Once upon a time there existed, in the swamps of British politics, a strange mutant known as the Independent Member of Parliament. Some of these were elected for the universities, where the equality of man was proclaimed by allowing anyone with a degree to also have an extra vote as a reward for all those years of toil among the books and the lecture halls. Other Independents were elected by ordinary constituencies — in other words by thousands of members of the working class who had never had the time or the money to go to university.
The Independents, who could be politically interesting characters, were supposed to prove something about the unique intelligence and stability of the British electoral system. They were living witness to the fact that personality counted for something against the might of the political machines. One of the first acts of the Attlee government which came to power in 1945 was to abolish the University seats (along with other plural voting rights). This effectively destroyed most of the Independents; the rest were crushed between the upper and nether millstones of the two big parties, which settled down after 1945 to grind British politics into a dull succession of conformities which were referred to as party discipline. This was the heyday of the political gorilla, when the most primitive political man could slide into Parliament, provided he had the right party label around his neck.
Lies, Cynicism and Good Copy
The system now is that when there is a vote in Parliament the members of each side are expected to attend and to vote in accordance with a line laid down for them. It is the job of the party whips to make sure that everyone knows when to attend and how to vote and in case there is any chance of a mistake they often send out their orders in writing, sometimes underlining them. Three underlinings — a three line whip — means that no disobedience will be tolerated.
Yet even with all these precautions the monolithic unity of the big parties sometimes crumbles, as M.P.s who can usually be relied upon to find their way into the correct lobby blindfold appear to have lost all sense of direction and find themselves rubbing voting shoulders with men they choose in other circumstances to call the enemy. When this happens the newspapers assure us that we are witnessing a political revolt. At times the revolt is of little account; only a few M.P.s are in it and at most it reduces a majority by a small amount. At others — for example in the recent debate over the immigration laws in connection with British membership of the Common Market — it can be extensive enough to defeat the government.
There have been history-making occasions when a revolt has been aimed at the leader of a government. In 1940 many M.P.s had become convinced that Neville Chamberlain’s government was too tainted to be able to persuade British workers to die and suffer enthusiastically enough in the struggle of their masters against the threat of German capitalism. There was a great debate in which Chamberlain, although not actually defeated, came close enough to it to feel himself compelled to resign. Some of the speeches made on that occasion were hypocritical enough to find a place among even Parliament’s long history of lies and cynicism. Particularly honoured among the contributions was that of the late Arthur Greenwood, the ex-pacifist who was revered as Labour’s conscience, the gentle hero of the left. Greenwood got up to demand, not an end to hostilities but a more efficient prosecution of the war and, according to many observers, his speech set the seal on Chamberlain’s fate. Then there was the more recent occasion in 1963, when the followers of Harold Macmillan thought that his clumsy handling of the Profumo scandal indicated that he was no longer a sort of political cash register which recorded an ever-increasing vote but someone who was old and out of touch. One Tory actually went to the lengths of pinching an idea of one of Chamberlain’s critics and quoted a suitable piece of poetry in his speech, which at least showed that a university education comes in useful sometimes. It made excellent copy for the reporters and the M.P.s could go home full of pride at their consciences which had operated so strongly in reaching such a weighty decision. Meanwhile capitalism — and even Macmillan for a while — went on as before.
Conscience at Work . . .
But to bring us back to the present, the whole debate on the Common Market has been very confusing for the whips and the disciplinarians because both big parties are split wide open on the issue, which meant that a lot of M.P.s had to be leaned on pretty heavily to persuade them to vote in the right lobby at the right time. There was of course the famous case of Roy Jenkins, who has now taken his conscience into the wilderness for a while, who saw nothing inconsistent in voting for British membership of the EEC and then against the laws which would enable that membership to come into effect. Not for the first time, this type of political agility earned for its exponent the label of a man of principle.
And principle is what political revolt is supposed to be all about. On most issues an M.P. is expected to vote the party line but on a few he is allowed — if he does not assert — dissension on grounds of conscience. Sometimes this is of as much significance to the lives and welfare of the workers of this country as the split in 1928 when, while there were 1,300,000 unemployed, Parliament debated the wording of the book of Common Prayer. Another example is in the battles over the abolition of the death penalty, when M.P.s who had eagerly supported the organised butchery of millions of working people in wartime were prepared to argue that it was barbaric to do the same thing to about a hundred people a year.
Why do the party machines allow what is called conscience to work on such matters? The simple answer is that they have only a small influence on the important events of British capitalism. Much as it mattered that there was a death penalty to the man who was taken to the execution chamber, on the scale of the interests of the ruling class his fate was of no account. Only a few vociferous reformers would get upset about it.
. . . and at Rest
In contrast the issues which are the day to day business of capitalism and of its parties cannot be allowed to be affected by crankish theories of reform. When these are under discussion conscience must be flattened. Membership of the Common Market is of such historical importance to British capitalism that little aberration can be allowed among the people who administer the system. It is the same over the range of the legislation which is generally designed to perpetuate the existence of this national wedge of world capitalism.
And when these sort of chips are down, the M.P.s can be relied upon to conform, sometimes stifling their consciences with an assurance that it is all for the good of the party or the country. There need be no mystery about this, for there is one thing on which there is unbroken unity both within and between the parties of capitalism. They are both solidly agreed on the necessity to sustain the capitalist social system, at whatever cost in human suffering and social disarray. Within that unity there is room for an occasional revolt or deviance over a minor issue. We still wait for the real, significant revolt which will be not a matter of conscience but of understanding and which will sweep away capitalism and all its tattered conscience.