29 NOVEMBER 1940, Page 4



1 N a letter published in The Spectator last week Canon Roger Lloyd closed a correspondence which was started by his own article, " Back to Party Politics? " The questions which he and other cor- respondents have raised occurred naturally at the moment when the present Parliament was due to come to an end and would have ended had it not been desirable to avoid the confusion of a General Election. If we suppose the impossible—that it could have been held without undue disturbance—it is still difficult to see upon what substantial issues it could have been fought. With the war absorbing attention there is no fundamental difference of opinion about the tasks of Parliament and Government, and even differences about method, it is generally agreed, can be better resolved by amicable dis- cussion than by party dispute.

All the old parties are represented in the Government. An issue bigger than any of those which figure in party programmes dominates the situation—that of the efficient organisation of the country for the prosecution of war. And not only upon this, the supreme issue, are all agreed, but under its influence all other questions, which usually would be subject to party controversy, are no longer approached in that spirit. In urging or criticising war measures Members of Parliament fall into strange align- ments. There is little consideration about Conservative, Liberal, or Labour, but rather of common sense as applied to measures for strengthening the forces, for reducing suffering, for stopping profiteering, for maintaining social services, for keeping democracy up to its highest level of vigour and decency. In producing agreement upon the supreme issue the war has also produced a method of approach to all other issues based on practical common sense and not on party considerations.

In this harmonious atmosphere it is inevitable that we should ask whether our democracy has now reached the stage when party politics is obsolescent, and a new method of Parliamentary government by consultation and agree- ment may be ripe to take its place. If it be said that the present procedure is only possible because the war presents issues before which others fade into insignificance, it may be answered that the making and maintenance of peace and a new civilisation are equally big tasks, and that the co-operative system which is needed and workable in the one case is no less needed and should prove no less work- able in the other. If when the tasks are vital it is found that party methods are obstructive and must be abandoned, can we admit that the tasks of normal govern- ment are so much less vital that organised obstruction is tolerable?

Against such arguments Canon Lloyd and others appeal to history. Our Parliamentary system has grown up gradually as the machinery of democracy, and party politics, it is contended, is necessary to a true democracy, provided it is healthy—and that condition, according to Canon Lloyd, exists when there is a true cleavage of principle, corre- sponding to something deep in the minds of the nation, but not so deep as to call in question the fundamentals upon which the life of the State is based. The ideal of this sort of party strife has to be sought in the nineteenth century, or at least before 1914, when (apart from the Irish Nationalists) there were only two great parties, the Conservative and the Liberal, whose leaders could easily succeed one another in administrations because the cleavage between them, though real, never touched the fundamentals of government. If we appeal to history after 1918, we find the ideal conditions of party government were not fulfilled. In the first place, there were three great parties instead of two, one, the Liberal Party, becoming gradually squeezed out not so much because its views were unpopular as because it was always excluded under the triangular system from attaining power. In the second place the Labour Party, excluded under the double opposition of Conservatives and Liberals from the enjoyment of effective power, developed an inferiority complex, and suffered under the stigma of being " revolutionary " (1926) or " anti-national " (1931). The upshot was that during the whole period between the two wars the party system, such as it was, degenerated into a system under which Conserva- tives were nearly always in office.

What, then, is to be done about the party situation when the war and the party truce are over? Are Mr. Attlee, Mr. Morrison, and Mr. Bevin, who are now wholeheartedly co-operating with their colleagues in the Government, suddenly on the cessation of hostilities to declare political war on their friends Mr. Churchill and Mr. Eden? Will the trade-unionist leaders, who have been exhorting their followers to work together with the Government for the salvation of the country, be expected to organise them for an intensive political campaign against their leaders' recent colleagues? But party politics, we are told, is necessary to true democracy. It may be. But what must not be forgotten is that party politics was not invented, but was a gradual outcome of the Parliamentary system. We can no more decide to return to party politics than we could decide to start it. We may fall back into it ; it may be inevitable ; but what we have to cling to, if we are intent upon democracy, is the existence of the representative principle, the sturdy survival of Parliament, whose mem- bers, if freely chosen, must be trusted to settle their method of procedure to suit new circumstances. But will they

be freely chosen? The parties are already there, with their machinery, their central and local organisations, their

vested interests, their funds. Unless something is done about it they will take charge of the situation, and party campaigns for the organisation of voters along the old lines will proceed as before.

This is the party question that most urgently demands consideration. If we are to win the battle of democracy on the home front we have to study not only the preservation of the representative system but also its improvement, so that it may be more truly representative, and Parliamentary life more free. This is a far bigger question than that of Proportional Representation or the Alternative Vote. It is a question of the reality of the franchise, the freedom of the voter. Whether we shall or shall not return to party

politics after the war is a matter for future Parliamentarians to decide under the dictates of unforeseeable necessity. But we can foresee the absolute necessity of purifying parties so that they will be the creation of public opinion and not its master. What has been unhealthy in the past has been

not the party system, as such, but its abuses—the party machine, the party Honours Lists, the big party funds, the stranglehold of the Caucus upon the members, such that the party controls their votes and stifles their initiative. Elements so disfiguring to party politics and discreditable to public life have been an undercurrent detrimental to

the enthusiasm, the esprit de corps and zeal for a common cause which are capable of being canalised in the activities of a great party. The party question may be trusted to solve itself if membership of parties becomes genuinely voluntary, and the individual member is freed from the tyranny of the machine. Parliament will not be free or representative as long as Honours are sold for contributions to party funds, or as long as candidacy for Parliament depends on the pro- vision of election expenses by party organisations—whether their funds are drawn from the subscriptions of rich Con- servatives or from Labour levies upon the trades unions. The time has come when the fixed election expenses of all candidates for Parliament who can secure a certain per- centage of the poll should be paid, not by themselves, nor by the party organisation, but by the State. The decision that we are called upon to make, here and now, is not whether there shall be a return to the party system but whether party procedure shall be purified, and Members of Parliament released from the study of any interests but those of the country.