The turn to neo-Edwardian politics

OK, so an interesting point came up on twitter regarding former Belgian PM Guy Verhofstadt, aka Europe’s Mr Brexit Except For The Other One. Isn’t one of the problems here that British politicians are socialised into a relatively simple kind of state? Basically unitary, usually with a strong executive government, powerful party whips, and unambiguous election results.

It strikes me that the simplicity of British politics was a product, or a project, of the 20th century. You can see it as an effort to abstract away complexity characteristic of the high modernist era. Starting in 1923-ish, with the Liberals being displaced by Labour and the Irish conflict swept under Stormont’s thick, luxurious carpets, everything resolves itself into two big political parties, represented pretty much everywhere, competing to form a government. The first-past-the-post system strongly favours single party government, and the way political practice develops also favours a strong prime ministership. Because the same political parties operate everywhere, regional and religious issues get dealt with through intra-party competition.

The big divide is simple: workers vs management. A few well-defined socio-economic variables are predictive. How much do you earn? How do you earn it? How do you educate your kids? How did your dad answer those questions? If the divide is expressed in a hundred subtle ways, like whether your rugby team has wing forwards or not, they are only epiphenomena of the great central drama. And because the core issues are economic, they work in much the same way everywhere. And of course, these facts affect how people practised politics. It was assumed that the other lot could be usually treated as a coherent bloc that you could negotiate with via the whips’ office. Access to this channel was controlled at each end by the chief whip, reporting directly to the prime minister or the leader of the opposition, further reinforcing the power of the prime ministership.

If you roll back a few years to the Edwardian era, though, the picture is one of baffling complexity, what Winston Churchill called the liquefaction of British politics. As well as the core divide between Conservatives and Liberals, there’s a cross-cutting division between imperialists and free traders, and another one between die-hards and home rulers, and they don’t map onto each other. Although that looks like a left-right divide, and some people in the Liberals want to define it as such, in fact both big parties are cross-class. There is a residual division between different kinds of Protestants that results in a special Celtic (but not Irish) version of Liberalism. There’s a special political party for Ireland and it’s big. There’s a rapidly growing Labour caucus, but it’s not a unitary political party yet, rather a diverse coalition of trade unionists, middle-class radical ex-Liberals, and revolutionary leftists only linked by the fact they obey the joint Labour whip….some of the time.

The complexity is almost as great as that of, say, Belgium. PMs were less swaggeringly powerful; it was possible to see the prime minister as a cipher surrounded by a team of genuinely important cabinet ministers. The PM wasn’t even necessarily in the Commons to take questions, and in any case, the institution of prime minister’s questions didn’t exist yet. Tellingly, it’s a product of the era of simplicity, and perhaps its steady decline into a continuation of football with the involvement of other means marks the resurgence of complexity.

I think it’s fair to say that the UK was always a complex polity in theory, but the era of two party mass politics made it simple in practice. We’re now, therefore, living through the re-emergence of its complexity. The third-biggest political party is now Scottish, and the most effective opposition to it is Scottish Conservatism, something really nobody would have predicted even two years ago. The Labour Party sometimes seems to be going back to its pre-WW1 roots as a loose coalition of voices for various definitions of socialism, mainly held together by the whips’ office. Regional and urban/rural divisions have reasserted themselves with unexpected intensity. Hugo Young, IIRC, said that what wasn’t then called the Remain/Leave divide had replaced the Free Trade/Imperialist divide; I wasn’t sure what he meant at the time, but it makes more sense to me now. It wasn’t necessarily an issue that spoke to any particular social class, but instead a culture-war divide that ran through and seasoned everything else, interacting in complicated ways with all the other divisions.

4 Comments on "The turn to neo-Edwardian politics"

  1. As someone who’s probably read a few too many books by Kipling a few too many times, I remember several frustrating on-line arguments trying to find to way to explain how universal education and universal healthcare — and the entire notion of of the benevolent centralised state — were in their actually existing forms (for good and and for bad) empire-Bismarckian holdovers. Not sure that knowing this was a Hugo Young line of attack would have clarified things for me at the time…


  2. You could probably back this up with some numbers on backbench revolts, though analysis might be tricky, because your willingness to revolt is going to be affected by the chance of your revolt succeeding; if I’m a Labour MP opposed to a Blair government bill, I might still vote for it, because it’s going to get through anyway and why cause myself grief?

    “The Labour Party sometimes seems to be going back to its pre-WW1 roots as a loose coalition of voices for various definitions of socialism, mainly held together by the whips’ office” – well, the Labour Party started off as a labour party, the Labour Representation Committee, specifically aimed at providing the union movement with a voice in Parliament. The union movement has been broken now, and the Labour Party’s leader doesn’t seem to care too much about whether the party has MPs or not, so I’m not quite sure where it goes now…


    1. The revolts thing cuts both ways, though. If the government has a huge majority you might decide to vote against because there are no consequences and the whips know that.

      This was basically the situation in 1997-2005 – when the guy who runs first made the observation that the supposedly subservient Labour landslide backbenchers actually did rebel quite a lot, just the press didn’t notice it because the huge govt majority soaked it up.


  3. I think this “simplicity” is a key to the psychology of your Hannans, Goves, Carswells etc. You can see it in their economics preferences too, they yearn for an algorithmic simplicity, a return to a smaller, purer (Cobden?) rule set.


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