Donald Macintyre: Believe it or not, dissent can be healthy and patriotic

'Even if it was just spin, Downing Street was correct to say MPs have a right to express deeply felt concerns'
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The Independent Online

When considering the fracas over Hilary Armstrong's heavy-handed approach to the Labour dissident Paul Marsden it is worth, first, recalling a little history. The Labour whips' office would do well to consider the now all too easily forgotten case of Aneurin Bevan, whose parliamentary role in World War II was sometimes compared with that of Charles James Fox, who had deployed all his charisma to oppose the French Revolutionary and the Napoleonic wars.

As Michael Foot points out in his magnificent biography of Bevan, the comparison with Fox was striking, even though there was one fundamental difference in that his hero supported the war against Nazism. So far from being one of the appeasers, he was, at least once civil war erupted in Spain, their scourge. That did not stop him from being depicted as little short of treacherous because week after week, in the columns of Tribune and on the floor of the Commons he attacked Churchill's – and therefore Churchill's Labour coalition partners' – war strategy.

Those squeamish about criticising governments in wartime should remember that after the fall of Tobruk in May 1942 a motion (promoted, as it happens, by the Chamberlainite Tory Sir John Wardlaw-Milne) expressing "no confidence in the central direction of the war" was supported by Bevan as well as other senior MPs in both the main parties. In his speech on that motion Bevan savaged not only Churchill but British military commanders.

For these and many other "violent onslaughts on Churchill" (Foot's words), Bevan was vilified by his many political opponents in and out of the government and in the press, not to mention, after he joined communists in the campaign for a second front, being assigned his own personal MI5 agent to monitor his every step. It is no disrespect to Mr Marsden to say that Bevan was a rather more dangerous opponent of the Prime Minister of the day. Yet in the long term neither Churchill's nor Bevan's popular reputation suffered greatly as a result.

So while the line from Downing Street yesterday that Mr Blair has no wish to suppress dissent may have been at a price – a gentle but not very elegant post-hoc distancing of his office from his own Chief Whip – it is wholly welcome. Mr Blair cannot escape all the blame, particularly before the 1997 election and in his first term, for creating the kind of culture of which the normally capable Ms Armstrong's treatment of Mr Marsden was an expression. Indeed he has acknowledged as much, having hinted in his Talk interview with Robert Harris before the last general election, that he had perhaps become over-obsessed with eliminating any vestige of the divisions within the Labour Party which had helped to make it unelectable in the 1980s.

But even if Downing Street had merely been spinning itself out of trouble yesterday, it was correct to make it clear that MPs have a right to express deeply felt concerns. On the face of it, at least, the Downing Street assurances appear to have been a little more genuine than that. Certainly there were, to put it mildly, better ways of handling Mr Marsden, however self-indulgent the whips' office might have regarded him and, less nobly, however vulnerable to pressure they may have (wrongly) thought him compared with the more venerable dissidents like Tam Dalyell. He could have been taken aside by a whip he had a rapport with and told: "Look, the Government has actually been careful to keep the Commons involved; and if you want a vote it is open to dissident MPs to push one on the adjournment. Indeed I can tell you how to do it. But do you really want to show how – relatively – few the dissidents are?" Or some such.

But there are rather larger lessons than that – extending beyond the whips' office. The first is the danger of second-guessing, like Henry II's knights, what your master wants. Too often members of the Government switch to automatic pilot when it comes to dealing with criticism on the assumption that this, rather than reasoned argument, or in certain circumstances the relaying upwards of the criticisms, is what is required by the centre. No doubt it often has been, though there are signs that the regime is subtly altering. But in any case ministers are, or should be, sentient beings, able to act on their own initiative rather than merely take orders, or what they conceive to be orders.

The second specifically concerns the handling of parliamentary and public opinion on the war against terrorism. One of the arguments against the handling of Mr Marsden is that real Labour dissent – compared with past conflicts – is confined at present to a small minority. And that's true. But that doesn't alter the fact that are doubts in all the main parties which may grow in the future. In a thoughtful speech yesterday Jack Straw, the Foreign Secretary, implicitly recognised this when he sought to give a coherent picture of how he sees the future in Afghanistan. He was at pains, for example, to warn against "impatience". He suggested that the Taliban could fall "gradually area by area" as well as "suddenly".

This is a real difficulty for the Allies. The long wait for results in the Falklands might have been much more difficult for Margaret Thatcher had she been subjected to the relentless demands of the present-day 24-hour media. If you embark on military action partly to satisfy public opinion, that same public opinion then requires results. Yes, ministers want to see some tangible sign of military progress before the all too imminent winter. But yes, several also expect the war to be continuing – in some form – next spring. Mr Straw also went out of his way to stress the importance, not only of a long term humanitarian effort, but of the UN in brokering the creation of the "broad-based" government London insists it wants, possibly with the former King, Zahir Shah, acting as a catalyst if there is popular Afghan support for him to do so.

Taken as a whole, Mr Straw's speech sought to address some of the concerns of the dissenters. It inevitably didn't deal with them all. But arguing the moral and intellectual case for military action, as Mr Straw did yesterday, is a much better course than merely suggesting – as Ms Armstrong did, and to be fair Mr Straw himself has at least once since 11 September – that anyone who criticises the strategy is appeasing terrorists. For the dissidents – and there are some sotto voce doubters in the Tory party too – fulfil an important function.

They reflect an appreciable strand of public opinion in the country. And if that is not represented in Parliament it undermines those civilised democratic values the West is currently – and rightly – seeking to uphold, and where possible, export. And of which the absolute freedom to dissent and criticise is a touchstone.

This is particularly so when the position of the main opposition parties is to support the Government. You don't have to agree with most – or any – of Tam Dalyell's stances on foreign policy to dread the kind of society in which he and others who will follow him are not wholly free to express them without being accused of being unpatriotic.