Jonathan Clark was a Fellow of Peterhouse; at Oxford, he was a Fellow of All Souls College; latterly he has been Visiting Professor at the Committee on Social Thought at Chicago, and Hall Distinguished Professor of British History at the University of Kansas. His latest book is a study of Thomas Paine.
Nobody knows when the next Tokyo earthquake will happen. Nobody knows what, exactly, will cause it. All we know is that it is statistically overdue, that it is inevitable, and that it will cause major damage. How does the world economy prepare for this shock? It does nothing. Perhaps nothing can be done.
Similarly with the UK party system. Every 60 or 80 or a hundred years there is a fundamental crisis, a realignment, a radical recasting of the structure of parties in the face of new forces, new challenges, new problems.
The last time was when the Labour Party replaced the Liberal Party in the years after the First World War. The previous occasion was when the Liberal Party split over the issue of free trade versus imperial preference. The time before that was when the Conservative Party split over Robert Peel’s repeal of the Corm Laws, that protectionist system designed to preserve the ascendancy of the landowners in the arable areas of England.
Now again we see a single unavoidable, fundamental, non-negotiable issue at the forefront of national life. Both the major parties are split on it, and in a state of rending, agonizing civil war. The Liberal Democrats are at one, but make little electoral capital out of their unanimity. These stresses seem unlikely to go away. Indeed, they are daily increasing.
Is it, then, time for a structural realignment of parties and party allegiances? Would the public interest be better served if there were just two major groups, a Leave Party and a Remain Party? Then the electorate would know what they were getting. They would no longer suspect that their representatives were saying one thing but about to do the opposite. Democratic participation would receive a massive boost. Consistent policies could be framed and carried through. We might even spell out when and how referenda could be held.
After all, it could hardly be said that the current parties do what it says on their tins. Whatever its origins, today’s Labour Party hardly dedicates itself to forwarding the interest of labourers, people who toil in productive employments to advance the interests of themselves and their families. It is no secret that the Labour movement is an alliance of trades unionists with public sector employees and welfare claimants. That alliance now dictates the ideological content of the party’s agenda more than the earlier attempt to boost the prosperity of labourers.
The Lib Dems fare no better. If Liberalism had a clear historic meaning, it revolved around free trade in the years when the merchants and manufacturers of the Manchesters and the Bradfords exported their products around the world. Now, Lib Dems instinctively side with the greatest international protectionist group, the EU. Once, Liberals campaigned for franchise extension and more frequent elections; today, they instinctively repudiate the result of the greatest ever popular vote in the UK; they endorse an EU in which the electorate cannot remove the executive from power, and representatives cannot initiate legislation.
The Conservatives are in little better shape. The National Trust, which conserves things, has five million members and rising; the Conservative Party, which conserves nothing, has a hundred thousand members and falling. Once, the Conservative Party conserved institutions, like the monarchy, the Lords, the Church of England, the armed forces, Oxford and Cambridge, the family. But all these are now embarrassing topics for many of its leaders, and the party is one of radical reform (even if it delivers much less of that than in the age of Margaret Thatcher).
The electorate may say: what, then, is the point of all of this? Why not sweep the career politicians away and begin again with a new set of faces, people with talent, ideas, principles, and candour? Why not have a spring cleaning of the Commons and the Lords in the manner of Macron? Electors could all list many honourable and able politicians who would deserve to survive such a cull; the problem is that the public increasingly thinks that that number is outweighed by others who would not.
What are the arguments against such a reconstruction? That the major parties are great stores of wisdom and experience. That their leaders are practical, prudent men and women who have taken moderate, feasible steps in policy. That public affairs are well administered. That the parties have big money behind them. That major change would cause uncertainty. Inertia.
The strongest argument in favour of the traditional parties’ divine right to continue in their present forms is that each of them embodies an essence, a set of ideas and ideals that is handed on from generation to generation and that inspire the living to complete the great work of their predecessors. Youthful politicians still sometimes write slim volumes attempting to outline that essence. As a matter of historical method, this task was always difficult; some people may now think it impossible.
The larger problem is that the electorate are less and less convinced by such arguments about party identity and destiny. Far underground, the tectonic plates are moving. There is a deep murmur rising from dark places. A suspicion is growing that public affairs are not well conducted, and that (in all the major parties) a Third Eleven is only shielding itself from insight and appraisal by the widespread use of non-disclosure agreements.
As a member of a political party, this intellectual hollowing out of parties distresses me. As a voter, what is happening in public policy formation and execution alarms me. Perhaps the show will be kept on the road after all; but, in that case, I would be reassured if it could be better shown what the rationale for the continuance of present party divisions is. But perhaps it will not.