1990s >> 1990 >> no-1025-january-1990

Caught in the Act: The Loyalty Game


As he tries to return to the backbench obscurity which he always said represented the summit ot his ambitions. Anthony Meyer leaves an important and unanswered question. How is it that politicians, who are among the most cynical, self-preserving and opportunistic of people, can get so excited about a high, and costly, moral principle like loyalty?

During that strange episode which we had to call a contest between Meyer and Thatcher for the Tory leadership the word loyalty was used a great deal, usually from Thatcher’s supporters. By so much as offering himself as a rival, however hopeless. Meyer was being appallingly disloyal (he was of course called quite a few other things as well; one minister thought the urbane Old Etonian a “shit”). The gravity of this offence was deepened by its timing; the government are in quite a bit of trouble, what with the Lawson resignation, their obvious inability to control the economy and some unpopular legislation in the pipeline. This is. apparently, a time for everyone to come to the aid of the party and not to indulge in such frivolities as using their democratic right to ask whether things might be better under another leader.

This is an interesting line of reasoning, if only for the light it throws on the whole business of political loyalty. If a government is being “successful”—which usually means that it is lucky enough to be in power when capitalism is in boom or clever enough to cosmeticise its policies to dupe large numbers of workers—then there is little likelihood of its leadership being challenged and so little cause for any pressure on its MPs to be loyal. Doubts about the leadership arise when a government’s policies have been discredited (as happened recently when John Major cheekily wrote off much of Nigel Lawson’s operations at the Exchequer notwithstanding the fact that he—Major—was Lawson’s ardent accomplice at the time in question) or when they are beginning to lose votes. This is why there were suddenly so many MPs ready to withhold their support from Thatcher and to encourage the unlikely Anthony Meyer to martyr himself. In spite of any claims they make, the dissidents have nothing better to offer than have Thatcher and her cronies. It is not a matter of the government wilfully refusing to adopt solutions to capitalism’s problems which are obvious to people like Heseltine and Meyer. It is a matter of the inevitable exposure of their impotence and the equally inevitable panic about the possible electoral consequences.


Was it a coincidence that among the most publicly loyal supporters of the Prime Minister were some of the most abhorrent occupants of the Conservative benches? First in the queue to vote for her was the grotesque exhibitionist Nicholas Fairbairn, one of the few Tory MPs from Scotland, who exudes conceit and arrogance with his riches and who had to leave the government some years ago when one of his lady friends disloyally threw some unwelcome light on what was delicately described as his private life. Then there was Ian Gow whose creepy, smug and well-fed appearance will remind all sensitive ex-schoolboys of their experiences of the more sadistic prefects. Gow’s political life is simplified for him by his working on the principle that anything the headmistress says is brilliantly apt and correct and anyone who doubts or criticises her deserves six of the best after school. John Carlisle was so frantic that Thatcher should know he had voted for her that he signed his ballot paper, which breached the secrecy of the ballot and so. to his chagrin, disqualified his vote.

While the Labour Party were having such fun at the latest example of the Tory whips practising their well-honed aptitude for arm-twisting MPs into a reluctant loyalty, they were forgetting their own history. One of Harold Wilson’s more infamous and panicky speeches warned rebellious Labour MPs about the danger of their losing their “dog licences”—which meant the official endorsement of their candidature at the next elections. At the time the government was struggling against yet another economic crisis, harried by the usual group of Labour MPs who can be relied on to demand that capitalism be run without crises, compromises and treachery.

It was to some extent loyalty to the Attlee government (as well as what can only be called a characteristic cerebral chaos) that led Aneurin Bevan to take a decidedly rightwing attitude to many of the problems confronting that government. When the dockers struck against the wage freeze imposed by another pre-war left- wing bogey.,Stafford Cripps, Bevan was in no doubts about the use of troops to break the strike. In the Cabinet’s Emergencies Committee he stated what he would think, if there were to be another Tonypandy in 1948: “It would be prudent to have wide powers to deal with any trouble that might arise if relations between troops and strikers become strained”. It took a couple of years for Bevan to emerge as the scourge of that governments supporters, in particular of those who loyally applied the unions’ bloc vote to batter down Labour’s restless left-wingers And a few more years for him to come full circle and. to the furious dismay of his admirers, to plead with a Labour Conference to vote loyally to keep British capitalism a nuclear, world-influential power. This says a lot about Bevan but it says a lot about the nature of this concept of political loyalty.


This is not a high, immutable principle which unfailingly guides the policies and actions of politicians. It is an expedient ruse, which can give an impression of unity and optimism when there is only fraction and despair. While British Tories, and British workers, have been urged to be patriotically faithful to this government the same has not been the case with workers in countries like Poland and East Germany, who have been encouraged to be actively disruptive.

When Douglas Hurd said he felt like dancing along the Berlin Wall he was not pressing East German workers into loyalty to that material example of their government’s policies. He was not saying that they should have given the same blind support to the Wall that British workers were urged to give to the Falklands War. In the Tory leadership election there was a surprisingly high number of spoiled papers—surprising because if anyone (with the exception of John Carlisle) should know how to use a ballot paper it is an MP. An apparent explanation is that some of Thatcher’s opponents voted for both her and Meyer so that, while effectively abstaining they could truthfully say they had voted for Thatcher. It is unnecessary to say more, to expose the sordid nature of the loyalty game, how even those who are convinced of the need to play it are ready to deny the very principles on which it is supposed to be based.

Which brings us to the key question, of how to justify an unquestioning allegiance to this social system and to the political machines whose object is to keep it in being. Capitalism regularly murders millions of people—in wars, disasters or avoidable diseases. It degrades and exploits tens of millions to provide the riches of a few. These are part of its routine and necessary operations and they are unblushingly justified by capitalism’s political parties. Loyalty to this society and its leaders is at best misguided; when the leaders themselves talk about loyalty they are actually erecting a calculated protection of their own interests. The Tory Party has historically put out a public face of faithful unity to cover the inner reality of deep and savage conflicts of ambition.

In December 1989 Anthony Meyer did the unthinkable. If he had achieved the inconceivable and had become Prime Minister it would not have been long before his government also ran into trouble, needing to be buoyed up by demands not to rock the boat even though the water all around was thick with drowning people.