Leading Article: Please may we beg to let them differ

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The Independent Culture
CLARE SHORT says she thinks Bill Clinton is a liar and should resign. And what is the first response from a member of the Question Time audience when she expressed these views on Thursday night: how did she reconcile her opinions with the strong support offered to the President by Tony Blair?

It would have been understandable, if a little predictable, if David Dimbleby had intervened to ask whether her statement had been cleared in advance by the Politburo, but for someone in the audience to demand total obeisance to the fiction of collective Cabinet responsibility was depressing.

The dominance of our political discourse by the bogus science of "gaffology" stifles debate and diminishes democracy. We say this not because we agree with Ms Short - although we usually do, as when she said there ought to be a debate about the legalisation of cannabis. We say it because the game of "hunt the split" too often distracts attention from what differences of view are really about.

Of course, some differences of opinion between politicians of the same party are important, and should be reported and analysed by journalists. The Conservative split on Europe matters, because the nation will eventually have to make a decision that will write history.

But what British politicians think about a foreign head of state's sexual and linguistic gymnastics is a matter of interest, not an affair of state - except when it comes to the Prime Minister and Foreign Secretary, who need to deal with him.

It should be perfectly possible in "grown-up politics", one of Mr Blair's favourite phrases, for other Cabinet ministers to voice personal opinions on the President's conduct, while expressing support for the broad thrust of Mr Clinton's policies, and for a close relationship between Britain and America.

Take collective responsibility too far and you arrive at the farce of Michael Howard, the shadow Foreign Secretary, sitting opposite Ms Short, saying that he had views about Mr Clinton but would not say what they were.

The sensitivity of politicians and their henchpeople is understandable. Mr Blair and his crew are pathologically driven by the experience of Labour Party divisions in the Seventies and Eighties, which helped to lose them four elections in a row.

That pathology has now spread to the Tories, with their loyalty pledges and threats of deselection, as they try to pretend that their divisions do not exist. But Labour is remarkably united in its ideology now, and Alastair Campbell, whose job it is to chop off toes that step off the line, can afford to relax.

We do not propose imitating Israel, where the Cabinet votes, and ministers who are on the losing side defend their views in public. A certain amount of unity on the vital issues of the day is needed for the sake of coherent party discipline, which helps democracy to function.

But moderation in all things. Parties - and Question Time audiences - need to distinguish between issues where a government or shadow government needs to have a common position, and those where it ought to encourage open debate.

Leave Ms Short alone, Alastair. Spare her for the sake of grown-up politics.