All the talk in the Westminster Bubble these days – according to my reading of the metropolitan press, which of course is part of the Bubble itself – is about what damage the current Conservative divisions over Europe will do to the party in the longer term. Dire outcomes are predicted, and either feared or joyously anticipated, according to which side of the party line you stand.
We’ve been here before – we British historians, that is. All the great parties in the land have come apart at the seams at one time or another, and very often over issues quite similar to the present one. In 1846 the division in the Tory party over Free Trade (the Corn Laws) saw the end of the century-old divide between Whigs and Tories, and its replacement by a new Liberal-Conservative one. (They were sometimes still called Whigs and Tories, but they really weren’t.) After that the Liberals ruled virtually unchallenged for two or three decades, until Disraeli – after giving in to the logic of Free Trade – revived the Conservatives. ‘Free Trade’, of course, is one of the issues in the present debate. In the 1880s and 1890s the Liberals split over the question of ‘imperialism’, which also involved trade matters, with about 60 forming a new party, the ‘Liberal Unionists’, which later defected to the Conservatives. That gave the latter a similar stretch of domination, lasting until they foolishly backed the idea of an ‘imperial customs union’ – a bit like the present European one; leading to more defections (including Winston Churchill) and their defeat in 1906. The next big split, in the Liberal Party again, was over something different: basically, the First World War. That enabled the Liberals’ eventual replacement by the Labour Party, whose own splits, over the economy, defence and later Europe, proved not to be permanently disabling, until the SDP defection of 1981. That undoubtedly redounded to the advantage of Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative Party, and to her record-breaking stretch in power. The SDP later merged with the Liberal rump. Its only positive gain from this (so far) was a short period of largely ineffective shared government with David Cameron’s Conservatives, which is still fresh in all our minds. But now the Tories are splitting again. Plus ça change…
The eighteenth-century ‘party system’ was originally intended to give some stability to democratic politics, by removing the uncertainties that allowing every MP to vote on each issue according to his (or later her) own proclivities or interests inevitably entailed. It does this pretty well in ‘normal’ times. Before most votes in Parliament, it is possible to predict which way they will go by numbering the strengths of the parties on both sides. One of the problems with this, of course, is that it stifles some genuine opinions, and so doesn’t represent national feeling accurately: but the vagaries of our voting system make this unlikely in any case. (See below, https://bernardjporter.wordpress.com/2016/02/29/first-past-the-post/.) Another drawback is that it only works if the main ideological issues dividing the parties are the ones that also divide opinion more generally. ‘Europe’ isn’t a ‘party’ question in this sense. Where you stand on the question of – say – ‘socialism’ or ‘capitalism’ is no reliable guide to whether you will vote ‘in’ or ‘out’. There are socialist and capitalist arguments on both sides.
Which is why the present Labour Party’s current line – vote ‘Remain’ in order to help create a Europe that socialists can feel more comfortable with – is, to my mind, such a smart one. It acknowledges the undoubted inadequacies and sins of the EU – meaning that voting ‘Remain’ won’t imply that you like it – while at the same time giving some vague hope of your making a difference, whether that can be said to be realistic or not. In fact I think that, with world opinion moving as it is against the neo-liberalism that is at the heart of the Union’s problems, this ‘reformist’ agenda does stand a chance. In which case it could be Labour that will gain – possibly sooner than we think; apparently Tory Brexiteers are calling and Corbyn is preparing for a ‘snap’ election after the referendum – from this latest in the series of party splits that has been such a comparatively rare but still a major feature of British political history over the past 200 years.