Barack Obama’s parting message to the world was a call to arms: if you are not happy with the way things are going then stop arguing with strangers on the internet, get up and do something about it – “show up, dive in, stay at it”. This week we all owe a debt of gratitude to Gina Miller for doing just that. It takes real courage on an issue as emotive as Brexit to go against the prevailing orthodoxy.
In febrile times it took real resolve to stand up to a Government which, in its haste to steamroll through its policy any which way, trampled all over the rule of law and Parliamentary sovereignty.
By invoking an ancient royal prerogative, the Government had sought to deny Parliament its right to have its say. It is fundamental to the way our country is run that only Parliament can grant rights to the British people and only Parliament can take them away.
It is thanks to Gina – and the fact the judges of the Supreme Court stood firm to uphold the law of the land in the face of unremitting pressure and vitriol from right-wing newspapers – that I and my fellow Members of Parliament will now be able to do our jobs and hold the Government to account on the most important decision our country has made in my lifetime.
I think that this court case has also served as a timely reminder that in this country anyone – if they have right on their side – is entitled to a fair hearing.
The tone of our public discourse has descended in recent months to a point where traditional British virtues of tolerance and being willing to respect opinions different from our own could be considered a thing of the past. This case has brought out the very worst in our politics, but we cannot and must not accept this as the status quo.
In all my years in public life I have never known the kind of anger that Brexit has summoned up, and it is truly shameful that a private citizen has been subjected to grotesque threats of rape and death for legitimately pursuing her case against the Government through the courts.
What we have seen on the issue of Brexit has been a deliberate and concerted campaign of intimidation by a small group of activists – well versed in how to use the available media platforms to maximum effect – which has made a lot of people too afraid to speak out.
If the terms of our public debate become so confined as to exclude millions of people we will cease to truly be a democracy in anything but name. Free speech is only really free if people feel that they can make their views heard without being met with a barrage of personal abuse.
I am increasingly finding that what a lot of MPs are saying to me in private on the issue of Brexit – and, for that matter, journalists who work for pro-Brexit media organisations – is all too often diametrically opposed to the lines they take in public.
There is something fundamentally un-British about all of this, almost McCarthyite in its insidiousness, which we need to recognise for what it is and fight with everything we have. “Cuck”, “snowflake” and the ridiculous notion of “alternative facts” are all part of the same process of silencing critics and shouting down anybody who has the temerity to disagree with you.
I don’t think it is overstating it to say that standing up against this gradual chipping away at our democracy lies at the very heart and soul of what it means to be a democrat. What Mrs Miller’s win today has shown, above all else, is that it is possible to take on the bullies and win, and for that we should all be grateful.
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