Michael Brown: There is nothing treacherous about voicing dissent at this difficult time

The idea that someone, in raising questions, is not equally concerned about the fate of troops is absurd
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The Independent Online

Never mind the international coalition: more to the point is whether the domestic coalition among – and within – the main political parties will, or even should, last as long as the crisis. Initially the talk was of "standing shoulder to shoulder" with the United States. This has been translated, domestically, into implying that opposition parties, as well as their leaders, should also stand "shoulder to shoulder" with the Prime Minister.

But what are the prospects of such a situation enduring? Already minor chinks suggest that political controversy over the handling of the crisis will rear its ugly but necessary head at some point before too long. And the sooner it does, the better. Already, Charles Kennedy has sensibly talked of the candid friend "always there for the occasional tap on the shoulder".

It seems loopy that newspapers and television can give voice to the different aspects of the arguments while politicians are expected to keep mum and fall in with the establishment consensus around whatever statement issues forth from the Prime Minister.

Sometimes I think that this constant pressure to talk of "setting aside differences" and "all-party agreement" can be overdone. Surely the graver the crisis, the more there should be debate and discussion over legitimate but competing views – especially when what are at stake are the very structures that underpin our free society. When the country faces an economic crisis that threatens bankruptcy, or a health crisis that threatens citizens' lives, we expect the debate to be even more robust than normal. Yet when it is a matter of life and death, of war and peace, why is dissent among politicians somehow perceived as treacherous to the national interest?

This week, while the Liberal Democrat hierarchy managed to walk a successful tightrope between supporting the Government without alienating the "peacenik" wing of the party, there was a palpable sense of apprehension from the delegates. There were no embarrassing moments for the platform because of the overall sense that, now they are bidding to become the "effective" opposition, ordinary delegates felt obliged to tone down their remarks. But Mr Kennedy does recognise that if 30 per cent of the people are opposed to a military response, many of these citizens are likely to be Liberal Democrat supporters. They deserve a voice in Parliament, and he has said from the beginning that there will be no "blank cheques" from him to the Government.

The battleground will be over the issue of amending the human rights legislation, identity cards and yet more emergency terrorism legislation. Whether the Government decides to take action will lead to one or other of the opposition parties being likely to oppose the Government. If no action is taken, Iain Duncan Smith has hinted, the Tories will become impatient. But if there are attempts to curtail civil liberties the Liberal Democrats will, rightly, cut up rough. At the moment everyone is still walking on eggshells. But a little relaxation of the rules of parliamentary engagement, during this crisis, is surely called for, without party elders accusing everyone else of harming the "war" effort.

It is often forgotten that during the Second World War, especially between 1941 and 1943, Churchill came under repeated and critical scrutiny in Parliament, as the war effort appeared to be faltering. During the Suez crisis in 1956, the Labour Party gave unremitting and total opposition. And they turned out to be right.

Mr Duncan Smith has ventured into new territory by suggesting the proposed efforts against terrorism should include a similar approach in Northern Ireland. He has also hinted that the sale of illegal drugs is indirectly funding international terrorism. This suggests that if the going gets sticky and he finds himself privately at odds with the Government it will not take much to break the consensus. And if he is unhappy he should say so publicly.

What will inhibit him, however, are these wretched private briefings "on Privy Council terms" that are the enemies of structured public debate. They make opposition party leaders feel important. Whether Mr Duncan Smith ever gets told any important secrets we shall never know. Michael Foot, during the Falklands War, rightly refused to attend such briefings, which enabled him to reserve his position and ask the questions in Parliament that needed posing.

Labour Party business managers may be successful in muzzling dissenters at their forthcoming conference by controlling access to the rostrum. This could backfire if well-known objectors to current policy are driven to the margins of the conference fringe – with disproportionate media coverage as a result. But party managers should not do this when Parliament meets next week.

The theory goes that if we are "at war" it is somehow unseemly for politicians to be scrapping while our troops are risking their lives. It is a daft notion. The idea that someone, in raising questions in a parliamentary speech or at a conference rostrum, is not equally concerned about the fate of our troops, in action, is absurd.

Little trouble is likely to be caused for the Prime Minister at Labour's truncated conference in Brighton, but the decision to recall Parliament again may result in a more difficult ride for the Government. On most of these occasions there is usually a predictable atmosphere where all party leaders are suitably sombre, mouthing grandiose platitudes. Next week more MPs might be bolder in expressing doubts that are now beginning to surface in their constituency mailbags.

It may not have been wise for Dennis Skinner to attack President Bush for his early handling of the crisis, but the po-faced reaction from the Tory benches was unnecessary. Mr Skinner's argument was a point of view held by many beyond Parliament.

Never more than in war is it necessary for us to remember that basic parliamentary dictum – "I disagree with everything you say but I defend utterly your right to say it". Tories, in particular, are prone to keep silent "in the national interest" and likely to rally behind the US and UK flags at their conference. They are also most likely to be intimidated into not questioning Labour's failures on domestic politics for reasons of "bad taste". But democracy must continue. As Mr Kennedy said yesterday, "dissent, democracy and debate must never be beaten by bullets, barbarism and bombs".

mrbrown@pimlico.freeserve.co.uk

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