Getting the facts right

Lord Norton

promoThis morning´s edition of The Daily Telegraph has an article by Daniel Hannan headed “Let´s return to the good old days when MPs didn´t always toe the party line”.  The only problem with this is that there were no “good old days”.  Far from MPs becoming more prone to toe the party line, the movement has been in the other direction.  The period of greatest party loyalty in the twentieth century was the 1950s.  There were actually two parliamentary sessions in that decade in which not a single Government back-bencher voted against the party.  Between 1945 and 1970 no Government lost a vote as a result of its back-benchers voting with the Opposition.  Since the early 1970s, MPs have shown a far greater willingness to defy the party whips – resulting in various Government defeats – and Government back-benchers are today far more willing to vote against their party than at any time previously in modern political history.

At the risk of stating the obvious, it is not unusual to find factually incorrect statements being carried in the media.  Some newspapers still continue to claim that Michael Martin was the first Speaker in nearly three-hundred years to be forced out of office.  As regular readers are aware, he wasn´t.   Some journalists refer to Lord Mandelson as Lord Mandelson of Foy and Hartlepool.  As readers know, he is Lord Mandelson. 

The problem is that once something becomes accepted wisdom – however factually inaccurate – the media tend to have difficulty shifting from it even when the inaccuracy is pointed out.  The case of Michael Martin is a case in point.  Even though Michael Crick of Newsnight picked up on the fact that the claim about him was incorrect, other journalists continued to recycle the claim that he was the first Speaker since 1695 to be forced out.  And I have lost track of the number of times that reporters claim MPs were far more independent “in the old days”.

8 comments for “Getting the facts right

  1. Croft
    28/08/2009 at 2:26 pm

    Is this overall true though? I believe prior to the mid (perhaps even to some extent late) C19 MPs didn’t vote to a strong line largely because party was a much vaguer concept – one among several competing interests. So on the broad sweep of parliamentary history the ‘good old days’ might be right. Obviously many of the competing interests (family, patronage) were just as corrupting as party loyalty is seen to be now but that’s another debate.

    The question then is from the establishment of the modern party system and machine how much change has there been in party line voting as doubtless it has fluctuated. I would have assumed it was weaker in the 1880s-1914 and growing stronger up until the 70s and slightly weaker since.

    Do your rush of blood letters to the editor only go to the times? 🙂

  2. lordnorton
    28/08/2009 at 5:28 pm

    Croft: There was a period in the mid-19th Century when party voting was weak. The article focused on more recent times, though did claim that as the concept of collective responsibility increased, MPs remained independent in their behaviour. The concept of collective responsibility developed in the late 19th Century (prior to then it was not unknown for junior ministers to vote against their own govermment) and did so as party voting became the established norm. Party cohesion was a marked feature of parliamentary behaviour by the end of the century and remained so in the 20th (there were major splits within parties in the period you mention, but these were not necessarily reflected in votes in the Commons); MPs still remain loyal to party in the division lobbies but relatively less so than before.

    I may write to the editor of The Daily Telegraph about it, but I am torn as I was contemplating writing to agree with the paper´s editorial yesterday on parliamentary reform, which I thought was excellent.

  3. John B Sheffield
    29/08/2009 at 8:11 am

    Everyone is allowed personal opinions on the policy of a Party they may serve, but is their not a place and time.

    Also the public have over this past month seen the clear difference, when it is nothing less than a personal campaign for ego and self publicity.

    One YouTube video attacking PM Brown does not make and show a good politician, even if it attracted a cult following at the time and since. It would be good to see Mr Hannan play an important part in what I thought he was elected for as a MEP, there are far more problems with Europe which need dealing with.

  4. 30/08/2009 at 10:43 am

    This is useful and interesting but it would be even more useful if the statements of facts misused were (hyper)linked to source material :]

  5. Senex
    30/08/2009 at 3:32 pm

    Lord Norton: “Let´s return to the good old days when MPs didn´t always toe the party line”.

    Whilst it refers to MP’s this is a very real problem for the house in terms of its political appointments. Lord Jay of Ewelme who heads the Lords Appointments Commission has inferred that his committee might appoint on occasion a few mavericks here and there as long as they fit the bill so to speak.

    However, he does not comment on the proposition that appointments coming to house through 10 Downing Street are always conformist so as not to give their party a hard time in the Lords. My feeling is that all the political peers in the Lords are ‘Yes’ men placed there to complement their Commons party. Perhaps this is why I give them such a hard time on the blog?

    I know what you are going to say: “Peers are an independent lot”. This may be so as a rule of thumb but certainly not for political peers. Have you ever known a ‘maverick’ come to the Lords through Number 10 Downing Street?

    • Croft
      31/08/2009 at 10:04 am

      Senex: Of course the ‘yes’ is not necessarily the same over time. The Lords is presently filled with Tory life peers who were appointed mostly during the last Tory governments and reflect the politics of that period. So you have a higher number of pro-Europeans than in the present CLP and less instinctively Cameroon in it’s attitudes to many social issues. The same time/politics changes would be true of the Labour party.

  6. 30/08/2009 at 9:12 pm

    Interesting response from Professor Norton within a cerebral blog. (Also my tutor @ Hull from 91-94). Surely the two great Tory minds – Lord Norton and Dan agree on nearly everything – bar this one factual inaccuracy?

    As to Mr Sheffield, I know Dan and he is not an egotist. He is an formidable intellect, who actually enjoys ideas for their sake, not as a means of propelling him forward. He is without doubt the most influential UK MEP, and to tell him to stick to his “job description” is barmy.

  7. franksummers3ba
    01/09/2009 at 2:28 am

    Just a note from across the pond. The Revolutionaries and Framers (those usually called the Founding Fathers) believed that in the middle of the eighteenth century the Parliament was impaired and damaged by Party Spirit. They hoped the governments Articles of Confederation would limit party and they did limit party and other perceived vices at the same time failing to govern in a fairly spectacular way. They also hoped the later US Constitution would limit party spirit. That government actually worked and had a Congress that was not as partisan as the British Parliament untilthe first actual election. Then party became dominant and stayed the means of of discipline and organization. I have no particular point except to illustrate perceptions of party over time.

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