Constituents often write to me to complain that our fundamental liberty of freedom of speech no longer endures. I don’t believe this perception is down to the statutory provisions that we have made in recent years to protect minorities. In fact these do no more in principle than the ancient common law prohibition against occasioning a breach of the peace: incitement has always been unlawful.
Rather, I put it down largely to the caustic nature of contemporary public discourse. Such is the fury with which unfashionable opinions are greeted, that those that hold them are terrified to express them. We appear to have lost the ability to disagree just because we believe that our opponents are wrong, now we need to denounce them as wicked as well.
Over the last couple of years a large number of academics, clinicians, and civil servants have contacted me to draw attention to concerns that they have about public policy within their areas of expertise. They have included professors and senior people at the very top of their professions. What has been remarkable is the extent to which they wish to remain anonymous. They believe that there is something serious that needs to be out in the public debate, but they are not willing to put their heads above the parapet and say it themselves. They fear the hostile reaction from their own colleagues and fellow professionals. They believe that they have lost their voice, but as a parliamentarian, I still have a voice, so they put their trust in me to give voice to their concerns.
Well, the fundamental guarantee that I do have an unrestrained voice is set out in the one written part of our largely unwritten constitution: The Bill of Rights 1689.
“that freedom of speech and debates or proceedings in Parliament ought not to be impeached in any court or place out of Parliament”
So, my privilege is that I cannot be taken to task for anything that I say in Parliament, this the fundamental guarantee of the rights of a free parliament…until now at any rate.
A new edition of the code of conduct for MPs has been published for consultation. It recommends that the scope of the Commissioner for Standards be extended to what takes place in the Commons, its division lobbies and in its parliamentary committees. This will give a policing function over elected members to an official in a clear breach of the guarantee set down in the Bill of Rights.
This is compounded by the addition of a new principle of ‘respect’ to be added to the standards, which will require MPs to “demonstrate anti-discriminatory behaviours“ through the promotion of “inclusion and diversity” amongst others.
It may sound anodyne enough but it was differing interpretations of inclusion and diversity that has just driven a professor from her job at Sussex University. I have no doubt that this would have a further chilling effect on free speech, and it is a fundamental attack on democratic choice.