Man of Principle

Politicians always profess to be principled, but we tend to suspect that they are self-seeking opportunists, and experience suggests that we are usually right so to suspect. Those occasions, therefore, when politicians stand up for principles which will almost certainly work against their short-, medium- and long-run interests are very striking ones. And this is doubly true when it comes to right-wing parties, owing to the lingering suspicion that, as J. K. Galbraith once put it, conservatism might really at bottom just be “the search for a higher moral justification for selfishness”.

But this clearly isn’t always the case. As Donald Sassoon notes, for example, in a (sort of) recent essay on the fluctuating fortunes of socialism in the twentieth century, the longstanding conservative opposition to women’s suffrage across all of Europe was quite principled, as it was widely believed — and it turned out to be largely true — that women were more likely to vote for conservative, religious and traditionalist parties than for liberal, socialist or other workers’ parties. And it was the opportunist Stanley Baldwin who brought an end to years of this principled opposition by equalising the franchise in 1928, thus boosting Tory fortunes at the ballot box.

With that little bit of history in place, then, we should notice Michael Howard’s altruistic defence of the the First Past the Post electoral system in his recent speech in Burnley. “PR always magnifies the opportunities for small, extremist parties”, he declared, “as other countries have found to their cost. That is one of the reasons why I am so resolutely opposed to it”.

He doesn’t tell us what the other reasons are, but I’d quite like to know what he’s thinking of, since I think that we should be more puzzled by the almost unswerving Tory defence of FPTP than we usually are. This part of the Jenkins Commission report into the possibility of an alternative voting system spells out just how badly the Tories currently do under FPTP. And while the reduction in the over-representation of Scotland will offer something of a corrective in the direction of proportionality, there’s no sign that the electoral system will generate fair outcomes any time soon, but that it will remain systematically skewed in the interests of the Labour Party.

It’s fun, of course, for thorough-going anti-Conservatives like me to contemplate an electoral system in which, as Jenkins estimated (a few years back, to be sure, when he was still alive), “the Conservatives would have required a lead of approximately 6 1/2 % to give them an equality of seats with Labour”, and still have that electoral system so ardently defended by those whom it will reliably punish.

But perhaps the Tories may just be terribly aware that their persistent inability to transform themselves into a credibly decent European centre-right civic liberal / Christian Democratic party dooms them to permanent opposition in any system of PR / coalition politics, and so they feel they lack the incentive to campaign for fairer votes.

Or, as I say, they may be significantly more principled than we generally reckon.

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