The recent controversy regarding Baroness Tonge’s provocative comments and subsequent resignation points towards significant and systemic problems within and surrounding British parliamentary politics. While ‘parliamentary privilege’ allows MPs a certain degree of ‘in-house’ freedom in terms of libel immunity, free speech is always and necessarily going to be limited by Party politics. MPs in opposition are able to voice contradictory opinions fairly openly, but those in government are restricted by the need to present strong, united leadership. Coalition government clearly both compounds and complicates this problem. Liberal Democrat MPs may hold distinctly different views from those promoted by the Conservative-led government, yet the Coalition agreement demands political alignment. This raises several questions: should Liberal Democrat backbenchers be free to contradict the Coalition agreement without fear of losing their whip? Should either Lib Dem or Conservative MPs be able to speak outside of the Coalition agreement? Can Coalition government expect to homogenise varying opinions into a single ‘party line’? Does the conflation of two of the three major parties in the UK inhibit parliamentary debate? Does the two-house political system open or restrict the democratic process? Regarding the latter, although I have concerns about unelected chambers, it can be argued that the House of Lords allows for freer, more open debate than that which can take place within the election-driven politics of the Commons.
Baroness Tonge’s comments about Israel raise a number of these questions. As a member of the House of Lords, Tonge should be able to voice her opinions freely; as a member of the governing Coalition, her statements are required to be representative of both the Coalition and/or her Party’s position. There is also a particular sensitivity in both the UK and the US regarding any comment that has the potential to be (mis)interpreted as anti-Semitic. While this is clearly an important concern, with obvious historical justification, there is a question mark over the extent to which this is also driven by the pressure to get re-elected. In the States, in particular, it is a commonplace that no President will be elected without the ‘Jewish vote’. While this is not so apparent in Britain, might there be a case for seeing the support of Israeli lobbyists in terms of election politics? That Tonge’s recent comment about the historical inevitability of political change in the Middle East was interpreted by some as anti-Semitic reveals the hyper-sensitivity regarding this – undoubtedly sensitive – issue. On the other hand, the current inflammatory situation in the Middle East means such comments are perhaps likely to risk mis- or over-interpretation, and this is something of which politicians should be aware.
As I write this, I realise that any discussion of the ‘politics’ of election-led party politics leads towards larger debates about both the nature of democracy in general, and the British parliamentary system in particular. Although these are matters beyond the scope of this blog, a few related questions come to mind: does our democratic system of government in fact restrict some of the freedoms that it intends to protect? Is there really any alternative? Does parliamentary democracy actually encourage free and open debate, or simply present a forum for competition between two parties seeking future election? Does this dialectic of freedom and competition in some sense feed into neoliberalism’s emphatic espousal of free market economics as the basis of human freedom? Is the increasingly PR-driven Commons simply another marketplace, whereby party politics is another product to be consumed by the voting public? And finally, is absolute free speech ever possible within political society, and should free speech be valued above other political concerns within both the domestic and international sphere? Where domestic and global politics overlap, for instance, is the need for diplomacy sometimes more urgent than the right to free speech?