‘Splits’ in politics are favourite subjects for the media. Whether these are real or imagined splits within a coalition government, a political party or said party’s supporters, it’s a subject that is easy to write and makes good reading in newspapers.
But with the media increasingly prone to hyperbole, it’s perhaps wise to distinguish between splits and divides. It’s a fact of life political life that parties are almost as divided within themselves as they are with each other; socialists and social democrats in Labour, liberals and social democrats in the Lib Dems and Whigs and Tories in the Conservatives.
What makes the difference in modern politics is party discipline – it is what prevents groups in marriages of convenience with sometimes irreconcilable differences degenerating into open warfare, as was seen in the Labour party in the 1980s and the Conservatives in the 1990s.
As mentioned in the previous article, the debate surrounding gay marriage has probably done more to highlight the continuing divisions between the two historical traditions in the Conservative party than any issue in modern times. With obvious consequences, Toryism is based on traditionalism, conservatism and religious heritage while Whiggism has historically pushed for reform, utilitarianism and the liberty of the individual.
However, due to its sensitive and conscientious nature, the Equal Marriage Bill is not being whipped in the House of Commons and, although explicitly voicing his support in the past, the Prime Minister is not publicly swinging one way or the other. This poses the danger of the party breaking down into two pulsing masses of foaming, red-faced MPs walking out on each other with enough steam coming out of their ears to power an electricity turbine.
But, as was said in the House of Commons today (I forget which female Labour MP said this, sorry), this really brings out the best in that chamber. Despite the great sensitivity of this issue and the passions it has roused, the debate of more than 70 speeches was almost uniformly civil.
Personally, I love these kinds of debates. They so refreshingly break the mould of an increasingly constrained and sanitised politics in which the arts of the focus group and electoral arithmetic reign supreme, where passions are quelled under the strictures of number-crunching and the good of the country lies prostrate before the demands of party.
It’s the kind of debate that would have been recognisable to 18th century parliamentarians – days when political parties were but loose formations and the fear of faction and its distortion of good government was great. But I should think it would be welcomed by the country at large too (cast your minds back to enthusiasm for coalition). Politicians are frequently lambasted for their apparent lack of sincerity on any issue, yet tonight’s session has renewed my faith in the capability of the House of Commons to effect reasoned, civil and, above all, honest debate. Something that had been rather waning in my mind.
I shall ever be an advocate of placing the good of the country before that of party and have frequently used Sir Robert Peel as an example of this so it was delightful to see MPs of all colours joining their voices in a case they, individually, believed to be right.
But it has also reassured me that the Equal Marriage Bill will not, as many doom-mongers are predicting, fatally split the Conservative party. Members from both sides of the debate were at pains to understand the respective positions of their peers and, as Stephan Shakespeare points out on ConservativeHome today, gay marriage – like Europe – is not up there on the list of voters’ most pressing concerns.
Indeed, such is the beauty of rational self-interest (I’m straying into Randian territory here) – that the average voter is supremely indifferent to things that only effect the lives of others. Joe Bloggs (when did people stop saying John Bull?) cares not a jot for gay marriage as he is far more concerned with matters far closer to home – his job, his income, the state of the economy, tax, the NHS, and his child’s school. And God bless him for it.