Michael Gove: Silence may be golden, but so was Pinter's right to speak out

TWO hundred and fifty years old it may be, but as definitions of liberalism go, Voltaire's is unimprovable. Hating what someone else says, but defending to the death their right to say it, is a moral duty for any of us who take freedom seriously.

But it's not a duty many find easy to fulfil. When free speech most needs defending a surprising number declare themselves non-combatants. When Salman Rushdie faced a fatwa, various establishment figures, including Roy Hattersley, said his paperback should not be published.

When a Danish newspaper ignited a firestorm of protest across the Middle East for publishing cartoons which some considered sacrilegious it found precious few defenders, with British ministers apologising for the offence another country's press had caused. In both those circumstances the activists seeking to close down free speech actually threatened their opponents with death. Yet, far from acting as a stimulus to heighten liberal instincts, the threats operated more like a moral X-ray – revealing Britain's lack of collective backbone.

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This Christmas has brought two melancholy reminders, from TV and from the theatre, of how difficult it can sometimes be, yet how vital it remains, to defend free speech at all costs.

The first was Channel Four's decision to ask the President of Iran, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to deliver its "alternative" Christmas message. Now is not the time to reflect on why Channel Four gave a free platform to a man who has pledged to wipe Israel off the map, who held a conference on how to achieve a "World without Zionism" and who is an active Holocaust denier. All it's necessary to say is that while Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's views are disgusting, as repellent as any Nazi's, one of the many differences between Britain and the Iran of the mullahs is that we do not jail, torture and kill people who broadcast views with which we disagree.

Though you might not have thought that sometimes listening to Harold Pinter.

For much of the last 20 years of his life Harold Pinter devoted his undoubted genius to attempting to prove a demonstrable nonsense. In his political drama, his verse and his polemical journalism, Pinter advanced the view that the West in general, and America in particular, was an odious tyranny whose only answer to dissent was to blow it to smithereens. He deliberately chose to make the most provocative comparisons possible between America and the vilest regimes in history, implying that, if anything, that America was worse, arguing that "Nazi Germany wanted total domination of Europe and they nearly did it. The US wants total domination of the world and they are about to consolidate that."

For a dramatist of very rare gifts, Pinter was sometimes incapable of appreciating irony. In Nazi Germany he would have been a tragic statistic in the Holocaust's bleak arithmetic of evil. In the world which he feared America was dominating he was himself a global presence, feted internationally, his plays continuously in production in countless nations, his political interventions respectfully recorded and keenly debated. The ability of Pinter to make his arguments against Bush and Blair, the US and Britain, in terms of rare and pungent violence, while he was acclaimed the English language's greatest living playwright in both nations was the most powerful rebuttal of his own politics possible. Pinter's politics were ridiculous. Indeed, sometimes, as when he joined the committee to defend Slobodan Milosevic, they were perilously close to dangerous folly. Talk about the comedy of menace.

But Pinter without his politics would have been an oyster without grit. It was his own, very personal, ache at the absence of fairness in our lives, his sense of the world as a bleak, competitive, socially Darwinian environment in which justice was absent, his capacity to wrest the darkest humour out of power-plays and pretensions, which produced his hours and hours of utterly brilliant writing. His anger, with its undoubted political roots, generated writing about the human condition which transcended politics and captured eternal truths. And even when his writing was explicitly political it had a force, a vigour, a freshness and utter absence of cliche which made one admire even as one shook one's head in bewildered disagreement. One hated what he was saying but one would defend to the death not just his right to say what he was saying but anyone's writing which was even half as good. That is why his death this week is such a tragedy.

If Pinter's career teaches us anything it is the principle we should already have learnt from Wagner or Brecht. Never let a judgment about an artist's politics get in the way of acknowledging their genius. If only that were a lesson our cultural establishment were capable of learning.

The ultimate paradox of Pinter's political agitation is that his views – anti-American, anti-capitalist and so on – far from being bravely dissident are now the new artistic orthodoxy. From the National Theatre's house bard David Hare to Turner Prize winner Brian Wallinger, the cultural champions of our time tick most of the boxes on the think-a-like-a-Pinter form.

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It is other voices, and this is even more true in the Scottish cultural landscape, which now struggle to be heard. Conformity with the assumptions of a broad left consensus appears to be a precondition for securing an artistic hearing. Cultural conservatism has been driven to the margins. If you doubt me, then let me ask just one question: When was the last time a new right-wing play was commissioned to appear on a Scottish stage? If it's a question to which your only answer is silence, then remember, as Pinter knew, silence can be the most eloquent sound of all.

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