Friday Book: Can We Stand for Intolerance? THe Politics of Toleration: Tolerance and Intolerance in Modern Life Edited by Susan Mendus, Edinburgh University Press, Pounds 14.95

Article excerpt

WELL BEFORE the century of Pol Pot and Heinrich Himmler, toleration was getting a bad press. In The Rights Of Man, Tom Paine wrote: "Toleration is not the opposite of intolerance, but is the counterfeit of it. Both are despotisms. The one assumes to itself the right of withholding liberty of conscience, and the other of granting it. The one is the pope armed with fire and faggot, and the other is the pope granting or selling indulgences."

Paine's subversive point, distantly echoed by Bernard Williams's contribution to this volume, is that tolerators need to use power, just as Torquemada and the Ayatollah Khomeini do, and may be under- embarrassed by this fact. However, ironically, Paine's argument strengthens the hand of those like Jack Straw, the Home Secretary, who are all too under-embarrassed about using power - and using it in the service of intolerance. In the political arms race over "law and order", talk of "zero tolerance" offers the powerful a new and ugly rhetorical weapon.

Toleration, then, remains politically hot. The studies collected here comprise the annual Morrell Addresses from 1988 to 1998 at the University of York. The invitees are largely representatives of the liberal great and good - academics (Williams, Alasdair MacIntyre), politicos (Garret Fitzgerald), clerics (George Carey, Julia Neuberger) and good eggs (Michael Ignatieff). In her editor's introduction Susan Mendus, the contemporary doyenne of toleration studies, forges their contributions into a cohesive whole.

Faced with these worthies, it is tempting to wonder whether we should be hearing about toleration from them, rather than from Ian Paisley, Louis Farrakhan or His Holiness himself. No doubt these buffoni would have little of interest to say about toleration, but it is instructive to note why. They know they are right. As Carey and Williams both observe, toleration is not indifference, and therein lies the problem. What forces toleration on to the political agenda in the first place is the faith - and the hate - that can move mountains.

Zealotry is less distant from "mainstream" democratic politics than it may appear. Reason in democracy is not infrequently the slave of the passions, and passion often decides what matters politically, as Christopher Hill emphasises in relation to 17th-century conflicts over religious freedom. Politicians with an eye to the main chance, like Straw and Ann Widdecombe, can play the vox populi. Its strain is not that persons or activities should escape penalty despite popular disapproval, but that popular disapproval is sufficient for banning them. …