Better loyalty to principle than partyby AC Grayling / June 16, 2016 / Leave a comment
Published in July 2016 issue of Prospect Magazine
Political parties do better in elections if they are united. Party loyalty is accordingly valued. A disunited party emits a bad smell to electors, internal dissension leads to splits if it goes too far. All this is a lesson emphatically taught by history, and is common knowledge.
It is however odd that party loyalty, or even the mere appearance of it, should be so prized. Cast an eye back to the 18th century when members of parliament were individually more independent, though formed into Whig and Tory factions. MPs whose seat depended on supporting the administration were known as “placemen” because they were specifically there as voting fodder. The rest, county and borough members, were in many cases effectively owners of the seats they occupied, and could not be compelled to support the government; their seats did not depend on it.
The idea of independent MPs who have to be individually persuaded of the merits of an administration’s proposals, is an attractive one. The idea of hundreds of backbenchers obediently voting as instructed by party whips, is highly unattractive. And yet it is the obedient, unquestioning, whipped-in party which, by projecting the impression of party unity, avoids electoral disadvantage.
All political parties are coalitions containing a spectrum of views, and they are generally kept together by a desire to win and keep power or—for individuals standing for election—of gaining and keeping a parliamentary seat. As a result, principles make rare appearances in the division lobbies.
One could cite many examples. A decade ago, during the national debate about proposals to make all citizens carry biometric identity cards, I wrote a pamphlet on behalf of the civil liberties organisation Liberty which was sent to all MPs and peers, arguing against the proposal. I received scores of replies in effect saying, “I agree with you but have to vote as required,” and adding that arguments of principle would not carry the day, only arguments saying identity cards would be too costly. Such is our world.
In most referendums, however, MPs are permitted by their party organisations to vote according to conscience. The result wonderfully exposes internal divisions. When virulent antipathies among supposed colleagues are vented in public, such exposure is especially dangerous, and threatens splits. If a split happens, antipathies and name-calling are merely the trigger; the real reason, this time, tends to be principle, as history again shows.
“Labour so hates being in government that it needs a period of two decades of unelectability to purge the taint of office”
There are several examples in the last two centuries in British politics. Differences between the supporters of protectionist and laissez-faire attitudes to trade resulted in the realignment after 1850 of British politics into the modern Conservative and Liberal parties. Unionism, the Boer war, tariff reform, and Lords’ powers over financial bills unsettled party loyalties further, as illustrated by Winston Churchill’s crossing and recrossing of the House of Commons floor.
It has however been the Labour Party which has suffered most from splittism, first over the Ramsay Macdonald “sell out” of the early 1930s and again after left-wingers and moderates fell out in the late 1970s, resulting in the formation by Labour defectors of the Social Democratic Party in 1981. Prognostications of a similar possibility followed Jeremy Corbyn’s election as Labour leader courtesy of the Ed Milliband “vote for three pounds” leadership electoral system.
The Labour Party would appear to so hate being in government that it has to enter a voluntary period of, roughly, two decades of unelectability to purge the taint of office, to air the House of Purity of the odour caused by reality-enforced compromises. What happened to the party after the Wilson-Callaghan era, and what is happening now after the Blair-Brown era, equally illustrate the point.
Everyone knows that the major political parties are seething nests of dissension and disagreement, that the outward face of unity is a mere façade, that while the appearance of party loyalty is an electoral necessity it is disloyalty which forms the very stuff of internal party factionalism and jockeying. So we have an anomalous situation in which unquestioning obedience and conformity are given the name of loyalty and regarded as virtues, while independence of mind and action, predicated on doing what is best as opposed to what is merely expedient, is punished at the voting booth.
In other arenas loyalty is indeed a virtue: to principle, to good causes, to friends and loved ones, to oneself. These loyalties can compete, and be inconsistent, and in being so are sources of struggle in our lives. As with most things else, resolution of such conflicts depends on the minutiae of individual cases. One can however say this much: better loyalty to principle than party, better loyalty to party than pocket—but best of all is loyalty to ideals.