Gillian Duffy, who threw Gordon Brown into confusion by saying something he didn't want to hear
Claire Fox, doughty free-speech warrior, was at it again yesterday morning when she helped launch the National Conversation and reminded the audience forcefully that for a proper exchange of views, it’s vital that we have the freedom to offend each other.
NatCon has evolved from hand-wringing conversations among independent-minded people about the disconnect between the public and politicians. I was in on some of these, as sometimes late at night and slightly drunk we wondered if any kind of public debate on contentious issues was actually possible. Were people too busy and absorbed in their own world to give a damn about politics? Or was it that they were too cowed by political correctness to state their opinions openly? We had all experienced the closing down of discussion with lines like “You can’t say that!”, “As a woman/gay/member of an ethnic minority, I am offended by that remark.” As one of us remarked, these days the pecking order of the hierarchy of victimhood is all about who has the thinnest skin.
Hypocritical though her motives were, I enjoyed Australian Prime Minister Julia Gilliard’s robust and entertaining attack on her opposite number for being sexist, but her playing of the victim card was pathetic. “I was very offended personally when the Leader of the Opposition, as Minister of Health, said, and I quote, ‘Abortion is the easy way out.’ I was very personally offended by those comments.” Sorry, Julia. You’re a politician. If you’re offended because someone expresses an opinion you don’t like, then get out of the game.
As Claire Fox pointed out, the crux of the problem is that politicians are terrified of ordinary people unless they know they’ll be a reliable echo chamber or stage army. Gordon Brown’s memorable meeting with Gillian Duffy in Rochdale symbolises what happens when a member of the public tells a politician something they don’t want to hear. Faced with an unacceptable opinion from a party member, Brown took to his heels.
David Cameron is smoother, but he would find it hard to hide his naked fear if confronted publicly by a Tory voter who wanted capital punishment or the outlawing of abortion, homosexuality or an end to Pakistani immigration.
Yet if people can’t honestly express such views to the very people who are supposed to represent them, why should they think politics is about them? The sanitising of party conferences is all part of the censoring of open debate and the consequent erosion of party loyalty. Why would anyone join a politically correct party that inhibits the expression of opinions that are regarded as offensive in the Westminster bubble? And how can you believe this is a free country when people are sent to jail for saying something nasty on Twitter?
So successful have been the politicians and media liberals who dominate Westminster in stifling free discussion, that people assume no one with authority or influence will listen. Phone-in programmes and blog comments feature people with passionate views on where our society is going who won’t vote because they can’t see the point.
One of us, David Taylor, decided to try to organise what he calls “an experiment in democracy” and yesterday it kicked off.
NatCon’s first conversations are happening in York and will centre on the welfare state. In December it will be seventy years since half-a-million copies of the Beveridge Report went into circulation and inspired a massive public debate. There’s a hunger for that debate now, for to the consternation of many, polls show that there is widespread disquiet about welfare dependency. Before Gillian Duffy tackled Brown on immigration, she had already horrified him by speaking of scroungers.
Have a look at the links and find out how to join in. It is only if we participate that this experiment can help put a boot up the rears of those of our masters and opinion-formers who want us to shut up and clap when told to.
Ruth Dudley Edwards