Saturday 29 August 2009

Parliament's golden age that never was

Daniel Hannan is right to argue that debate is the stuff of politics - and that political parties should not be afraid of debate on public issues on which there is sincere internal disagreement.

But there is a problem with his Telegraph article making that eminently reasonably case. His history is bunk. It may, as ever, be very confidently expressed, but it is demonstrably plain wrong. So it is a curious surprise that Hannan, given that he wishes to express such a deep pride in our Parliamentary history, should turn out to know quite so little about it.

Hannan offers a very common argument about the historic loss of Parliamentary independence. Go into any pub in the land and, if you could persuade somebody to talk about politics, you might well expect to hear something like this.

For most of our history, it was understood that MPs sat in their own right and were answerable chiefly to their local electorate. This meant that, in order to get their programme through, ministers had to humour and cajole the House of Commons, which in turn meant that the legislature was an effective check on the executive. True, all members of the Cabinet were bound by collective responsibility. But the notion that such responsibility should extend to their backbenchers would have seemed outrageous: the whole purpose of Parliament was to hold the administration to account


Then, around about 40 years ago, journalists began to develop the idea that if Person X disagreed, on the record, with Person Y, it was a "gaffe" (a word that exists only in newspapers, never in ordinary conversations). As parties solidified, and politics became professionalised, MPs were increasingly treated by the media as representatives of their parties rather than their constituencies

.... Worst of all, insistence on conformity prevents Parliament from doing its most important job, namely to constrain the Government. When MPs contract out their opinions to their Whips, they cease to represent their constituents.

But that doesn't make it right. Factually, it is exactly the opposite of the truth.

So could Hannan please supply some evidence for this eloquent lament for the loss of the willingness to stand up to party and whip, which Parliamentarians felt so strongly 50 years ago, and have now surrendered?

The academic and Tory peer Philip Norton showed how and why that this very common argument was wrong between 1975 and 1980 - demonstrating that party in Parliament had been much more cohesive and backbenchers more compliant in the supposed lost golden age of independence. To quote a usefully succinct summary from a Canadian academic Christopher J.Kam, who has also written extensively on party discipline in parliamentary history, Norton's ground-breaking work

showed that the frequency with which British MPs voted against their own parties increased dramatically from 1970 onward. Whereas in the 1950s under one division in fifty saw a British MP vote against his or her party, in the 1970s almost one out of every five divisions witnessed this sort of dissent. Government defeats increased in lockstep, British governments suffering sixty-five defeats between 1970 and 1979 compared to just five over the previous twenty-five years (Schwarz 1980, p. 36; Norton 1985, p. 27; Cowley and Norton 1996).

The academic debate has been about why backbench dissent surged over these last forty years, peaking in the last decade.

However, the argument about the increasingly supine nature of MPs has become ever more popular as a piece of conventional wisdom, while the brilliant and enormously informed academic chronicler of backbench dissent Philip Cowley has provided chapter and verse on how the facts have continued to move in precisely the other direction. (It is, in passing, stupefying that ESRC funding for the Cowley, Norton and Stuart Revolts project - a paradigm example of political science breaking new ground and informing public debate - has been lost).

If you want an informed and intelligent discussion of this 'golden age of Parliament' meme, then this British Academy transcript of a 2007 event involving several of the academic A-list is a good place to start.

As Philip Cowley points out, everybody who argues the same thesis as Dan Hannan (and almost everybody does - he cites the Power Inquiry, Roy Hattersley and Simon Heffer, but you could stick a pin into any newspaper op-ed page and encounter the same mythology most days of the week.

As you can see, if you look back to the 1950s, the year of the independent backbencher, the great amateur politician, almost absolute cohesion on the backbenchers. There are two years in the 1950s, two whole years, when not a single backbench government MP defies the Whip. They have absolute 100 per cent cohesion in every single vote. Then there is a sea-change somewhere around the 1960s or early 1970s, there is a bit of debate about when and why, and for the rest of the post-war era, you see a much higher level of backbench independence, and the 2001-2005 Parliament saw the highest level of backbench rebellion in the post-war era. This idea that there has been a decline is not just wrong, it is the opposite of the truth.

Cowley would like to squash the myth. He has been trying for years. He goes a little bit over the top in doing so.

This is a central idea, this idea that there used to be very brave backbenchers, and now, to use Hattersley’s phrase, we have these supine backbenchers ...

There is, as some of you know, a very snobbish academic put down which is to say dismissively that you would not give somebody a 2.2 if it was handed in as an essay. If this was handed in to me, I would not give it a 2.2, I would fail it, and then I would expel them from the University and bar them from any other academic institution in Britain, and then I would hunt down and kill all of their family, and even then I would think they had got off pretty lightly! This is just cobblers from start to finish. None of it is backed up by evidence, however much it might be part of conventional wisdom.

Well, up to a point, Phillip.

Certainly, let's have more scrutiny, more open debate and bravely independent voices too. But, for anybody interested in evidence and not myths, Hannan's argument from history of the lost golden age is a clear fail.

PS: You may have to do your own Hannan-watching next week. I'm off to Cornwall for a week off, and so may try to stay away from the blog.


Unknown said...

I must admit I haven't read either Cowley or Norton, but I do wonder if Hanna's position, though his recent article doesn't make it explicit, is not more accurately understood as a lament on the loss of amateurism as a virtue in the political establishment (the amateur MP, the eccentric parliamentarian, the independent-minded representative, which of course gives the Hannan position indirectly: the professionalisation of politics and political parties, the well-drilled party system and an overbearing executive).

of course, and this would be where I differ with Hannan, I don't think his arguments against the political establishment as a whole (lack of representation, diminution of the role of Parliament, the supine backbenches) are specific to this generation of politicians, and so his romantic-historic account isn't wholly convincing - for example, I know it's fashionable to put it all down to economics these days, but surely the Great Robbery (Enclosure Acts) and events such as the Swing Riots that accompanied them are much more easily explained if one accepts the notion of an at least partly self-interested MP working independently and even in spite of those constituents he was there, notionally, to represent (notwithstanding the fact that, at the beginning at least, most of them wouldn't have the right to vote anyway).

Daniel E said...

I think there are two types of MP independentness, both cabinet and backbencher, depending on where it intervenes in the legislative process. There are discussions before a bill passes through parliament, where the leadership and parliamentary party thrash out compromises, and the vote itself. "Rebellion" can take place during the discussions, but a compromise is reached leading to a "loyal" vote. Rebellion can also happen at vote stage, of course.

Where I think the golden Age theorists are wrong is that rebellion ever happened that much at vote stage. However, what is certainly true in the Labour Party is that fewer MPs have an organic base in wider society, to counteract any dependence on patronage from above. This is mainly due to the destruction of Union power over the last 30 years. While an MP might owe his or her place in parliament, or even cabinet, not due to patronage from above, but because he was an NUM MP, or had backing from the public sector unions, or the London Labour Party etc, s/he could enter into those discussions pre-vote from a position of real stregnth. However, since the destruction of various constituencies within the parties, MPs owe their place to patronage, and so cannot bargain like they use to.

One example of an MP who does do this is Jon Cruddas, who carved himself a constituency during the deputy leadership contest, is courted heavily before tight votes, argues, but almost always votes loyally. Apart from Cruddas, this happens a lot less than it used to it seems to me (although it does happen to some extent), due to over dependence on patronage.

This is just a theory - I'd like to here any comments

Janus said...

See also Hannan's bizarre claim during the 'Enoch Powell interview' that none of the American revolutionary thinkers or leaders were radicals and were 'Conservatives.' Armchair academia at its most horrendously laughable.

Unknown said...


Focusing only on individual dissent in divisions misses the real point about concentration of power in the executive; namely, that Governments rail-road legislation through the house, with MPs so busy they have no time for proper scrutiny of anything, be it bills, statutory instruments, select committees, standing committees or whatever.

Sure, more MPs may now defy the whip. but so what? apart from the Ghurkhas, it's been a long time since the government lost a vote.

Add into the above mix the bypassing of cabinet under Thatcher, Blair and Brown, and you see a dramatic concentration of power in the executive, with the legislature wholly ill-equipped to compensate.

I should now. I just spent 7 months as a Parliamentary researcher; I saw it all from the inside. MPs are powerless - if anything, defying the whip is simply a self-soothing action for those who want to convince themselves they have not just autonomy, but worth.