On BBC Radio 4’s Any Answers on Saturday, one Don MacKay, aged 17, phoned in from Cornwall, to express his disaffection with party politics. Behind his evident reticence, he was highly articulate. He thought politics was a façade covering dishonesty and corruption, that government ministers evinced no particular skill set – it was the civil service that ran the country – and that the party system fundamentally undermines democracy. It would be better if MPs were independent. Hold these thoughts.
The evening of Wednesday October 19th must surely represent the nadir for the current administration at Westminster. Surely. Labour had put forward a motion to continue the ban on fracking. The Government issued a three line whip to Conservative members to ensure Labour would be defeated. There was a division. Just before members entered the lobbies, a government minister announced that there was no three line whip. This took the chief whip, and her deputy, by surprise. They resigned on the spot. Apparently. Chaos on the floor of the House ensued, with members allegedly being manhandled into the “appropriate” lobbies. There was a lot of bad language in the air. I saw it reported, with bemusement and amusement, on German telly. “This is a ****ing shambles” und so weiter. But apparently it had been a vote of confidence after all. Or had it? Mysteriously, the whips “unresigned”. The following day, the Prime Minister resigned. She has not yet “unresigned”. At time of writing, Rishi Sunak is the front runner to replace her, but Penny Mordaunt is still in the running. She has until two o’clock to garner 100 supporters in order to trigger an online ballot of the Tory Party membership. Boris has ruled himself out. He isn’t going to be Cincinnatus after all. But I seem to recall he ruled himself out once before, after David Cameron resigned.
Whatever the outcome, there is a universal acknowledgment that something is rotten in the state of Westminster. Sir Keir Starmer, Sir Ed Davey, Nicola Sturgeon, Mark Drakeford, et al, declare that the only way to end this farce is to call a general election. But would it make any difference? And in any case, a general election is not within the gift of the opposition parties. Only the party in government can call a general election and that, so the cliché says, would be like turkeys… Christmas… bla bla bla. And therein lies the rub. Why would you vote to lose your job? As Sir Charles Walker remarked in a scathing indictment of his own government, “There is nothing so ‘ex’ as an ex-politician.”
All over the world, the satirists are having a field day. Even Dmitry Medvedev joined in, in congratulating a lettuce on surviving Liz Truss’s premiership. Witnessing Daft Wednesday was like witnessing the fall of the Roman Empire. Didn’t Caligula – or was it Nero – make his horse a senator? Meanwhile Mr Putin continues to bomb Kiev, and Mr Xi has quietly assumed absolute power over China, apparently for life. Democracy is extremely vulnerable. The House of Commons needs to be put into special measures.
I agree with Mr MacKay from Cornwall. We don’t need merely to tweak the system. It seems to me there is a fundamental problem with our democracy, as currently practised. There is an inevitable conflict of interest between pursuing a political career, and following the dictates of your conscience. It is not unlike the conflict of interest that is recognised in a court of law, when it transpires that a potential jury member happens to know the defendant. That individual will be excused. Similarly, when a member of parliament is called upon to vote that fracking be given the go-ahead, or should be banned, it seems to me their vote should be disallowed when it becomes apparent that their future career, their ability to pay their mortgage, put bread on the table, and support their family, is dependent upon how they vote.
In that sense, the whip is rather like an agent of the defendant in court, who infiltrates the jury and leans on jury members with threats and intimidation.
The whip is the origin of political humbug. When you express and avow opinions which in reality you don’t actually hold, you need to adopt techniques of humbuggery which, at least, evince a degree of cognitive dissonance, and at worst, demonstrate an ability to hold two diametrically opposing views simultaneously. George Orwell called this latter technique “doublethink”. Such techniques are apprehended universally as the political norm. When a politician appears on the Laura Kuenssberg Show we no longer expect they will answer a question in a straightforward way, or, indeed, answer the question at all. You could even argue that the ability to speak the language of humbug is the only skill that is peculiar and particular to the political profession. People who speak Humbug are under the whip.
The whip is not always applied. MPs are sometimes afforded a “conscience vote”. Oddly enough, issues that are absolutely fundamental to our innermost being, issues that are existential, for example, termination of pregnancy, assisted dying, capital punishment – these tend to be conscience votes. But then, if fracking is going to destroy the planet, then fracking becomes an existential issue, and surely a conscience vote.
In truth, every vote, from how often the council should empty the bins to whether or not Trident should be maintained and updated, is a conscience vote. But if you are being leaned on, and your spouse reminds you that you need to pay the children’s school fees, what are you to do?
If the whip is absurd, are then political parties absurd? We should be careful of going down this road. Totalitarian regimes think political parties are absurd. They ban them all – except their own. It is the most natural thing in the world for people in pursuit of a common goal to organise. Yet we need to recognise that it is impossible that even a small group of like-minded individuals will share the same opinion on every topic known to man.
Maybe the absurdity lies at a deeper level. Perhaps it is the political career that is absurd. I wonder if the electorate might, at the next general election, whenever it may be, consider bypassing the political class and voting in “normal” people. A typical candidate might be somebody entering the seventh decade of life, at the top of their professional game whatever it may be, who might be persuaded, albeit reluctantly but out of a sense of civic duty, to stand for Parliament, for one term only. No whip, every vote a conscience vote, no second term. Imagine!
Now you may say I’m a dreamer…