21 September 2007

British Party Politics c.1765-2007

It is with deep regret that we at As A Dodo must today report the death of Party Politics in Great Britain, following news that the policies of the major parties have now become so interchangeable - if not indistinguishable - that there seems to be little or no point in trying to tell them apart. Given Party Politics' long and not always ignoble history, the news that political parties have ceased to be a source of ideological belief and Hegelian dialectic and instead become mere vehicles for the election of their leaders to the Premiership will have come as a shock to many (particularly Sir Menzies Campbell) and a source of delight to Gordon Brown and David Cameron.

Given the long decline and sad end of Party Politics, few can today picture them as they were in their youth: two boisterous (not to say belligerent) lads, "Whig" and "Tory", both the children of turbulent times, both engaged in endless battles over the royal succession and the power of the monarchy. By all accounts they were bold youths, never happier than knocking back a few swift ones in the pub before a gentle evening of trying to beat seven shades out of each other as they vied for the favour of a various royals, in scenes which (fortunately) would not be seen again until the tragic and disturbing events of "It's A Royal Knockout" in 1987.

As they moved from their teens into their twenties and beyond, however, Party Politics began to settle down. With independence in the offing in the Americas and revolution nascent in France, Whig and Tory had begun to feel that fighting in the streets was best left to others - preferably German mercenaries trying to keep down revolt on the streets of America and effete members of the British Aristocracy going under the dread-inspiring pseudonym of "The Scarlet Pimpernel" brawling with the sans-culottes on the streets of France. Tired of their youthful ways, Party Politics began to grow respectable - debates in the Houses of Parliament began to involve fewer punch-ups, brawls became confined to only the worser class of election hustings and monarchs became too interested in talking to trees to interfere. By the mid 1800s, Tory had begun to let it be known that he'd much rather be known as "Conservative", Whig started referring to himself "Liberal"(1) and both found themselves able to stand at the same bar in the House of Commons without either attempting to physically wound the other.

Over the following decades Conservative and Tory went about the business of Party Politics with a vengeance - arguing over free trade and protectionism, repealing Corn Laws, spinning off and then absorbing an assortment of splinter parties and ensuring that the House of Commons had some of the cheapest bars in all of the UK.

In the early 20th Century, Party Politics were given a further boost by the arrival of Liberal and Conservative's horny-handed and cloth-capped brother, Labour. This feisty new addition to the political scene, complete with his socialist ideology and Methodist convictions had soon injected new life into the old two-party system ... even if much of this new life was added at the expense of Liberal, who found himself swiftly transformed from a significant figure on the political stage to third understudy in the local am dram players.

By the middle of the century, Party Politics had become a gripping clash between the ideologies of Socialism and Conservatism, capable of sweeping up millions as National Health Services were created, industries nationalised, nuclear weapons purchased, wars fought, unions confronted and much more cheap beer served in the many House of Commons bars.

With the arrival of Margaret Thatcher as Conservative leader and the rise of the Labour left wing in the 1970s, Party Politics arrived at its most glorious hour. There was now no issue which was not a point of principal, no argument which was not vital and no drink which was not a necessary stiffener before a debate.

Few knew it at the time but Party Politics' finest hour was also the beginning of Party Politics' decline. After 18 years of Conservative rule, Labour had begun to rue its old ways. Where once "conviction" had been its watch word, now it began to prefer "pragmatism" and "triangulation": free markets, nuclear weapons and low taxes ceased to be a source of division between the parties and instead became sources of agreement. By 1997, the British public knew they could vote for either Labour or Conservative without fear of sweeping change.

So it was that Party Politics drifted first into consensus and then, with Conservative eager to ape Labour's success by shadowing its policies, into confusion. By 2007 the most fiscally conservative party was the old socialist party, the most ecological party was the centre party and the most socially liberal party was the former right wing party. Thus it was that party difference ceased to mean anything beyond the difference between the party leaders and so Party Politics - despite Ming Campbell's literally breathtaking rendition of "Say It Loud, I'm Old and I'm Proud!" at Brighton this week - sleepwalked off a cliff at a seaside political conference.

Party Politics will be buried all at sea at Brighton, Bournemouth and Blackpool over the Party Conference Season. Mourners have been asked to send large donations and a request for a seat in the House of Lords to the Labour, Conservative and Liberal Democrat election funds.

(1) Our American readers are here asked to note that this was in a time when the word "liberal" meant to believe in liberty, rather than being the vilely offensive curse word, indicative of a total lack of moral fibre and a willingness, nay eagerness, to be violently taken from behind by communists, terrorists and other evildoers, that it is today.


youdontknowme said...

Buried at sea? Damn. I was hoping to dance on the grave.

Norma said...

"the policies of the major parties have now become so interchangeable - if not indistinguishable - that there seems to be little or no point in trying to tell them apart."

I've noticed a similar problem in the USA--both parties want to spend us to death.

Lord Higham- Murray said...

Party politics is one of the greatest jokes ever foisted upon an unsuspecting public to delude them into thinking they have some say in the running of things.

Welshcakes Limoncello said...

You've never written a truer sentence than your opening one here, Dodo!