Over the last few weeks I have seen several examples of dissent that has made me reproach myself for the times I have kept silent when I should have challenged. One of these was Ken Clarke’s lone voice on the Conservative benches against Brexit. The supine way in which all other Conservative Remain MPs (and most Labour ones) voted to leave was deeply disappointing. They had every right to vote with their consciences, as the Supreme Court had endorsed the argument that Parliament had the ultimate decision, that the referendum had been, in effect, more a public opinion poll (and they can change from week to week) than a binding decision. It has long been a fundamental principle that MPs should vote with their consciences regardless of outside pressure, and even if the Remainers had not been able to muster enough support to alter the outcome, they should have put up a better fight than that.
It’s probably because I’ve been an historian that such things matter to me. A lost cause may be lost now, but it’s important to let future generations know that not everyone who lived during a particular event or era went along with the prevailing tide.
That same principle applies to my next example of those who have dissented despite the odds, and these are far braver. Congratulations to the Pro-Life Feminists and other pro-life groups who participated in the women’s march in Washington. They strike a chord with me because they go against the grain. Any fool can be part of a movement when they go along with everything it says, but to be part of a movement and refuse to follow its every edict can really take guts. I know that because way back in the Seventies I was in the Labour Party at University when abortion was raised. At first I was relatively neutral, trying to see both sides, but then the pro-abortionists came up with a phrase just in from the States. ‘We’re not pro-abortion,’ I was told, ‘we’re pro-choice.’ The sheer dishonesty of it made me veer towards the anti-abortionists (except that I believe there should be allowance for genuine health and some other grounds, but that's a far cry from saying someone can choose to kill another without any legal framework). According to the ‘pro-choice’ reasoning, the state should remain neutral when the stronger is attacking the weaker. But surely that’s the opposite of everything a Socialist or 'progressive' should believe? It's not neutral to give the stronger a free hand to do what they like, that's why we have laws against rape and child abuse. But no, there was now a new ‘progressive’ ethos: the strong have the right to kill those over whom they have power. It certainly can’t be described as liberal, since there is nothing more illiberal than taking a life that has no choice in the matter. It’s uncannily similar to some of the arguments defenders of slavery used, that it was a matter of liberty. Those who were against slavery, the argument went, did not have to keep slaves if they didn't want to, so they should mind their own business if others made different choices. The fate of the victims was brushed over and evaded, their humanity denied.
So plaudits to the Pro-Life Feminists, the Pro-Life Humanists, the Pro-Life LGBT movement and other growing secular groups (they can be found online and on Twitter and Facebook) who are reclaiming the principle of genuinely universal rights and are not leaving it to religious groups (which has its dangers and drawbacks). Of course, they might not get very far, but as with those who resisted slavery and more recent totalitarian regimes (who also took lives in their millions because they were in the wrong category), at least in the future people will know there were some who refused to be part of the madness.
I have given just two examples of those who have gone against the grain. You might have others. If you believe something passionately you should also stand up for it and I will applaud your courage even if I disagree with you. You may have to forgive the gritted teeth, just as I have to live with the gritted teeth of friends and colleagues who are reading this.