The words are often used by ex-service personnel who have entered politics and the sentiment is attributed to Voltaire. The meaning is simple: we are supposed to live in a society where free speech is a sacrosanct right. Within the bounds of certain laws such as libel or slander, an individual can say whatever he or she wants, in the written or spoken word. Yes, there are limits of public decency and behaviour on where and how they say it, for example, swearing obscenities in public at everyone could soon result in arrest for disorderly behaviour.
But, in a private conversation, writing on a blog, or writing to a newspaper, we can express any personal opinion, providing it is done in a legal manner. Whether that view is correct or normal, acceptable or unacceptable, is for the recipient of the message to decide.
And any comeback we get as a result of that is entirely our problem. If our opinion attracts unfavourable comment, or the majority of the public do not support us, the price that we, as an individual, pay for our lack of wisdom can be costly. We may become depressed on receiving thousands of adverse comments back. We may lose our job or our partner might leave because of the views expressed or the arising backlash. If the person expressing the opinion is an elected representative he or she may not get re-elected. It is their choice, their responsibility, whether to express that opinion or not, and their disadvantage if there is a price to pay.
Without going down a rabbit hole, we also face a threat to our free speech from the European Union in the form of the “European Framework National Statute for the Promotion of Tolerance “, but we will let this article on Trending Central explain that one to you.
Things begin to get complicated when someone is a member of a political party. The party has a set of policies and, hopefully if it has integrity, a set of values and principles it holds dear, which the public can trust it to follow. When campaigning or representing the party, that member is expected to stick to those values and policies. However, when they are not in the public eye, they are entitled, under the tenets of free speech, to say whatever they want. And if they are saying those things with their trusted friends, colleagues and other like-minded souls, they may be less discreet than to complete strangers; it is only being human.
Please also bear in mind that someone who is an elected representative has titles they are stuck with. If John Smith is elected as a Councillor, he becomes Cllr John Smith. If Sue Brown becomes a Member of Parliament, she is known as Sue Brown MP and has responsibilities to that office. However, they are still entitled to their personal lives, they can still express their opinions as themselves, albeit they must always bear in mind the judgement of the electorate at the ballot box.
However, we now find ourselves in an unforgiving world where members of one particular political party are coming under close scrutiny. That party could become apologetic for every personal statement made by every member, to distance itself from those remarks each time, to even suggest that internal enquiries take place, but that is just pandering to the press and the organisations feeding them with information. But, more importantly, it is accepting that certain vested interests have the ability to close down the free speech it chooses to close down. What should happen in these circumstances is that the right to free speech is robustly defended.
Nor can that individual’s opinions be ascribed to those of the party as a whole, or the other members of the party. That person’s opinions are theirs and theirs alone, and they carry the responsibility for them. Therefore, reporting one person’s opinion posted on a private blog, or even one Councillor’s letter to a local paper, however unconventional, cannot be reason for national papers to attempt to hold the party to account or castigate all its members. Yet we see this happening.
This time last week, we had the Cllr David Silvester case. After his letter to the press, the party spokeswoman issued this very robust statement:
“Freedom to individual thought and expression is a central tenet of any open-minded and democratic country. It is quite evident that this is not the party’s belief but the councillor’s own and he is more than entitled to express independent thought despite whether or not other people may deem it standard or correct.”
“That is what makes the United Kingdom such a wonderful, proud, diverse and free country.”
Unfortunately, the next day the Councillor disobeyed his orders not to speak to the press any more and gave a full radio interview – that is why he was suspended, not for expressing his unconventional but deeply held opinions, which in a free society he should be free to express.
We as a nation are at risk to losing the freedom of speech our forbears fought to obtain over 800 years, thanks to the EU and their fellow travellers. And it is over the battle to win our country back from the EU that the free speech of UKIPpers is particularly under threat.