Friday, 31 May 2019

We are on our way to a very dark place

I don’t agree with you, so I’ll see you in court.

Alternatively, I don’t agree with you so I’m going to expel you.

If your name is either Boris Johnson or Alastair Campbell, you’ll recognise the sentiments, because this week both have been on the receiving end of what I suppose we could call (if we must) political justicisation.

What it means – and yes, I did just make it up, so I hope you’ll forgive me – is converting a disagreement over politics into a case to be resolved judicially. In Johnson’s case, by bringing a case against him over his claim during the EU referendum campaign that the UK sends £350 million a week to the European Union. And in Campbell’s case by expelling him from the Labour party because he admitted – after the event – to having voted for the Lib Dems in last week’s European parliament elections.

It is an unhealthy trend and it leads, eventually, to a very dark place. Countries in which you are sanctioned for your political views are the very opposite of democracies, and the UK should be steering well clear.

One of the many reasons why the Brexit debate is doing so much damage to British political life is that it is dangerously coarsening the language of disagreement. Take a formerly respected figure like Andrew Adonis, whose CV includes a spell as an academic at Oxford university, a journalist on the Financial Times, head of the policy unit at 10 Downing Street under Tony Blair, and then transport secretary under Gordon Brown.

Now, he has become so unhinged by Brexit that he has suggested, apparently in all seriousness, that the BBC should be ‘in the dock’ together with Boris Johnson because it dared to report his referendum campaign claims.

Did Boris Johnson lie about how much the UK pays to the EU each week? Yes, he did. Should that render him liable to prosecution? No. Should the BBC be prosecuted for having reported what he said? Of course not.

In the words of the historian Robert Saunders, of Queen Mary University, London: ‘The court in which Boris Johnson should be found guilty is the court of public opinion. The sentence should be that he is voted out of his seat.’

The essence of democracy is the free exchange of ideas. According to Article 10 of the Human Rights Act: ‘Everyone has the right to freedom of expression. This right shall include freedom to hold opinions and to receive and impart information and ideas without interference by public authority.’

(The main exceptions are for the protection of national security, territorial integrity or public safety, the prevention of disorder or crime, the protection of health or morals, and the protection of the reputation or rights of others.)

It is not against the law to lie. It is, however, against the law to incite violence or racial hatred. It shouldn’t be too difficult to tell the difference – so much as I dislike what Boris Johnson stands for, I very much hope that the absurd private prosecution that has been brought against him will soon run into the judicial sands, never to resurface.

The Alastair Campbell case is different, but the principle is the same: in a democracy, no one should be sanctioned because their politics are not the same as yours.

Yes, the Labour party rulebook says (Chapter 2, Clause 1.4B): ‘A member of the party who … supports any candidate who stands against an official Labour candidate … shall automatically be ineligible to be or remain a party member.’

Tell that to the thousands of Labour party members who campaigned – and voted – for Ken Livingstone when he was running to be mayor of London in 2000 against the official Labour party candidate, Frank Dobson. None of them was expelled.

Or tell the backbench Labour MP who in 2012 congratulated George Galloway, then of the Respect party, for having beaten the Labour candidate in the Bradford West by-election. (The MP’s name, by the way, was Jeremy Corbyn. He wasn’t expelled either.)

According to the polling organisation YouGov, more than forty per cent of Labour party members voted for another party last week, lending their support more or less equally to the Greens and the Lib Dems. About ten per cent of them said they didn't vote at all, which leaves something like 185,000 who, if you really want to enforce the letter of the rulebook, should now be thrown out. 

No wonder the shadow attorney general Shami Chakrabarti now says that the decision to expel Alastair Campbell should be reviewed. Speaking to the BBC, she said: ‘Merely voting for another party is not in itself a grounds for exclusion or expulsion or anything like that, and I want the large numbers of people who did that last week for heartfelt reasons to rest assured.’

The figures for the Conservative party, by the way, are even more eye-popping. More than two-thirds of Tory party members voted for a party other than their own, the vast majority choosing the Brexit party.

It is, of course, intensely frustrating when people whose politics differ from yours say things that you know to be untrue. But in a democracy, the law must never be used to criminalise a difference of opinion.

The test for democrats is to find an effective way to combat the lies – and the deeply worrying fact about the Brexit crisis is that we have learnt the hard way that lies can often be much more powerful than truth.

If we are going to be put through the agony of another Brexit referendum or an early general election – which I think becomes more likely with every passing day – then it’s a test we shall probably have to pass much sooner than we might like.


Anonymous said...

Surely in Boris Johnson's case this is not about a difference of political opinion. If you lie to get a job you can legally be fired. If you lie to get something you're not entitled to you can be taken to court. But if you lie to get elected, or lie for your chosen "side" to win a referendum that's OK? Personally, I believe this is one of the reasons that the British public is so utterly fed up with our politicians at the moment. We now have weeks of watching the would-be next PMs putting themselves, and their party, way before the country - something that they're not "allowed" to do according to the Parliamentary Code of Conduct. But will anyone - and I include journalists here - do anything about it? That would indeed be a first.

Anonymous said...

I completely agree with you about Campbell. We have freedom of speech, freedom of expression, and the legal right to vote for whomever we want - law of the land takes precedence over contract law (membership of Labour)

But I disagree with you about Boris. He has been in a position of great responsibility for many years, and knows what can & can't be said. Small lies are (sadly) routine for politicians nowadays, but the £350m lie was a whopper, deliberately publicised for maximum effect to influence voters

Consider this: if senior politicians can get away with substantial lies about facts influencing policy, can they also get away with lies about finance ? There are limits !


Anonymous-like said...

Is there a difference between a lie and an opinion? If a lie is used to support an opinion, does that mean they are the same thing? If a court judgement over such a lie amounts to a "shame, shame" might that not be a tool to encourage the use of truth in the court of public opinion?

Then again, earth may boil over before an informed public acts democratically in the name of truth.

JF said...

Robin : The test for democrats is to find an effective way to combat the lies.
Comment 1: But will anyone - and I include journalists here - do anything about it?
Comment 2: There are limits!
Comment 3: may boil over before an informed public acts democratically in the name of truth.

Politicians and journalists are surely struggling to combat lies; and won't this always be the case when the fruits of lying are so much greater than the fruits of countering those lies? Factor in the weird economies of internet traffic for clickbait and any assumption of a fair argument is simply going to leave honest debaters perplexed.

A legal counter might seem extreme, but what more 'effective way to combat the lies' have politicians and journalists come up with? Complaining that it isn't democratic looks like a political/journalistic equivalent of neoliberal arguments about the economy - that the market for ideas should be allowed to regulate itself. But isn't that because strong regulation backed by laws will ruin their fun, and quite possibly a large chunk of the inane and absurd blather that politicians and journalists do to 'earn' their keep?

Matt said...

When journalists and politicians refuse to combat lies, refuse to call out liars for fear of loosing guests, viewers, readers or clicks, ordinary voters must, by any means at their disposal, including the courts.

Tea Bag said...

"Did Boris Johnson lie about how much the UK pays to the EU each week? Yes, he did."

Anonymous said...

Tea Bag, don't forget that Boris used to be Editor of right-wing magazine "The Spectator", and undoubtedly still has friends there

Note that The Spectator was owned by Conrad Black, who famously was convicted in the US of felony fraud and obstruction of justice

The true figure depends on how it's calculated, but ONS suggests £267m/week (after the £5b/year rebate) of which we get back £4.4b/year in the public sector, and substantially more in the private sector

Note also that much of the EU subsidies are regional, for farming, fishing & local projects - particularly in the regions that voted for Brexit. THAT's what the Remainers are fighting for (amongst numerous other issues)

I can't find the evidence just now (maybe someone else can), But I understand we receive more from the EU than we send

So, who do you believe: Boris's chums or the ONS ?


Ian Gibson said...

It's interesting that this has become a talking point when such a prominent right-ish member gets their come-uppance: no-one seemed too bothered when this same procedure was being used on an industrial scale - and on far more tenuous grounds - to expel newly joined Corbyn supporters. Neither has the Tory's decision to suspend Heseltine on the same grounds seemingly attracted any comment whatsoever, as far as I can see. Right or wrong, the reason this is news is because Campbell stands in opposition to Corbyn, and anything that can be used to damage him will always be played for all it's worth.

And the comparison with the anti-Semitism cases is, frankly, fatuous. The two cases bare no comparison: Campbell's case was unequivocal, and the rule also clear. Adjudging anti-Semitism will nearly always involve context and a degree of judgement, and the process has to be sufficiently balanced and robust to reflect that. It's salutary to remember that Labour have been defeated in the courts on more than one occasion precisely for failing on this matter of process.