This 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”.