliza Sharples, the partner of Richard Carlile, an early freethinker who had spent years in prison for criticising the government over Peterloo and publishing Thomas Paine’s anti-clerical Age of Reason. Later, Bradlaugh trained as a solicitor’s clerk, his father’s profession, while lecturing about free thought and political reform in his spare time. In 1860 he became editor of the National Reformer, a radical newspaper, where he wrote under the appropriate pseudonym “Iconoclast”. By 1866, he had built up a large enough following to be elected the first president of the newly founded National Secular Society (NSS).

“Secularism” was coined in 1851 by George Jacob Holyoake, a radical reformer who had also spent time in prison for blasphemy. Holyoake derived his new term from a distinction made in the Catholic Church between matters spiritual or divine, and the secular, or “that which belongs to life and time”. He wanted to avoid the opprobrious labels of “atheism” and “free thought”. Secular societies were formed around the country as a way of giving new momentum to working-class demands for reform.

For Bradlaugh, who was more militant and more charismatic than Holyoake, atheism was inseparable from secularism. He argued that “theological teachings prevent human improvement”; it was “the duty of every Secularist to make active war” on them, and to “cut down the banyan tree of superstition”. Such declarations made him popular with the people, even as they aroused antipathy in the upper classes. As an aristocratic writer in Country Life remembered in 1920, Bradlaugh “was one of those coarse-fibred, strong-minded individuals who . . . had little or no influence over the Tennysons and Arnolds of his time, but gave voice to the rebellious feelings of the proletariat.” The two defining battles of his career would show how the laws of the land could be harnessed against anyone who dared to criticise the prevailing morality – as they still can today.

Sex education

The first of these battles only involved his atheism indirectly. In 1876, a Bristol bookseller was imprisoned for publishing a pamphlet on contraception and healthy sexual habits, The Fruits of Philosophy, by an American doctor called Charles Knowlton. Bradlaugh, along with Annie Besant, his close associate in the NSS, decided to use the opportunity as a test case for freedom of publication. They founded a new press, the Freethought Publishing Company, and reissued the pamphlet themselves. They were arrested and, in 1877, went on trial for publishing “a certain indecent, lewd, filthy, bawdy, and obscene book”.

The idea that seems to have most disturbed the opponents of Bradlaugh and Besant was that making such information available at the low price of sixpence would give unmarried women of all classes the means to have sex before marriage. There was also the religious argument that the use of contraception, even within marriage, was “contrary to the law of God”, as the prosecutor put it.

The subject of the Knowlton pamphlet was so shocking that it alienated many socially respectable secularists, including Holyoake and the NSS secretary, Charles Watts. Charles Darwin was asked to give evidence, but refused; he thought the use of contraception “would in time lead to unsound women [and] would destroy chastity, on which the family bond depends.” Given these attitudes, it is hardly surprising that the all-male jury unanimously held Knowlton’s pamphlet to be obscene – although they did exonerate the defendants from any evil intentions.

Through the trial, both Bradlaugh and Besant had wanted to challenge the whole idea of a law that set the prevailing morality in judgement over the dissemination of scientific “opinions”. They argued all sections of society had a right to those opinions, even if they contained “mistakes”, since “progress can only be made through discussion, and no discussion is possible where differing opinions are suppressed.” In a blow to freedom of speech, English law had allowed a jury to ban the publication of contraceptive advice on the grounds not that it was factually incorrect, but that it was offensive.

An atheist elected

The second crisis point for Bradlaugh was in his battle to take his seat in Parliament. At the time, MPs were required to swear an oath of allegiance to the monarch on the Bible. Quakers were allowed to affirm, but they were the exception. Bradlaugh asked to affirm on the grounds of his atheism. A select committee decided, by one vote, that he was ineligible. He then tried to take the oath, but before doing so, wrote an over-confident letter to The Times in which he declared that the oath included “to me . . . words of idle and meaningless character”. As Bradlaugh’s biographer, Bryan Niblett, has shown, this merely encouraged those who disliked his atheism to argue that the oath would not be “binding on his conscience”. Others feared that, as a republican, he would not be loyal to the Crown.

In June 1880, Bradlaugh was told by the Speaker of the Commons that he was allowed neither to affirm nor to take the oath. Bradlaugh, in his own words, “respectfully” refused to withdraw, on the grounds that it was “against the law” for Parliament to prevent a properly elected MP from taking his seat. After a dramatic vote, in which only seven MPs supported him, he was arrested by the Serjeant-at-Arms and spent the night in custody in the Clock Tower beneath Big Ben – the last MP ever to do so.

Between 1881 and 1884, Bradlaugh was elected three more times in Northampton. It was not until the fifth attempt that he was finally allowed to take the oath, in January 1886. By this time, the stress of the campaigns, combined with legal and financial worries, was affecting his health. He would only live for another five years before dying of kidney disease and heart failure at the age of 57.

His story is a blot on Parliament’s record: a clear case of the abuse of political power fuelled by prejudice. It demonstrates the importance of having a constitution in which everyone’s right to “speculative opinions” is respected, and in which, equally, there is no stigma attached to the free criticism of others’ ideas.

Freedom of speech

In their obscenity trial, Bradlaugh and Besant had drawn attention to the damaging effects of the taboo on sexual matters. It would take two world wars before, in 1959, a new Obscene Publications Act could be brought to replace the law under which the Fruits of Philosophy had been convicted. The new Act introduced a defence to the publication of obscene material, if this was “justified as being for the public good on the ground that it is in the interests of science, literature, art or learning, or of other objects of general concern.” When Penguin, the publisher of Lady Chatterley’s Lover, was prosecuted for sexual obscenity in 1960, it was acquitted.

By the end of Bradlaugh’s life, society was already becoming increasingly secularised. Socialism was able to replace secularism among reformers as it became clear that wealth inequality was a bigger obstacle to progress than the clerics, and as religious doubt became respectable. Today, according to Linda Woodhead, a professor at Lancaster University, “the majority of people in this country now, when they’re asked . . . say they have no religion.” Even if the anomaly of bishops in the Lords remains, non-religious politicians are common in Britain in a way that they were not a century ago, and are still not in other parts of the developed world, notably the US.

However, it has taken the law a long time to reflect this change in attitudes. Despite campaigns by the NSS, the Rationalist Press Association (which in 2002 became the Rationalist Association, the publisher of New Humanist) and others, blasphemy continued to be a crime across Britain through the whole of the 20th century. As late as 1977, the magazine Gay News was privately prosecuted by the conservative Christian activist Mary Whitehouse for publishing an explicit poem about a gay centurion’s desire for Jesus on the cross. The magazine and its editor Denis Lemon were convicted of blasphemous libel – a conviction upheld by the House of Lords.

According to the historian David Nash, the conviction in Whitehouse v Lemon had a chilling effect on gay counterculture, introducing “a period of retrenchment in which the morality of some publications and the circulation of pornography was severely restricted by police actions and raids”. Just over a decade later, a similar attempt was made to prosecute the publisher of Rushdie’s Satanic Verses. It failed because it was held that, in English law, only blasphemy against Christianity was still an offence. However, both cases provide warnings about how blasphemy law, a century after Bradlaugh, might be used as a weapon to suppress free speech, whether about Christianity, Islam, homosexuality or any other topics that might cause people offence.

At the height of Britain’s culture of openness about “speculative opinions” in the early 2000s, Alastair Campbell told Vanity Fair, “I’m sorry, we don’t do God.” In 2007, the gay rights campaigner Peter Tatchell proclaimed in New Humanist that blasphemy law was “defunct”. The following year, it was officially abolished in England and Wales. At the same time, however, there were some indications that a less tolerant attitude might be gaining ground. In 2005, the Labour government under Blair attempted to create a sweeping offence of inciting religious hatred. Like the offence for racial hatred that already existed, this would have covered “threatening, abusive or insulting words or behaviour” that were likely to incite hatred against a group of persons defined by religion, whether or not the speaker had any intention to incite it. Shami Chakrabati, as reported by the Guardian in June 2005, said that the offence would be “capable of catching attacks on ideas as well as people”, and at worst would be “a dangerous new blasphemy law out of step with our best traditions”.

Thanks to amendments in the Lords, and two government defeats in the Commons, the Racial and Religious Hatred Act 2006 was narrower in scope than originally planned, criminalising only words or behaviour that were actually threatening and intended to be so. Some might think that even this is too much of a restriction. Threatening, abusive and even insulting words that could cause any person to fear violence, or alarm, harassment and distress, or that are even expressed in the sight or hearing of someone who might have such a fear, are already criminalised under the Public Order Act 1986. Arguably, specifically criminalising the stirring up of hatred against a group defined by religion is superfluous, because it does not require any particular individual to suffer actual fear or distress, or even to be present when the words are spoken. However, this remains the law in England and Wales.

A threat to liberty

Fast-forward to 2021, and the Scottish Parliament has tried to succeed where Blair failed, through the Hate Crime and Public Order (Scotland) Act. Admittedly, the Act, which became law in April this year, finally abolishes blasphemy. However, it creates a number of new “offences of stirring up hatred against a group of persons”, who need not be present at the time of the offence, and who are defined by reference to a list of protected characteristics. These protected characteristics include not only religion but others, from transgender identity to age. The idea that any of these characteristics is so fundamental as to potentially criminalise speech about it, in a situation where that speech is not intended to harm a specific person, has been criticised by women’s rights groups, free speech advocates and others.

Supporters of freedom of expression might be relieved that speech about religion is subject to special protections under the amended Clause 9A, which states that “discussion or criticism relating to, or expressions of antipathy, dislike, ridicule or insult towards religion” is not enough by itself to constitute threatening or abusive behaviour. This does not provide much comfort, however, because in relation to the other protected characteristics, while “discussion or criticism” is protected, ridicule and the rest are not. No more “OK boomer”, then. And unlike in English law, there is no defence of speaking in a private dwelling, so a nosy neighbour, listening through the wall, could report you. Using legislation to protect people from serious harm is one thing; but this bill could criminalise emotional reactions to ideas, as well as satire and other forms of art – or at least, it could be interpreted that way.

Lest those of us who live south of the border become complacent, the Law Commission is currently considering whether to extend the hate crime provisions in England and Wales in similar ways. At the same time, this February, in a clear example of mission creep, police in Merseyside drove round with a van bearing the slogan “Being offensive is an offence”, as part of a campaign against hate crime. They were eventually forced to admit, grudgingly, that “being offensive is not in itself an offence”. This year, the government has introduced the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, which would place new restrictions on the freedom to protest – closely allied to freedom of speech – and give the police yet more discretionary powers.

All these are worrying indications of the current readiness of the authorities across Britain to control what people can say – even, supposedly, for their own good. This can be seen at the highest echelons of power. Consider the way Boris Johnson attempted to prevent scrutiny of his Brexit negotiations in 2019 by unlawfully proroguing Parliament. There is a fine line between controlling what people can say and controlling what they can think. And it is a short step from depriving others of the freedom to criticise to assuming that your own actions are infallible. Bradlaugh would be turning in his grave.

This article is from the New Humanist summer 2021 edition. Subscribe today.