The Usual Channels

Now that Gavin Williamson has relinquished the post of government Chief Whip to become UK Defence Secretary, I wonder if he will take with him Cronus, his pet tarantula.  Cronus used to occupy a place on the Chief Whip’s desk, and, at least according to the Guardian, Mr Williamson told the Times, “You have to look at all different ways to persuade people to vote with the government, and it’s great to have Cronus as part of the team.”

I’m trying to imagine what effect the tarantula would have had on me if I had been a Conservative MP summoned to the Chief Whip’s office.  Having a tarantula on your desk is the sort of thing a Bond villain might easily have gone in for.  “Ah! Mr Bond…” – stroking one of the eight legs – “An unexpected pleasure…”  It’s that sense of the steel fist inside the velvet glove.

Bullying in the UK is extremely refined.  People often talk about eradicating bullying, in our schools and universities, in the work place, in the armed forces and, most recently, in Parliament.  Yet, it seems to me, bullying is such an integral part of the UK social fabric from top to bottom, that its eradication could only be achieved by an attitudinal change so drastic that I doubt our political masters could take it in.

What is a whip if he (usually he) is not a bully?  The expression whip dates back to the mid eighteenth century and apparently comes from hunting.  (I gleaned this information from the House of Commons Library Standard Note SN/PC02829, 2008.)  The “whipper-in” was a huntsman whose task was to stop the hounds from straying from the pack, literally by whipping them into line.  That the office of whip might be associated with fox hunting may indeed suggest a sense of anachronism.  Yet whipping was never so refined and developed as it is now.

The main function of the government’s Chief Whip is to ensure that the government’s business gets through Parliament.  Some of this task is organizational and relates to the timetabling of parliamentary affairs, but at its heart lies the task of managing MP attendance at votes, and persuading any reluctant MPs to vote with the government.  To this end, the Whip’s Office circulates a weekly document actually known as “the Whip”, which details the coming week’s business and the government’s expectations as to how members will vote.  If the business is important, it is underlined; if very important, it is underlined twice; if crucial, three times – hence the expression “three-line whip”.

It is said, particularly in televised dramas of parliamentary life, that the Whip’s Office gathers dirt on backbenchers which gives the office leverage in influencing how they vote.  It has also been said that the whip is influential in assigning positions in government or on select committees.  Now you may well think so; I couldn’t possibly comment.

Of course the Chief Whip has a Shadow Chief Whip, fulfilling similar tasks for Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition.  The orderly dispensation of parliamentary business requires that the Chief Whip and his shadow to some extent co-operate.  This co-operation constitutes “the usual channels”.  Much of this work can be undertaken by the Civil Service, and in this the Private Secretary to the Government Chief Whip has an important role.  The Chief Whip has a Deputy Chief Whip and a team of junior whips.  They each in turn have their shadows.  Deputies and juniors are assigned regional or departmental areas of interest.  One of the government whips, the Vice-Chamberlain of the Household, is held hostage in Buckingham Palace during the Queen’s Speech at the State Opening of Parliament, as surety against Her Majesty’s safe return to the palace.  The House of Lords, (“the other place”) also has whips, although the influence they exert tends to be a little less zealous.

I find it fascinating that MPs’ questionable peccadilloes are – allegedly – recorded in a “little black book”, but that if an MP really fouls up, the whip is not lashed; on the contrary, it is withdrawn.  The offending MP is no longer subject to discipline because he has been expelled from the party.  He is like a concentration camp inmate who starts to smoke his own cigarettes rather than bartering them for scraps of food.  Or like a hypothermic mountaineer who stops shivering violently and starts to hallucinate he is in a sunlit meadow, meandering towards the sound of children’s laughter.  He stops suffering, because he is finished.

What do you think of all this whipping stuff?  Is it the sum total of priceless tradition that has evolved over centuries in the Mother of Parliaments, there for a purpose and to be cherished and venerated?  Or is it a load of tosh?

I’m rather fond of tradition (albeit viewed from a distance of 400 miles).  I think the Palace of Westminster is a very beautiful building.  Precisely because it is falling to bits, I think it should be evacuated and restored ASAP.  I rather like the tradition of referring to “My honourable friend the member for Biggleswick” rather than Joe Bloggs, and the insistence that to call Mr Bloggs a liar – even if he be guilty of terminological inexactitude – is unparliamentary.   I don’t mind the MPs parading through lobbies rather than pressing an electronic gadget in order to vote; at least they get to stretch their legs.  I quite like Mr Speaker to announce, “The ayes to the right… the nays to the left… the ayes have it!  Unlock!”  If I were a sitting member I might even be tempted to take a snort of snuff apparently provided at the entrance to the Chamber, in a wooden box with a silver lid, made from the old chamber door the Luftwaffe managed to blow to bits in 1941.

But I think they should dump the whips.  Get over it, I say.  I realise this is an extremely radical point of view to take.  If you dump the idea of a whip, you really dump the idea of a political party, because you are removing the party’s disciplinary machinery and saying to the members, “Vote according to your conscience.”

Now I hear you say, that’s an impossibly jejune and naïve idea.  It is the most natural thing in the world for people of like mind and with a common end in view to organize.  You can’t achieve anything unless you can get a body of men and women to act as one.  That is perfectly true, but is not the purpose of a parliamentary debate to explore an issue such that men and women of good will can indeed take a vote, establish the majority, and then act as one?  The trouble with the whip is that parliamentary debate is reduced to number crunching.  You count the number of votes the government and the opposition can rely on, and you push forward the debate when you already know what the outcome is going to be.  People may be compelled by the three-line whip to vote for something they don’t believe in.  They might even be called upon to go on camera and defend the indefensible on the BBC and before the nations.  Big hitters traditionally take on this role, particularly if the interview is going to be rocky, because big hitters are big bruisers.  They are well versed at maintaining a straight face and giving expression to some specimen of cognitive dissonance or, more colloquially, talking b*******.  They justify the outcome of the debate, but the outcome of the debate was already established through techniques of backstairs jobbery.  The debate becomes a show-debate.  If your debate is a show-debate, it is meaningless.  All you really have left is flummery in the surround of ornate architecture, ancient modes of polite address, the tinkling cymbal of the division bell, and snuff.

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