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.