A lot is said about putting nation before party or party before nation. But is it really anything but a slogan?
Leaving a Party
Twenty-one MPs were expelled from the Conservative Party this autumn. This happened rather unusually for simply voting against the whip – something MPs actually do quite a lot.
The fact the MPs in question had been publicly threatened with expulsion if they disobeyed their party leader meant they knew what they were doing – so it led to a lot of applause and praise from those who saw this as putting their country ahead of their party.
“A political career is largely dependent on party affiliation – and in many cases so is the prospect of even keeping one’s seat at the next general election.”
The same MPs were also pilloried by other people, however, who saw them as betraying the national interest by not supporting the Prime Minister who, let’s not forget, is their own Prime Minister – party politically speaking.
All of this came against a backdrop of numerous other MPs who have quit their parties – most notably quitting Labour and the Conservatives throughout 2019 – and either sitting as independents, forming new parties, or joining other parties (mainly the Lib Dems).
So who exactly is serving the national interest, and what it party interest anyway?
First things first, we must note that the expelled and resigning MPs are not putting personal interests first, at least not politically speaking. A political career is largely dependent on party affiliation – and in many cases so is the prospect of even keeping one’s seat at the next general election.
A Conservative or Labour MP in a safe or at least retainable seat is definitely giving up a lot by giving up their party affiliation. They lose campaign activists, they lose campaign finances, and they lose their seats in almost all cases. Some might move to a more winnable seat elsewhere or genuinely feel they can win their seat with backing from those loyal to them as individuals, but that means taking on a big risk to their position that they need not have taken on.
“You might not like pickled onions but if you love everything else in the hamper and dislike much of what’s in other hampers, you probably put up with them.”
Acting against one’s own personal interest – even just by giving up a relatively easy re-election – deserves some credit. Even if one thinks the individual made the wrong call, it would be churlish to imagine some MPs wouldn’t and don’t cling to a party for an easy life.
The complication is that it would also be churlish to think all other MPs are doing that.
Nations and Parties Can be Shared
The difficulty in arguing that party and national interests conflict is that much of the public, let alone MPs, are motivated strongly by the feeling that “their” party is aligned to what is best for the nation.
For example, it would be ludicrous to imagine a Labour MP who also served the party as a local councillor and an activist too, does not think Labour achieves some good for the country. Likewise, a Tory MP of thirty years or more almost certainly does feel the Conservative Party’s core principles are the right principles for Britain.
“Jo Johnson, willing to serve a Conservative Government in August, is no longer willing to even stand as a Conservative MP in September.”
On any given issue an individual might disagree with their party – hence the tendancy to defy the whip occasionally. But an election is not a supermarket and nor is Parliament. There is no good mechanism for picking each individual item the way a consumer can. Instead there are effectively hampers to choose from. You might not like pickled onions but if you love everything else in the hamper and dislike much of what’s in other hampers, you probably put up with the pickled onions because of all the good stuff.
MPs and party members therefore accept the rough with the smooth within their party precicely because they feel the national interest is served by the wider agenda of the party – not because they don’t care about the national interest.
Brexit is Too Big For Some
Like all politics right now, the present “Party v Nation” rhetoric focuses heavily on Brexit. From the panic-stricken move to close Parliament, to the Yellowhammer leaks revealing big risks regarding “no deal” brexit, pretty much everything in politics is presently very intense.
As such, both sides of the debate feel brexit is about national interest in a way that they don’t feel about spending a billion pounds more or less on schools or hospitals.
This is why there are so many MPs presently sitting in the Commons as independents or within parties they were not previously in. In effect, brexit has changed the hampers so dramatically that dozens of MPs no longer feel the hamper they once prefered is at all acceptable anymore.
“The only aspect that can be rationally observed is that certain MPs (such as Jo Johnson and Amber Rudd) are acting in what they believe to be the national interest.”
We see this most strongly with the Conservatives right now. Jo Johnson, willing to serve a Conservative Government in August, is no longer willing to even stand as a Conservative MP in September. He cited national interest as a key factor in his decision and he was soon after followed out of Cabinet by a resigning Amber Rudd over the same issue.
Matt Hancock on the otherhand criticised moves before joining the present Cabinet that this Cabinet has then made – but he has not resigned, citing his willingness to fight on for what he believes in within the party.
As explained, Jo Johnson and Amber Rudd cannot reasonably be accused of acting on self-interest or party interest. Matt Hancock could be, but he could also be acting in what he genuinely feels is the national interest by not walking away from tough conflicts and compromises.
All of this leaves little scope for a rational assessment. If you feel Brexit is in the national interest to the extent that even “no deal” is acceptable, then supporting it will appear to be in the national interest. If you feel “no deal” would do so much harm to people that it is unnacceptable in any way, then oppositing it will seem to be in the national interest.
The only aspect that can be rationally observed is that certain MPs (such as Jo Johnson and Amber Rudd) are clearly acting in what they believe to be the national interest because they are unambiguously not serving party or personal interest, politically speaking.
What can’t be said is that other MPs, such as Matt Hancock, are therefore failing to act on what they believe is the national interest. They might not be because they might instead be serving narrower party or personal interests. But the motives behind doing so might not be so divisible from their view of national interest as people would like to imagine.