Forgotten, ignored, scared. And on the march today

Apples are apples, and from Hyde Park half a million shouts to the contrary would not make them pears. Facts are facts, and I could name you a score of government policies whose wisdom or otherwise would not be altered one jot by street marches.

But policy on Iraq is not among them. The facts are not in dispute.

There is no need to persuade the British people that Saddam is a wicked, dangerous, lying cheat: they know. As this week’s poll in The Times demonstrated, government and the governed do not disagree about that fact. They disagree about the wisdom and morality of drawing from it — and at this moment — a warlike conclusion.

There are some questions on which, when the masses speak, their leaders should listen.

Margaret Thatcher listened after Argentina had invaded the Falklands Islands. There was — and she knew it — an irresistible national will to recapture this territory. Had that will been absent I doubt it would have been right to incur the cost, or risk the lives, she did. There are adventures in policy which can justly be undertaken only in the people’s name. An invasion of Iraq now is one of them.

I have never yet joined a protest march, not for the countryside cause, which I support, not even against Section 28, which I detested. I do not like demos or petitions. I do not like crowds. I hate the mob. I am uneasy whenever force of numbers is used as an argument. I dislike the raised fist, even in a good cause. I understand the charge that when war threatens, dissent only encourages the enemy. I am sensitive to that.

But were I in Britain today I would be in Hyde Park. The Thunderer (Robbie Millen, February 12) was wrong. The point about those gathering in London this morning is that they are overwhelmingly not cranks, ideologues and obsessives. When the types who don’t demonstrate begin to demonstrate, alarms ring.

For me, that dud dossier from No 10 was the last straw. The pretence that Osama bin Laden’s taped message “linked” Saddam to al-Qaeda completed my alienation from government information. I began to believe that propagandists in Washington and London were capable of simply making things up. When even the use of tanks at Heathrow has us wondering “could this, too, be a gimmick?” then the devaluation of politics is serious. Crying Wolf is a dangerous game.

Our Prime Minister is now in fear of his job, and I no longer think I can guess the limits to dissembling. I know Saddam Hussein is a liar but my confidence in my own Government’s respect for the truth is faltering. I know Saddam would sacrifice lives to save his face, but for the first time have begun wondering whether there are people in London and Washington who might do so too. I have never doubted (and never will) that Tony Blair believes his cause is moral, but my fear is growing of the sins people will commit when their cause is the extirpation of sin.

And I am losing my bearings. Millions of my countrymen are losing theirs. I sense it. I overhear it on trains and in buses. It is in the wind. How but by marching can bewilderment, how can rage, how can a sense of helplessness and frustration, express themselves?

Though individuals among the crowds in Hyde Park may have their certainties, this crowd as a crowd is not an expression of certainty, but of its terrible lack. I cannot recall a great gathering of people whose presence so clearly signalled, not a fleeting, surging mood, but a long-pondered, deeply felt, civilised doubt.

“Stop. Reconsider” is not an argument. It is a presentiment: a feeling that something is going terribly wrong. Unless our elected representatives have the ears to hear — and the minds to frame, and the guts to voice — this aching sense of policy amiss, then what can those who sent them to Parliament do but march? Whatever the hard Left may pretend, this march is not a raised popular fist; it is not an alternative plan for Iraq; it is a big, clouded question mark about the plan we have. For everything the sound of a million feet marching down Piccadilly cannot say to the House of Commons, it can say “Think again”.

That it should have come to this reflects badly on our legislature.

Ordinary Members of Parliament have mistaken their role. Those feet would not be marching if our elected representatives had themselves been more sure-footed.

MPs love to quote Edmund Burke’s address to the electors of Bristol because he supports them in their own error, but Burke got it wrong.

Contrary to the hoots of the wise old owls of the green benches, it is not shameful for an MP to reflect an opinion of his constituents which he may not share. The Member who fails to do so is not doing his job.

I do not mean he cannot express an opinion of his own, still less that he should change it to match that of his constituents. A greengrocer can have opinions, but we come to him for cabbages. We come to the chamber of the Commons not least — not only but not least — for the opinions of the people, heard in the voices of their tribunes. An MP’s job is to give throat to these, for the people have no other voice in government. An MP’s articulation of his constituents’ views is at least as interesting as his articulation of his own.

Burke disparages that view. “Your representative,” he said (and note now the italics, which are mine) “owes you, not his industry only, but his judgment; and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion.”

That is as elegant as it is dishonest in its choice of terms. Of course a judgment should not be sacrificed to an opinion. Opinion can be mere opinion, but there are no mere judgments. So MPs have judgments, while voters have only opinions? Then the case is proved.

But voters have judgments too. By all means let an MP distinguish his own view from the views of those he represents, but let him remember his duty to articulate these. The chamber is not the same thing as the Government, and unless the chamber rings to the thoughts and feelings of electors then government may not hear, and we may as well abolish the MPs and leave it to the newspapers.

This Government has not heard. As a respecter of the parliamentary ideal I am ashamed the chamber is failing to make the noise it should.

Members ought to be hoarse with warning ministers, not only of the fact that huge numbers of their constituents are unhappy with the prospect of war, but of the very practical obstacle this fact represents for any Cabinet intent on starting one. As a Conservative, I am ashamed that (with a handful of luminous exceptions on the Tory side) the minority who do express popular unease come mostly from the Left.

Am I telling MPs to listen to the crowd simply because I agree with it in this instance? Would I listen so sympathetically if I did not oppose government policy towards Iraq? I hope so. As an MP myself, and at first uncertain about the Falklands War, I listened to my constituents and became sure we had no alternative.

I dislike foxhunting, staghun- ting, all hunting, but I live in the country and know we must respect what good people hold dear. Public opinion is not a homogenous whole, nor the crowd a single crowd: there are groups, classes of interest, different crowds and all must have a voice and be heard — not least by each other. I supported the Poll Tax, but wince at my own party’s failure to bring home to our then Prime Minister its tremendous unpopularity in the country. Popular riots had to do what we had failed to do.

Two plus two makes four and no crowd can invalidate that, but the absence of public support for a policy whose core involves a moral judgment is capable of destroying the validity of that policy. The chamber of the House of Commons exists at least partly to resonate to such judgments, yet during the recent crisis over Iraq many backbench MPs seem either to have shut up completely, or to have been strutting around as though they were Permanent Members of a United Nations Security Council in a parallel universe, second-guessing the deliberations of the one now in New York. They are not. We already have a United Nations Security Council. What we do not have — unless our MPs are prepared to provide it — is a group of men and women dedicated to telling the world, and their own Government, what the people of the United Kingdom think.

Parliament ought to be Tony Blair’s biggest, noisiest and most trusted focus group. If it is muted, if it gags itself or allows itself to be gagged, then marches and demonstrations like today’s will have to take its place. They may be crude — even ugly — affairs, they will do a great deal of damage to the turf in our Royal Parks, and their messages will be blurred, ragged and confused; but they will be all we have.

They are all we have. Hyde Park today is glory to the persistence of democracy, and a disgrace to the House of Commons.