“I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it”.
This expression that lies at the very core of any democratic system has been mistakenly attributed to Voltaire. I say “mistakenly” as when I was researching the actual quote and its source I came across the website “Student Activism” where Angus Johnston has attributed the quotation word for word to Evelyn Beatrice Hall in her biography of Voltaire published in 1906. Her intention with this expression was summarise Voltaire’s thinking on freedom of speech as succinctly as possible.
Earlier this month, March 2017, Lord Heseltine stood and spoke in the House of Lords during the debate on the triggering of Article 50 to commence the process for Britain to leave the EU. He wanted the Act of Parliament to be debated properly in both chambers allowing members of both the opportunity to fully debate the bill and if necessary pass amendments. He spoke expressing his deeply held belief and conviction that the bill should be allowed to follow due constitutional process. His speech was also based on his deeply held belief that Britain should remain in the European Union.
At the time of his speech, 16th March 2017, he held three advisory positions in the Government. These were purely advisory and if the relevant Minister wanted to take the advice or leave it that was entirely their choice. Minutes after the vote, which was against Lord Heseltine’s views he was removed from these advisory roles by the Prime Minister for not following the party whip.
One of my companion books is “Profiles in Courage” by John Fitzgerald Kennedy. This is a collection of extended essays he wrote about American politicians who stood up and spoke according to their beliefs and convictions. They spoke from their conscience rather than the desire to win the next election. Senators, congressmen, Republicans or Democrats are included in this book. It is about how as a result of not following the party line they suffered political and social ostracism. In the final pages is an extract from a eulogy read by Senator William Pitt Fessenden for a fellow Senator about the internal conflicts all politicians in a democratic political system are constantly battling with:
“….of all the ever recurring contest between a desire for public approbation and a sense of public duty….”
After the vote in the House of Lords and his sacking I did write to Lord Heseltine expressing my views about what had happened to him. In his reply, which was a standard letter, as he had read and had to reply to “many hundreds of messages” he said that not only had he received letters of support but a few from LEAVE voters “who in various shades of language, wish me silent. They will be disappointed. A handful have had to be referred to the police.”
Whatever happened to our politics in this country that an elder statesman of the stature of Lord Heseltine receives letters that have to be referred to the police? Whatever has happened to the tenet of the first sentence of this piece? Surely now, after the tragic events in Westminster on 22nd March 2017, Evelyn Beatrice Hall’s paraphrasing of what Voltaire held true has never been a more precious belief, conviction that we should all be committed to protecting, cherishing, nurturing and enhancing for today and all of the todays to come?