“I often think it comical,
How Nature does contrive,
That every boy and every gal,
That’s born into the world alive.
Is either a little Liberal,
Or else a little Conservative.”
W.S. Gilbert – from IoIanthe
Well that was how it used to be. They said that the British “first past the post system” would make the rise of a new party impossible. The two party system was, they claimed- and we all believed- a permanent feature of the British political system. Well, tell that to Douglas Carswell and Mark Reckless!
UKIP has arrived. And with it a whole new way of doing politics. Curiously it has taken a party of self confessed Jingoes to introduce continental style multi-polar politics into Britain. Or perhaps not! The two party system has in fact been in slow decline since the fifties. But even so, the new reality- in which there are now at least four parties with more than five per cent in the polls, not to mention the D.U.P. and S.N.P.- is going to take some getting used to.
From a conservative perspective there is at least something to be said for a two party system. Professor Chomsky and his friends may sneer about “engineered consent.” But in fact such arrangements have worked rather well in the past. The British and American systems in which two parties, essentially broad coalitions of centre right and centre left, have alternated in power has provided both for gradual change and stability. Not so good perhaps for Chompers and his revolutionary guys, but probably what most of the rest of us want most of the time- at least until now.
But the sceptics about the two party system do have a point- hinted at admittedly in a very different context by W.S. Gilbert above. It does all seem rather a carve up. And it seems rather a carve up because it is to some extent a carve up. The words define the problem. Phrases such language about “within the beltway” “Leinster House,” and “the Westminster village,” all point to the reality that from the outside politicians all seem strikingly similar, and all equally out of touch. Remarks heard frequently by canvassers such as ” I don’t vote it only encourages them” “They are all the same” may not be true. But they do undoubtedly have a real popular resonance.
This is for several reasons, not all of which are in any way deplorable. If the country is to be run, the two front benches have to co-operate. Moreover, people brought into close physical proximity within one another- as M.P.s and T.D.s un-questionably are- do get fond of one another- and soon it is not just jokes, and taxis, that are being shared, but assumptions too. The Palace of Westminster, or for that matter Leinster House, ( “Yes, Deputy” and free parking in central Dublin for life!) can be a very comfortable world in which to live. However from the outside it can look strikingly provincial and often self interested – and that was before we even knew about Duck Island!
But so long as the economy still flourishes, and the level of corruption does not become excessive, the voters, or at least most of them, are prepared to tolerate the situation…but when the scandals become excessive or too widely known, and when the economy starts to go wrong…then the voters turn to the outsiders, and you get..God help us a Gerry Adams, a Marie Le Pen or a Mark Reckless ( whose grandfather by the way was a soldier of destiny and a T.D. from Donegal!)
In practice the election of such figures is of less importance than they claim, or their political opponents fear. But what one does get with their election is complication. Just a de-colonisation meant that the decisions about Africa could not be taken over lunch by diplomats in London and Berlin ( “I know! Let’s swap Zanzibar for Heligoland.” ) but had to be worked through by the people concerned themselves, so the fragmentation of domestic politics will mean the creation of a political universe which has a greatly increased number of centres of power, and these will be more challenging to influence.
After the Tories lost the British general election of October 1974 when Sir Keith Joseph decided that Britain needed a far smaller state ( among other things) all he had to do was to influence The Conservative Party. Likewise in the fifties Bill Buckley and those around him at “The National Review” knew that their project was essentially within the Republican Party ( except in New York City!)
But now…there are economic liberals in the Lib Dems ( assuming that is that there are going to be any left!) there are free market conservatives, there are free market UKippers, and even in the Labour Party there are those who have long since given up on socialism. All need to be encouraged, all need to be influenced. Similarly in Ireland both the two main parties and some of the independents are equally open to persuasion by a reasoned case for liberal economics.
For us this is a challenge, and an opportunity. It is a challenge because the world in which we operate is becoming increasingly complicated. Take for example he British situation in more detail. Ukip is more liberal than the Conservatives when it comes to regulation from Europe. Whereas greatly to his discredit Mr Farage has seen fit to propose a dress code for Muslim women, while on this issue Mr Cameron’s instincts are sounder and more liberal.
How then is the economic liberal to navigate between this Scylla and this Carybdis? And it is all the more difficult when one recalls that there are divisions within the various parties concerned. For example Mr Carswell broadly favours immigration whereas Mr. Reckless is against it. It is easy to say that the solution is simply to take the matters case by case. But how does this sit with traditional political involvement? In Britain the right course for the economic liberal has never been more difficult to discern since the break up of the Conservative Party over the Corn Laws!.
But difficult though the situation is, it is also full of promise for the liberal right. Hung parliaments are the delight of lobbyists. And a nightmare for the whips. The more parties there are in Parliament the weaker are likely to become, and hence the more important and potent a principled case made from outside party political process can be. In a world in which politics has ceased to be a hereditary matter or one crude brand loyalty, and become instead a reflection of conviction the importance of ideas will tend to grow. The break up of the once great political machines fuelled as they have recently been by focus groups is not then something which we on the liberal right should much regret. There is work to do.