A Constitutional Oddity
By NIGEL NICOLSON, MP T AST WEEK I became a constitutional oddity. LA remain the Member for Bournemouth East and Christchurch, because no power can unseat me, and I have refused to resign. But my local Conservative Association have now adopted a new candidate in my place and have excommuni- cated me, forbidding their branches to invite me to address them and even returning my annual subscription. They have done this because on November 7 I said publicly that I believed the Suez ultimatum to be wrong in principle and unlikely to succeed in practice; and because I subsequently abstained in the House of Comnions vote of confidence. • Those are the bare facts. The arguments that have gathered round them are already fogged by emotion. Burke is not widely .read in Bourne- mouth, but even if he were, he would make little headway against the simple and formidable belief, held by so many of my previous sup- porters, that what I did was wrong; wrong not merely in judgement, but wrong absolutely. 'Here is a man,' they say, 'who was given every- thing which a politician could ask for. While he was still in his middle thirties we chose him for a seat which carries a normal Conservative majority of nearly 20,000. He could have been our Member for life. We worked for him, col- lected money, canvassed, ran bazaars, listened to him, looked up to him; but when we asked him one thing in return, he failed us. He stabbed the troops in the back; and he was disloyal to Sir Anthony Eden in the hour of his greatest need.'
Disloyalty, Ingratitude, Lack of Patriotism. Those are the three millstones round my neck and they are heavy. But martyrdom by drowning is a rare fate and I do not feel like a martyr. I feel much more like a laboratory specimen. We all talk about the MP's liberty of conscience and speak of his duty to override even the strongest feelings of his constituents when he has personal convictions on an issue about which he is better informed than they can possibly be, Does the Bournemouth incident indicate that the con- stituencies have long ago dismissed this doctrine as a smoking-room dream? Is it their opinion that an MP may try to persuade his constituents, but if he fails to persuade them, that his duty is to obey them?
On a local issue they would be quite right to believe this. Bournemouth's cliffs are being gradually eaten away by the sea, It is outrageous, I frequently say, that the cost of shoring them up should fall on the local rates instead of on the Exchequer, knowing quite well that if I were the Member for Coventry I would say the very oppo- site. And even on a minor matter of conscience, such as stag-hunting or the hours of Sunday open- ing, I would gladly be guided by local feeling even if it conflicted with my own.
But incidents like Suez lie in quite different category. I am often told that I should have fol- lowed the party line because the issue was so important. I answer that it was precisely because Suez involved everything that really mattered, such as the use of our armed forces, our national reputation, the American and Commonwealth alliances, the Prime Minister's personal position and the whole future character of Conservative government, that I personally found it an inescapable duty to step straight out into no-man's-land, hoping4that Bournemouth would follow or at least understand.
Bournemouth gave a gasp of horror at what they saw and neither followed nor understood. In vain for me to plead that I was a better Con- servative than they were, because I was protesting against the breaking of what I considered to be a Conservative principle and pledge. Telegrams of loyalty and repudiation flew to Downing Street. Resolutions poured in from the branches ex- pressing utter disgust with their Member; and at a great meeting on December 5 I suffered the political equivalent of having my epaulettes and regimental buttons torn from my uniform. Others, including my president, the late Lord Quickswood (who died in the middle of the con- troversy), and two ex-chairmen of the association, hurried to my rescue. But it was too late. The gear-lever had jammed. There was no reversing. The immediate cause of my disgrace was soon. almost forgotten in the recollection of the earlier crimes on my sheet. There had been my attitude on capital punishment. There had been the Prim- rose League luncheon in 1952, at which I said that Mr. Bevan was as good a patriot as I was. And there had been sad occasions when I had not recognised important constituents in trains.
Every constituency has the Member whom a majority of the electors want and local party asso- ciations have an absolute right to change their Members and their candidates. Without that right, democracy would be meaningless, and it has not been in dispute during the last four months in Bournemouth. The only argument has been that a precedent has now been set which is unfortunate for parliament and party alike. A constituency association have lashed out at their Member because he dared to protest against a major party decision, which could not have been foreseen; and they have dismissed him between elections in spite of the example of tolerarice set by both Prime Ministers in whose names he is ostensibly being punished. I believe that disciplin- ary action, if any, should have been delayed at least until tempers had cooled. Nor should it become axiomatic that a safe Tory seat shall always be represented by a safe Tory Member. On the contrary, it is the constituencies with the great majorities which can afford the luxury of occasional dissent.
Meanwhile, there is the figure of the prospec- tive candidate, my shadow-Member, reaching out less and less shyly for my toga as the next General Election draws near. It is not his yet. Opinion may change, even in two years, even about Suez. If by chance we meet, we shall behave in this unusual situation like the ambassadors of two rival Powers confronted by each other at a Lisbon cocktail-party in 1942. We shall meet formally at the adoption meeting which will be held as soon as the election date is known. We will then have another constitutional innovation in Bournemouth. We will hold a primary election. My name will go forward for the official Con-: servative nomination; so, presumably, will his. The majority of Conservatives present at the meeting will decide between us on a secret ballot and the winner will take all.