“Backbench Parliamentary Politics”
Old Dy’vorians Association / UWTSD Lecture [i] – 25 May 2017
When my cohort entered Dynevor in September 1963, a man in his thirties could have fought in World War II. Playground games cast Germans as the enemy, rather than our Soviet post-war adversaries, despite the Cuban Missile Crisis of the previous October. Air-raid shelters – albeit boarded-up – were still a feature of schools like that at Tycoch; and, rummaging in the attic at home, one would find hastily issued gas-masks as a reminder of the sort of attack widely anticipated in the 1930s. Mercifully, the use of gas in the Blitz on Britain was deterred by the threat of retaliation, but the architecture of much of the centre of Swansea, including the school hall at Dynevor, made it impossible to forget the devastating attacks which our town had suffered in 1940 and 1941.
Staple reading, for the boys of that generation, were weekly magazines with titles like the Victor and the Valiant – inspiring young minds with true stories, featured on their covers, of wartime derring-do. So an interest in Defence was easily fostered, particularly in the context of Aldermaston marches and anti-nuclear sit-down protests in the centre of London and outside various RAF and US Air Force bases. This was the period when Labour leader Harold Wilson was gearing up for his first election victory … and part of his platform was a promise to cancel the proposed Polaris nuclear deterrent submarines.
Having read about the well-intentioned but ultimately counterproductive disarmament campaigns of the 1920s and ’30s, my younger self was filled with horror at this prospect which instantly converted me from a potential Liberal voter into a stern Young Conservative. In the event, Wilson went back on his pledge – merely cutting the number of proposed submarines from five to four, in order to differentiate his party’s policy from that of the Tories; but by then, for me, the die had been cast.
I am fairly sure that, if you spoke to my Parliamentary colleagues – or, I should say, former colleagues, as there are no MPs at all at the moment – many of them would tell you parallel tales of some particular cause which motivated them to seek a life in Parliamentary politics. Many, but by no means all … because there are two main categories of MPs: conviction politicians and career politicians. Perhaps it would be fairer to say that there is a spectrum running from the one to the other – with the people in between mixing conviction with personal ambition in varying proportions. Yet, my experience has been that, very early on, a new Member of Parliament has to decide which of the two basic models will be his or her guiding light.
Occasionally, I’m asked what has most surprised me in my 20 years at Westminster. The answer is easy: it is the extraordinary degree of mutual respect between conviction politicians – even when they subscribe to entirely opposite political views. Let me give a personal example. Until Ed Miliband transformed the electoral base for choosing the Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn was an isolated backbencher, consistently and always very courteously arguing the case for CND and unilateral nuclear disarmament, even though the vast majority of his fellow Labour MPs were determined never to return to that vote-losing policy of the 1980s.
Since about 2010, there has been a special Backbench Business Committee which allocates time for debates initiated by individual MPs. It always helps, when applying to this Committee to grant a debate opportunity, for the applicant to show that the suggested subject would attract vigorous contributions from both sides of the argument. For this reason, whenever Jeremy wanted to secure a debate on, for example, the US-UK Mutual Defence Agreement or the next Ten-Year Review Conference for the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, he would ask me to attend the Committee with him and make the case (from the opposite side of the argument) about why a debate on this subject would be valuable.
Similarly, I could always rely on Jeremy to back my applications for debates on the Trident deterrent, from his diametrically opposing perspective. Having secured these debates, we would both then take part in them, doing everything possible to undermine each other’s sincerely held points of view. For that reason, it should not have come as such a surprise that, when I sought support from Labour MPs for the role of Defence Committee chairman, as well as staunch defenders of NATO and deterrence like Kevan Jones and the late Sir Gerald Kaufman, my Labour sponsors included two members of the Far Left Socialist Campaign Group: namely, John McDonnell and Jeremy Corbyn himself.
Nevertheless, it is possible to have too much of a good thing, where this sort of sportsmanlike behaviour is concerned. In order to stand for the Labour Party leadership, an MP must be nominated by a certain fraction of the total number of MPs in the Parliamentary Labour Party. This is meant to be a “safety-catch” to ensure that no-one is elected leader who is unacceptable to an overwhelming majority of Labour MPs. When Jeremy stood, he needed the backing of 35 of them. In the event, he scraped over the line with 36 … including the well-known moderates, Frank Field and Margaret Beckett. Of course, at the time they nominated him, they had no inkling that the decision to allow anyone to join the Labour Party for just £3 per head, was transforming the nature of the mass membership by shifting it radically to the Left. How they must rue the fact that it was their sporting gesture to nominate Jeremy so he could fly the flag for the Socialist Campaign Group that made it possible for him to stand in the first place!
I mentioned a little earlier, the tension that exists between the politics of conviction and the ambition to achieve high office, and the fact that there are “shades of grey” in between. (By using that term, I am not referring to those sexual misadventures which have brought more than one political career to a shuddering and permanent halt.) After all, it is easy to justify compromising some of one’s own, perhaps less strongly-held, beliefs in order to get into a position of sufficient influence, or even power, to be able to achieve some of one’s principal goals in politics. However, this frame of mind is a slippery slope, and as indicated previously if the purpose of entering Parliament is to promote particular causes, then sooner rather than later one must accept that career advancement will have to be sacrificed.
There is no guaranteed path to the higher reaches of politics. I should like people to think that my own time on the Front Bench, all of it in Opposition – as a Whip, as Shadow Minister for the Cabinet Office, and as a Shadow Defence Minister for slightly longer than the Second World War – was in recognition of my sterling qualifications for being there. The reality is that, in 2001, I actually backed the winning candidate for the leadership and achieved my first promotion as a result. When the Conservative–LibDem Coalition was formed in 2010, nearly two dozen of us Shadow Ministers (mainly on the Right of the party) found ourselves Backbenchers once again, as the roles we had coveted were bestowed instead on Liberal Democrat spokesmen whom we had been vigorously slapping down for years!
There are currently 650 Parliamentary constituencies, and most of the people elected to represent them will have come through a gruelling selection process. Not all the most capable candidates will succeed in getting to Westminster, but nearly all those who do will be articulate and ambitious, with a rather high opinion of their own capabilities and potential. And here a problem arises: there are simply not enough roles in the Parliamentary power-structure to satisfy or even fully stretch so many people concentrated in such a small space. Inevitably, this means that one has to deal with some seriously bruised egos in the Palace of Westminster, when people allow themselves to become embittered by their lot, regardless of the privilege of being there in the first place.
It was once famously said that “all political careers end in failure” – and one can see why this may be true on examining all those disappointed MPs who never became Ministers, all those disappointed Ministers who never made it into the Cabinet, all those disappointed Cabinet Ministers who never became Prime Minister, and – yes – even all those Prime Ministers who left office under a cloud or whose reputations were trashed years after they retired.
The lesson from all this for anyone tempted by the prospect of a Parliamentary career is: don’t do it unless you are content to be a Backbencher from beginning to end. Of course, it helps to represent a beautiful and tranquil constituency. Most people think themselves lucky to spend time in the lovely New Forest just once or twice a year: I am able to be there every weekend – and longer when the House is not sitting. Having flown the Conservative flag in my home seat of Swansea West, back in 1983, I shall always be grateful to the New Forest East Association for not insisting that their candidate in 1997 had to be locally-born. And, most of the time, I have not regretted my choice of career.
It is possible to be a specialist in a particular subject-area as long as one is a generalist where one’s own constituency is concerned. You will be granted considerable latitude on the national scene, provided that you have a good reputation as a local MP. Back in the 1980s, my late Father, Sam, who was also educated at Dynevor (or the Municipal Secondary School, as it was known in the 1920s), asked me why I wanted to go into politics as it was (in his words) “such a dirty business”. He accepted my response that most hierarchical structures involve politics of some sort – and at least Parliamentary politics involve outcomes that might have far-reaching and long-lasting effects for the benefit of society.
During that decade of the 1980s, there was a serious risk that the huge anti-nuclear movement would succeed in preventing the renewal of the British nuclear deterrent and also the deployment of cruise missiles at Greenham Common and Molesworth in response to that of the Soviet SS20s. Just as the threat to cancel Polaris had politicised me twenty years earlier, the threat to cancel its successor, Trident, found me working full-time to counter the CND from the vantage-point of an activist. By the time I entered Parliament, in 1997, it seemed that the nuclear argument had been won. Neil Kinnock and Gerald Kaufman had steered Labour away from unilateralism after their defeat a decade earlier. Yet, on this issue at least, the Liberal Democrats were, and remain, to the Left of the Labour Party.
To this day, the LibDems dispute the need for what is known as “CASD” – continuous at-sea deterrence, requiring the constant deployment of at least one of our Trident submarines, to ensure that a pre-emptive strike cannot eliminate them all. When Conservative MPs were manipulated (as we were) into endorsing a coalition with the Liberals in May 2010, we did not know that a secret deal had been struck between Messrs Cameron and Clegg to postpone the vote to build the next generation of Trident submarines, known as “Successor”, until after the next General Election. This secret pact emerged only in October 2010.
Despite the existence of an overwhelming majority in favour of Successor on the Conservative and Labour benches, there was now a deadly risk that the anti-Trident Liberal Democrats could – if there were another “hung Parliament” in 2015 – play off Cameron against Miliband by promising the keys to No.10 to whichever of them agreed to end continuous at-sea deterrence by reducing the proposed Successor fleet from four boats to three, or possibly only two, if not cancelling the project altogether.
It thus fell to those of us outraged by this appalling prospect, to spend the next 6 very long years demanding, from the Backbenches, to know when the vote was to be held and insisting that no further concessions should be made to the Liberals when it finally took place. This was all a far cry from the role I had expected to play as part of David Cameron’s Defence Ministerial Team, and I grumbled in exasperation to one of my oldest friends in Parliament, Sir Edward Leigh, that “I hadn’t expected my career trajectory to end up with my becoming the Bill Cash of the nuclear deterrent!” Bill was, of course, famous – or infamous – for his relentless, and apparently futile, opposition to British membership of the European Union.
In the light of my earlier remarks, you will have gathered that I was falling victim to precisely the sort of frustration that MPs are prone to experience and really ought to avoid. It was Edward who brought this home to me, when he replied: “Well, Julian, you could do a lot worse than becoming the Bill Cash of the nuclear deterrent. Bill’s campaign against the EU will be remembered long after most Ministers, including Cabinet Ministers, have been totally forgotten.”
Whichever side you took, on the EU Referendum issue, I trust you will see, in that remark, a clear example of my underlying theme: that one can make a difference as a Backbencher in Parliament, if only on those occasions when having to hold your own party’s leadership to account.
Something very similar happened in 2013 over the Coalition Government’s proposal to bomb Syria. Ostensibly, this was to be in response to the – disputed – use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime. But 30 Conservative and 9 Liberal Democrat Backbenchers rebelled and stopped it from happening. Why did we do so? Because in 2011, most of us had voted – with misgivings – to impose a “No-fly Zone” to protect civilians in Libya, only to find this being used as cover to destroy Gaddafi and topple his regime. Now, much as Gaddafi personally deserved his fate, the consequences of removing him were predictably catastrophic. They gave a huge boost to our Islamist enemies whom Gaddafi had hitherto suppressed. Now we were being told to do exactly the same in Syria as we had done in Iraq and in Libya.
It is often observed that the definition of insanity is to do the same thing over and over again, and expect the outcome to be different. Subsequently, in 2015, we ended up bombing the opposite side in Syria from that which we had been asked to bomb only two years earlier. It is risky enough to intervene in someone else’s civil war when you want one side to win and the other to lose; but it is the height of folly to intervene in a civil war when you want both sides to lose and have to pretend that there are tens of thousands of “moderate” fighters just waiting to take over and implant the blessings of a pluralist democracy.
Sometimes one has to accept that there are no good outcomes on offer and the best you can do is to select the lesser of two evils. Not all countries are yet at a stage of development where the democratic model can possibly work. There is nothing racialist in this observation, as anyone familiar with the religious fanaticism and murderous intolerance rampant in our own country, only a few hundred years ago, will readily appreciate. We are very fortunate to have lived at a time when Parliamentary democracy, pluralism and mutual toleration are accepted by the vast majority of our citizens.
I have two favourite political quotations. One is the “Paradox of Tolerance” by the philosopher Sir Karl Popper, which admonishes us to tolerate all but the intolerant – because, if you tolerate the intolerant, then the conditions for toleration disappear and the tolerant go with them. The other is from the great Liberal Prime Minister, William Gladstone, who defiantly observed that “The resources of Civilisation against its enemies are not yet exhausted.”
Politics is a career but should also be a vocation. If you pin all your hopes on the one, you risk undermining the other. Discretion may be the better part of valour, but valour also has its place – and too much discretion does no-one any good when it’s time to stand up and be counted.
[i] Lecture delivered to the Old Boys’ Association of the former Dynevor School, in its original premises at the Swansea Campus of the University of Wales Trinity St David, during the 2017 General Election campaign.