A semblance of change – UK parliamentary politics then and now

A semblance of change – UK parliamentary politics then and now

ALEX KURTAGIC finds underlying similarities between the major British political parties

In The Problem of Democracy, Alain de Benoist writes that the term ‘democracy’ is so widely misused today as to have become virtually meaningless. One example of such misuse we find in the observation, often repeated on the Right, but probably also thought by many, that the main political parties of Western democratic nations offer no genuine choice to the electorate – that the political establishment will sell essentially the same politics under two or maybe three different labels, and that, therefore, rather than the voters making a choice between political parties, it is the political parties who make a choice between the voters. In other words, in the next election (as in past ones), voters will not make a choice, because the choice has already been made for them.

Policy debates are very noisy, and the media does much to sharpen the contrast and heighten the drama to fever pitch, but the gap between the parties is even narrower than we think. In all cases, and despite election promises, policy development moves in the same general direction. There is always more immigration, more legislation, more surveillance, more debt, more political correctness, and more emphasis on non-economic forms of equality. Focus remains on economic growth, no matter what the consequences or at what cost; and culturally there seems only the wrecking ball: a revisionism that tends towards devaluation, vulgarisation, and the deprecation of anything that is elevating, heroic, traditional, or aristocratic. While it may seem an exaggeration to say that in effect we have a one-party system, when we examine the political parties historically, the assertion has some basis in reality.

Tories and Conservatives

Today’s Conservatives have nothing to do with the Tory Party of the 1600s. The Tory Party traced its origins to the politics of the English Civil War: the pre-Tories – this was before the term came into use – were a Parliamentarian faction that had become alienated from the radicalism of the reformers. They supported Charles I, a strong monarchy as a counter-balance to the power of Parliament, and the Church of England, which was considered by them a main support for the royal government; while their opponents, the Whigs, supported a strong Parliament with the king reduced to a mere figurehead. Properly speaking, the Tory Party emerged some time later, during the Exclusion Bill crisis of 1678-1681. The Whigs wanted to exclude James, Duke of York, from the throne, due to his support for absolute monarchy, strong connections to France, and recent conversion to Catholicism, which they thought would imperil the Protestant religion and was a threat to civil liberty. As before, the Tories supported the King and rejected the Exclusion Bill.

After the Glorious Revolution, the Tories remained a powerful political force, despite the eventual failure of their founding principles. In this they benefited from Queen Anne’s support, who despised the Whigs. By 1714, however, the Tories were finished as a governing party: upon acceding to the throne, George I formed a government composed entirely of Whigs, who then seized the opportunity to extend their power and crush the Tories completely. The Tories were summarily dismissed from office and pushed out into the wilderness. Though they enjoyed broad support throughout the country, and would have won every election between 1715 and 1747 under a system of proportional representation, the distribution of parliamentary seats was such that they comprised a permanent minority in Parliament, without a hope of ever returning to government.

In the face of Whig omnipotence, the Tories were reduced to supporting Whig factions, until they eventually ceased to function as a coherent political party. The term Tory, which had begun as an insult (meaning ‘outlaw’ or ‘robber’) regained its status as an epithet, and, after the accession of George III, was used pejoratively to refer to supporters of the King. However, even politicians who at this time were labelled ‘Tory’, such as Lord Bute and Lord North (who was Prime Minister during the American Revolution), described themselves as Whig. In fact, no politician described himself as a Tory. Whig hegemony was complete, and from then on there would only be government Whigs and opposition Whigs.

All the same, Toryism – now designated High Toryism, to distinguish it from the debased ‘Tory’ label informally used when referring to Conservatives – still managed to survive, albeit under the surface. In modern times it existed as a strand of the traditionalist faction within the Conservative Party, since there was nowhere else to go. T. S. Eliot, Enoch Powell, and Alan Clark have been described as High Tories, and at one time the Conservative Monday Club, a Right-wing pressure group, was the leading exponent of High Toryism. However, the Monday Club was marginalised and eventually expelled from the Conservative Party, and a successor, the Traditional Britain Group, exists entirely on the outside.

The modern Conservative Party traces its origins to a faction of the Whig Party centred on William Pitt the Younger. This faction rejected the politics of the ‘Old Whigs’ – and opposed the radicalism detonated by the American and French Revolutions. Pitt thought of himself as an ‘independent Whig’, and, unlike the Tories of old, approved of the existing constitutional arrangement and saw no reason to alter the balance of power in favour of the royal prerogative. Neither did subsequent governments of the so-called ‘Friends of Mr Pitt’ consider ‘Tory’ an appropriate label. While temperamentally conservative and associated with the lesser gentry and the Church of England and the Episcopal Church in Scotland, and while sentimentally attached to the old institutions of the monarchy, they were, unlike the Tories, against increasing royal power. More importantly, these Pittites were warlike imperialists, whereas the Tories had been pacific isolationists.

The principles of the modern Conservative Party were laid down by Robert Peel in The Tamworth Manifesto, published in 1834. Subsequent Peelite administrations labelled themselves ‘conservative’ – the term was first used in a Quarterly Review article – but theirs can hardly be considered a conservative founding document, since it was committed to reform in all areas, and only attenuated by an opposition to change when deemed unnecessary. Following a split in the party on the issue of free trade, Peel’s supporters would eventually join the Whigs and the radicals to form the Liberal Party. The Peelites, obviously, supported free trade, while their opponents were protectionists. During the dispute the protectionist faction had rejected the ‘conservative’ label and instead called themselves ‘Tory’. With Peel’s defection, however, and under the leadership of the Earl of Derby and Benjamin Disraeli, these ‘Tories’ adopted the term ‘Conservative’ as the official name of the Party. Note, though, that the Earl of Derby (Edward Smith-Stanley) had begun his political career in the Whig Party, while Benjamin Disraeli had begun his – unsuccessfully – as a Radical.

The Whigs

As we have seen, the Liberal Party was formed out of a merger of the Whig Party and the Radicals. The Whigs were reform-oriented aristocrats, and the term ‘Whig’ was also an insult, meaning ‘cattle driver’. They were influenced by the ideas of Algernon Sidney and John Locke, which found expression in Political Aphorisms: or, the True Maxims of Government Displayed, an anonymous pamphlet published in 1690, and other manifestos. Political Aphorisms argued for

…the equality of individuals in the state of nature, their consent as the foundation of all government, the right of the people to resist a king who violates the original contract, and the principle that power reverts to the people when the government is dissolved.

It also stated that

…every individual is bound by the Law of Nature to exercise self-defence against those who violate that law or, within civil society, the common good.

By the 1770s, Adam Smith, the founder of classical liberalism, became another important influence. During the reign of George III the Whigs fragmented into factions – ‘Greenvillite’, ‘Bedfordite’, ‘Rockinghamite’, and ‘Chathamite’ – but eventually coalesced around two of them: the Rockinghamites, who represented the ‘Old Whigs’ of wealthy aristocratic families, and the Chathamites. Edmund Burke Was aligned with the Rockingham Whigs, who opposed the policies that led to the American Revolution and later sought a negotiated peace.

After Lord North’s departure from government, a coalition of Rockingham Whigs and former Chathamites, led by the Earl of Shelburne, took over. But after Charles James Fox replaced Rockingham following the latter’s death, he quarrelled with Lord Shelburne and destroyed the coalition. Lord Shelburne’s government was brief, and Fox returned to power in coalition with his inveterate enemy, Lord North. This oil-and-vinegar coalition soon fell apart, leading to George III bringing in William Pitt the Younger (Lord Chatham’s son) as his Prime Minister. Charles James Fox and his supporters, now opposition Whigs, saw themselves as legitimate heirs to the Whig tradition.

Fox was politically radical, and was notoriously pampered by his father, who indulged his every whim. On one occasion, for example, he expressed a desire to break his father’s watch, and duly smashed it on the floor, without being restrained or reprimanded for it. On another, his father promised him to let him watch the demolition of a wall in his estate; when he learnt that the wall had already been demolished, Henry Fox ordered the workmen to rebuild the wall and re-demolish it, with Charles in attendance. As a young man, Fox was given free rein to choose his own education, and attended fashionable schools, following which he was taken to Paris and Spa, during which trip his father furnished with abundant funds so he could learn to gamble, and also introduced him to womanising by arranging for him to lose his virginity to one Madame de Quallens. When Fox returned to Eton in 1763, he arrived ‘attired in red-heeled shoes and Paris cut-velvet, adorned with a pigeon-wing hair style tinted with blue powder, and a newly acquired French accent’, which led to a corrective flogging by the headmaster.

Fox would divide his party on the issue of the French Revolution, which he supported, and his Radical allies. Edmund Burke, who, as a sympathiser of the colonists’ grievances in America and a supporter of the American independence, was respected by liberals, would defect to Pitt in 1791, after which and many others would break with Fox by 1793 and also defect to Pitt by 1794. Upon Pitt’s death in 1809, Lord Grenville formed a government of national unity, called the Ministry of All the Talents, during which Whig defectors returned to the fold. When the Ministry of All the Talents fell a year later, the Foxite Whigs were excluded from power for a generation.

Yet the climax of Whiggism was soon to come, as the Whigs regained unity around moral causes, pushing for the abolition of slavery, the emancipation of the Catholics, relief for the poor, and Parliamentary reform, with which they returned to power in 1830. These causes were spearheaded by the Radical Whig faction, whose writings had been influential in the period leading up to the American Revolution. Under the premiership of Lord Grey, the disciple and successor of Charles James Fox, they passed the Reform Act 1832, which widened the electoral franchise by redistributing power on the basis of population, thus ending a practice, in place since 1432, which defined the voting qualification as any male freehold owner of land worth 40 shillings or above. Under the old regime many boroughs – known as ‘rotten boroughs’ or ‘pocket boroughs’ – would be controlled by powerful land-owning families, while populous manufacturing towns went unrepresented. The enfranchisement of the upper middle class thus shifted power away from the landed aristocracy and towards the urban middle classes. This sowed the seeds for the decline for Whiggism, for henceforth the House of Commons became a site of systematic middle class liberalism. Incidentally, William Pitt the Younger had already proposed electoral reform along these lines in 1785, but his motion was defeated.

Chairing the Member by William Hogarth

The Radicals

British radicalism began during the crisis between the American colonies and Great Britain. They drew from the Leveller tradition, which originated during the English Civil War. As expressed in the manifesto, An Agreement of the People, published between 1647 and 1649, the Levellers, who were not a political party but a movement, emphasised popular sovereignty, extended suffrage, equality before the law, and religious tolerance. Politically speaking, however, the term Radical is credited to the Whig Charles James Fox, who called for a ‘radical reform’ of the electoral system.

The Radicals actively agitated during the French Revolution. The radical pamphleteer and nonconformist cleric Richard Price saw in the French Revolution a fulfilment of prophecy, and his sermon, A Discourse on the Love of our Country, preached on the 101st anniversary of the Glorious Revolution, was met with an unexpected and energetic reply by Edmund Burke, titled Reflections on the Revolution in France. Though it would later prove influential among classical liberals (not just traditional conservatism), the immediate response was The Rights of Man, by Thomas Paine, and A Vindication of the Rights of Man by proto-feminist Mary Wollstonecraft (the mother of Mary Shelley, author of Frankenstein), who followed up with A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, where she extended Price’s argument for the equality of women. Together with William Godwin, Mary Wollstonecraft’s husband, they argued for republicanism, agrarian socialism, and anarchism.

Needless to say, the Radicals were radical egalitarians, and encouraged mass support for democratic reform along with rejection of the monarchy, the aristocracy, and all forms of privilege. The middle class radicals sought to broaden the franchise to include commercial and industrial interests and towns without parliamentary representation. The ‘popular radicals’, drawn from the middle class and from the artisanate, agitated to assert wider rights, including poverty relief – while the ‘philosophical radicals’, who were antipathetic to the popular faction, established the theoretical basis for electoral reform via Jeremy Bentham’s utilitarianism.

From 1836, working class radicals coalesced around the Chartist movement, named after the People’s Charter, The Charter called for universal suffrage over the age of 21; a secret ballot; no property qualification for members of Parliament; payment for MPs (so poor men could serve); constituencies of equal size; and annual elections for Parliament. The Chartists also led mass demonstrations and petitions to Parliament voicing economic grievances. Though unsuccessful, their cause was taken up by the Anti-Corn Law League, which was dissolved upon repeal of the Corn Laws in 1846. Its members would carry on within the Liberal Party.

The Liberal Party

The Liberal Party resulting from the Whig-Radical fusion was initially dominated by John Russell and Lord Palmerston. Its first leader would be William Gladstone, who took over after Palmerston died and Russell retired. The first Liberal government was led by Gladstone after victory in the general election of 1868. The Party then became a national membership organisation in 1877, thereby becoming a modern political party.

It was during this period that the trade unions movement began entering politics. After the Second Reform Act 1867, which enfranchised the urban working class, and the Third Reform Act 1885, which enfranchised Catholic voters in Ireland, the Liberal Party began endorsing some of the candidates sponsored by the trade unions, since there was no Labour Party. The first Lib-Lab candidate was George Odger, who ran in the Southwark by-election of 1870.

The Liberals would reach their apex in the 1890s, which also saw the formation of the Independent Labour Party in 1893. From then on the Liberal Party went into decline, their electoral support gobbled up at an accelerating pace by the Labour Party, which also benefited from Liberal defectors. The Liberals were divided by World War I, and by the early 1920s, they were barely managing one third of the vote. The Great Depression further divided the liberals, and by the 1935 election, they were reduced to seventeen seats in Parliament. Subsequent elections saw ever-shrinking liberal representation, which was reduced to twelve seats in 1945, nine in 1950, six in 1951, and five in 1957. It seemed at this point that the Liberal Party would become extinct, but they managed to cling on, if only because a smattering of constituencies in rural Scotland and Wales remained attached to their Liberal traditions, and because the Liberals and the Conservatives agreed each to contest only one of the two seats in Bolton and Huddersfield.

The Liberal Party would enjoy a minor revival under Jo Grimond, who had become an MP for the remote constituency of Orkney and Shetland. Grimond repositioned the party as a non-socialist alternative to the Conservatives, and his appeal was to the younger middle-class suburban generation. While the Liberals became a serious third force in British politics, they remained unable to break through the dominance of Labour and the Conservatives.

Thus was established a pattern of ever-Leftward drift that has become characteristic of modern politics: the Tories were annihilated by their competitors on the Left, the Whigs; the Whigs then fused with the Radicals on their Left to form the Liberal Party; and the Liberal Party was then nearly extinguished by the rise a new party even further to the Left, the Labour Party.

The Labour Party

When the urban proletariat was enfranchised by the Second Reform Act 1867, it was felt that a party was needed to represent their interests. As already noted, the party originated in the trades union movement, which in 1893 led to the formation of the Independent Labour Party. The intellectual foundations were laid down by the Fabian Socialists. In 1900, the Trade Union Congress proposed a conference, attended by various socialist groups, which then created the Labour Representation Committee, whose mission was to coordinate the MPs sponsored by the trade unions. The LRC eventually led to the formal adoption of ‘The Labour Party’ as its designation in 1906. The LRC included two members of the Social Democratic Federation, a Marxist organisation supported by William Morris and Eleanor Marx (Karl’s youngest daughter), which later established the British Socialist Party. The BSP emerged as an explicitly revolutionary socialist organisation after the Bolshevik Revolution, and, following negotiations with other communist groups, formed the Communist Party of Great Britain. The Labour Party kept its distance from communism, however, and the first Labour Party Prime Minister, Ramsay MacDonald, was a committed anti-communist, so the CPGB remained isolated and small. Nevertheless, after 1956, defectors of the CPGB, such as E. P. Thompson and John Saville, of the Communist Party Historians Group, a subdivision of the CPGB, would begin to rethink their orthodox Marxism, leading to the emergence of the New Left. Other defectors would go straight to the Labour Party. This, of course, meant that the Labour Party began turning towards Marxism.

The Social Democratic Party

The Labour Party was a natural target for infiltration by communists. From the 1950s, some came from the Socialist Review Group. Membership of the SRG was tiny, so they adopted an entryist strategy, working within the Labour Party to spread Trotskyist propaganda and recruit. Nearly two-thirds of the Labour League of Youth were members of the SRG. The communist influence cannot be overlooked, for by 1983 the Labour Party enjoyed the approval even of hardcore Marxist Eric Hobsbawm, a man who refused to apologise for the tens of millions of dead under Stalin on the grounds that the aim of the worker’s revolution justifies the means.

When in 1981, under the leadership of Michael Foot, the Labour Party adopted a policy of unilateral nuclear disarmament and withdrawal from the European Economic Community (the precursor of the European Union), a so-called ‘gang of four’, already alienated by the Trotskyist drift of the Labour Party, defected to form the Social Democratic Party. Their ideology was social liberalism. This new party, however, challenged the Liberal position as the third party, and they both realised that it would be counter-productive to compete with one another. They therefore formed an alliance, the SDP-Liberal Alliance, in which guise they fought elections.

The Alliance’s share of the vote made gains at the expense of Labour’s, but the first-past-the-post electoral system still meant that the Alliance had only dozens of MPs, while Labour had hundreds. Moreover, this was during the height of the Thatcher era, so the Alliance had no hope of being in government.

The Liberal Democrats

The Liberal Democrats resulted from the formal merger – the logical conclusion of the Alliance – of the Liberal Party with the Social Democratic Party in 1988.

Ideologically, the party’s origins are reflected in the fact that the party is composed of economic liberals and social liberals. The economic liberals, also called Orange Bookers after their manifesto, represent, numerically, only a one-third minority. The social liberals favour policies aimed at equality of outcome and reductions in social inequality. All Liberal Democrat party leaders up until Nick Clegg took over in 2007 have been social liberals. Nick Clegg, by contrast, is a personal and economic liberal and was a contributor to the Orange Book. This clearly made him a viable coalition partner for David Cameron after the 2010 general election.

Liberal supremacy

From a historical perspective, it becomes clear that liberal supremacy exists not only in the imagination of Right-wingers: it is real. And while there are socialist tendencies in both the Labour Party and the Liberal Democrat Party, the Conservatives, like them, are committed to egalitarianism: David Cameron is a signatory of Unite Against Fascism, a thuggish group that descends from the Anti-Nazi League, which was organised by Tony Cliff’s Socialist Worker’s Party, a Marxist group. Cameron has also been praised by Martin Kettle, contributor of Marxism Today and son of high-ranking communist Arnold Kettle, as ‘good for Britain’. What we have is a consensus around liberalism that has mild socialist leanings. Even though the Daily Mail has recently attacked Ed Miliband by drawing attention to his father, Ralph Miliband, a Marxist theorist of the New Left who was briefly a member of the Labour Party, Ed remains committed to capitalism.

Any political opposition to liberalism today remains strictly marginal, existing in the form of fissiparous grouplets, think tanks, and fora that meet quietly at privately held events. Oppositional ideas remain largely unutterable, since for most ordinary citizens they remain unthinkable. Even if they would welcome change, before change is possible it has to be sayable, and before it is sayable, it has to be thinkable.

Having said that, no hegemony lasts forever, and while the liberals now seem all-powerful, and while the Left continues to enjoy power in the academic ecosystem, from where they continue to drive the long-term Leftward drift of liberalism and therefore politics in general, it bears remembering that radicals were once on the fringes, and, in the case of the Marxists, they were also forced to operate as clandestine or semi-clandestine grouplets, think tanks, and fora. It may well be that liberalism will one day decline and come to be dislodged by something else. When, and what that something else will look like, however, is yet to be determined. For the time being it looks as liberalism will remain a formidable force for some time to come.

ALEX KURTAGIC is an artist, freelance writer and novelist

 

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