County Times Comment: Free speech: why we will always defend it

Our comment
Our comment

At last Wednesday’s now infamous full council meeting, distinguished Conservative leader Liz Kitchen spoke for many when she hoped the new vice-chairman would not be subject to these ‘unpleasant shenanigans we have seen in the last few months.’

Mrs Kitchen was referring to the treatment endured by fellow Tory Christian Mitchell culminating in him being stripped of the chairman-elect role - something she described as ‘absolutely appalling’.

In his regular column this week, council leader Ray Dawe while chastising the County Times for focusing on the issue also chooses to devote most of his allocated space in the same way.

He shrugs it off saying ‘councillors’ reasons for preferring one candidate over another are personal to them.’

But he doesn’t mention his own involvement in the matter, which he specified in an email to Mr Mitchell last September which concluded: ‘ ‘I am not willing to support any nomination for you as council Chairman next year. I will over the weekend be deciding on an email that I will be sending to the HDC Conservative Group about this matter.’

It is no doubt true that there will have been more than one reason for the decision.

One senior Tory who opposed Mr Mitchell told this newspaper’s editor ahead of the deselection decision that there was a real fear that if Christian became chairman he might back the public over the Tory cabinet.

He cited as an example a heated debate in the chamber before Christmas when a resident, Dr Geoffrey Richardson, had said a cabinet member, Claire Vickers, had not answered his question. On that occasion, the current chairman Philip Circus intervened and told him to ‘show respect for the office of the chairman’.

The editor was asked: ‘But what if the council chairman had been Mr Mitchell? What if he had agreed with the member of the public? What if he had demanded of Mrs Vickers that she actually answer the question?’

This argument was intended to convince the editor that Mr Mitchell would be an appalling choice. It had the reverse effect.

Councillors exist to serve the public. The people are not the enemy. They don’t need nor deserve the threat of the police being called - as happened on that occasion.

So the Tory group now sits at a critical crossroads.

There is no doubt that by any reckoning the events of the past week have shown that its local plan is now hopelessly derailed and unsafe. If there was any question of letters being fabricated then the matter should have been investigated and the comments removed.

More than that, it must decide whether it hardens its heart against Mr Mitchell and nearly a third of the group that backed him.

Or it seeks to make amends and find a way of reuniting the group - not least by symbolically handing back the chairman elect role to Mr Mitchell, insignificant and damaged though that position now is.

This debate is, of course, not really about who is chairman. It is about much greater principles of freedom of speech and open democracy. It is about politicians re-engaging with the electorate.

Mr Mitchell is a principled man. If he feels something is wrong and against the public interest, he single-mindedly picks away at it - irrespective of the potential political damage to himself.

This week, he once again turned down an invitation to the launch of the County Times’ Community Chest because it was hosted by brewers Hall and Woodhouse and could have created a perceived conflict of interest with his Chairman of Licensing role.

We trust that Mr Dawe and his deputy Helena Croft will do the right thing, if only for the sake of the party and seek to heal the rift. Only they can do it.

If not, the public will have the final say - in the local elections of next year.

See also Christian Mitchell’s column

See also Ray Dawe’s column