The arguments in favour of leaving or remaining in the EU have some very powerful and vocal supporters. There are risks as both sides of the debate compete for what they imagine are the ears of the rest of society that between them they will alienate the people who they want to come out and vote on 23rd June. There are risks that along the way lines will be crossed and damage will go deeper than people appreciate. Over the last week the comments by John Longworth, erstwhile Director General of the British Chamber of Commerce in favour of Brexit and his subsequent suspension have led to a significant number of Brexit supporters blaming Number 10 and the other parts of Government for interfering in the work of the BCC. None of us know who has said what in the discussions between the BCC and No 10, but there is clear evidence that the businesses that the BCC represents didn’t want the organisation or its Director General to take a position on the EU debate and in fact that the majority of its members support remaining in the EU. Their reason for neutrality was deeply political, they wanted to influence both sides of the debate. Even John Longworth has denied his departure was impacted by the Government.
Despite this several of the Cabinet level Brexit supporters have claimed that John Longworth should have been allowed to speak his mind, in effect criticising the BCC for its policy and for its opinions or tactics. Two vocal members of the Cabinet in the last few days on the John Longworth debate have been Boris Johnson and Chris Grayling. Chris Grayling was one of the Ministers who supported the 2nd Clause of the Lobbying Bill to remove any vestige of opportunity for charities to engage in political debate in 2014. This was intended to stop charities engaging in any political debate. The Charity Commission has just written to all charities reminding them of their obligations to remain silent on matters connected to the EU referendum. Meanwhile Boris Johnson has just instructed the staff of his own office to ensure they do not speak out in favour of remaining in the EU, and that they either support his position or stay silent. This is despite the fact that less than 3 weeks ago he was in favour of remaining in the EU himself, and that remaining in the EU is the Government position (they are all civil servants). It seems to men like Johnson and Grayling, that free speech is vital to all those who they agree with and silence is essential from those who they disagree with. We deserve better than this. I want to hear the opinions of people on both sides of this debate, but the people that should be quiet are people like Johnson and Grayling and the many members of the Cabinet whose views are well known. What is missing are the views of the millions of people who feel that they are not entitled to display their opinion for fear of being sacked by people such as Johnson or who have been legislated into silence by people such as Grayling.