16 January 2023

Removing the whip from Andrew Bridgen is not an attack on free speech


The Conservative Party’s decision to withdraw the whip from Andrew Bridgen, following the MP’s decision to air views comparing Covid-19 vaccines to the Holocaust, was the right one. It ought to go without saying, but as this site’s Deputy Editor found out on Twitter, apparently not.

We need not trouble ourselves with the lunatic fringe trying to defend Bridgen on the merits of his argument, such as they are. If you think that modern medicine is a conspiracy, a column on CapX isn’t going to convince you otherwise.

But there is a subtler and more pernicious defence being offered: that by withdrawing the whip, the Tories have attacked free speech.

In the era of wokeness and the culture wars, free speech has emerged as a totemic issue for sections of the right. And in fairness such concerns are often well-justified, for instance when trying to maintain viewpoint diversity in state-subsidised institutions such as universities or grappling with the growing role of private platforms such as social media or crowdfunding sites in political participation and the public sphere.

Yet in this instance, the charge is woefully misplaced. Obliging the Conservatives, or any political party, to tacitly endorse whatever its MPs felt like saying would not only be an absurd over-extension of the principle, it would actually strike directly at the purpose of parties. They are coalitions designed to advance a political programme, and such a programme can only be coherent if its borders are defined and policed.

This is a completely separate question to whether or not Bridgen ought to face institutional sanction by Parliament, to which the answer must surely be no. Parliament’s role is ultimately representative, and people who think like the Member for North West Leicestershire have the right, in principle, to return MPs who share their views to Parliament if they can.

(Such considerations are why perennial proposals to try and make the House of Commons a ‘normal workplace’, with the powerful HR bureaucracy and culture that entails, are fraught with risk from a strictly democratic perspective. A democratic legislature cannot impose a normal ‘corporate culture’ on its members without undermining its purpose.)

Bridgen has not been expelled from the Commons and, if no rapprochement occurs, will be free to fight his constituency as an independent candidate on his own resources, and whatever support he can attract from his sympathisers. 

But it does not follow that they are owed the support of a political party. The Conservatives are perfectly entitled to add Bridgen’s beliefs about vaccines to the very large basket of things they don’t stand for, and in any event we do not otherwise expect that every political viewpoint is entitled to be serviced by one of the major parties or the other.

Of course, the claim that withdrawing the whip is an unacceptable assault on freedom of conscience is not the sole preserve of the conspiracist right. Back in 2019 many respectable commentators attacked Boris Johnson’s decision to expel a hard core of MPs who were explicitly opposed to his Brexit policy, especially when some of those were not re-admitted and lost their seats at the subsequent general election.

This too was misguided. The 2019 election was fought, more or less, on Brexit, and it was right and proper for the Tories to fight that election on a coherent platform and with candidates committed to it. 

(Such criticism was especially misguided coming from those such as Lord Sumption, a prominent critic of Johnson’s decision, who sternly oppose referendums as incompatible with parliamentary democracy. A system which must settle every issue via election requires more doctrinal strictness from the parties, not less.)

Does this mean that every withdrawal of the whip is just? Of course not. Nadine Dorries’ suggestion that Johnson should expel scores of MPs opposed to his leadership during the dying days of his government was grossly improper, betraying a mindset (shared by those Johnsonian right-Bennites, the Conservative Democratic Organisation) which viewed the entire Party as the personal property of the (right) leader.

But each case must be assessed on its own merits, and such an assessment is inherently subjective and political. There is no absolute test of law or principle which determines who should get to sit as a Conservative MP, nor could there plausibly be so.

Freedom of speech is important, and the defence of impartial institutions and an open public square a worthy cause. The distinction between freedom of speech and freedom from the consequences of speech is sometimes abused by authoritarians of many different stripes.

But freedom of association is another essential pillar of democratic society, and a necessary corollary of it is freedom of disassociation. Any group, but especially a political organisation, is defined both by what it is and what it is not, and voters deserve to have both clearly laid out before they put their X in the box.

Click here to subscribe to our daily briefing – the best pieces from CapX and across the web.

CapX depends on the generosity of its readers. If you value what we do, please consider making a donation.

Henry Hill is Deputy Editor of ConservativeHome.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.