By Sam Barrett
Don’t worry, this isn’t going to be (much of) a history lesson; just bear with me!
“Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others”. The purported Churchillian quote rings true now more than ever. In my view, though, this small excursus should not be taken as a critique of all the other systems of economic and societal organisation that have demonstrably failed, but as a laudation of democracy itself.
The gestation of our own political system has flourished not because we have learned and understood other’s failures, but because we had confidence in our own traditions, our own idiosyncrasies, our own way of doing things. Since William of Orange ventured across the seas to Torbay, Devon in 1688 to take the throne of England from James II leaving the British Parliament as the true seat of power on this isle, our system has been constantly evolving. Adapting to meet the needs of a growing, multifaceted, multicultural society in which diversity of thought and opinion has historically been cherished. Adversity is the very motor of human mental development.
The fourth-century Greek rhetorician, Libanius, famously averred that one should always put their weakest bits in the middle of any speech or treatise…I think he was talking rubbish. So here goes: freedom of speech is good. A phrase not unlike Jack Elsom’s Twitter news reporting; concise, (one would hope!) impartial, and to-the-point. That’s the essence of it. I’m sure many of you were aware of our event with Jacob Rees-Mogg in October – if you missed it, there are clips on our Facebook page. Aside from the obvious stressful implications of holding a Society event that could potentially attract over 200 audience members (which it did), we had to deal with the protestations of the SU and their insistence on the presence of three Union ‘safe space’ marshals. Now, much ink has been spilled over this, and Matthew Wright wrightly had a wright good go at the policy on the Wright Stuff on Channel 5 so I’m not going to repeat too much of what they said. But the fact that our own Student Union, at one of the best universities in the world, felt the need to monitor what an elected representative had to say is somewhat disturbing. Where’s Winston Smith when you need him?! The fact is, no ideology is beyond criticism. As far as I can see, no idea has yet managed to transcend the realms of human thought and, like a butterfly, disappear off into the sky as a cold, hard fact. And this is the key point. Jacob’s views aren’t facts. If you don’t like some of the stuff he has to say, fair enough, but at least come and challenge him on them. Challenge anyone with opposing views. In my mind, if you haven’t emerged from university with some of your core beliefs having been questioned in some way, you ain’t doing it right.
This brings me back to my introduction. If a load of disgruntled barons hadn’t disagreed with the autocracy of King John (maybe they preferred his brother, who knows) clause 61 of Magna Carta, which gave them the power to overrule the King and laid the foundations for the decentralisation of power that was to follow, would never have come about. Likewise if the disagreements symptomatic of the 17th century hadn’t manifested themselves in the Civil War, or if William of Orange hadn’t removed James II, then the Bill of Rights, which to this day prevents absolute monarchy, would never have come about. Now, I am not comparing the SU ‘safe space’ marshals to autocratic monarchs. Nor am I advocating violent upheaval and the takeover of the Macadam Building in the name of Liberty. My point is simply that adversity and the freedom to voice one’s opinion breeds progress, and our democracy has always encouraged that. No other system of political organisation yet discovered has allowed it to the same degree. It’s how our courts are set up, our Parliament, our very way of life. If one was too afraid to speak one’s mind through fear of offending someone, one would never speak at all. At university, we must be prepared to hear views we don’t like, that rock us to our very core. But one must also be prepared to argue against such views. That is the purpose of this journal, and it is at the very heart of the KCLCA and modern conservatism.