Parliamentary rebellion is not quite what it used to be. Many of us recall the colourful heyday of ‘the beast of Bolsover’, Dennis Skinner MP, the backbencher who usurped the best seats, scowling leftist disapproval of Thatcherite policies and Labour fudges. His acerbic wit was a refreshing antidote to the bland reassurances of routine political rhetoric.
Then there was debonair Michael Heseltine, swinging the Commons mace around his head in the midst of an argument that turned from annoyance into high farce. Indeed, that’s how he got the unlikely press nickname, ‘Tarzan’.
Of course one shouldn’t elevate a few moments of theatre and, er, high spirits, into occasions of deep principle. Parliament is male dominated, and its antics of dissent can easily descend into pack laddism, rather like the braying noises of approval and disapproval that accompany speeches, especially the ones that are likely to get the TV or radio coverage. The ‘culture of disrespect’ of which Mr Blair speaks has grown among our political elders, too.
Nevertheless, there is something important about refusing to toe the line, verbally and vote-wise, in an overall parliamentary culture which too readily relies on group-think, organization, lobbying, and what the late US economist John Kenneth Galbraith tellingly called ‘institutional truth’ – genuine conviction twisted in the direction of convenience.
Great figures like Welsh national institution Nye Bevan, who defied medical charges for the poor, have positioned themselves against this trend in vital ways. Bevan was once described by Churchill, who himself rebelled – rather less honourably – on independence for India, as a “squalid nuisance”.
Perhaps Tony Blair entertained the same feelings about the late Robin Cook, the foreign secretary turned incisive Iraq critic whose last word is now on his headstone: “I may not have succeeded in halting the war, but I did secure the right of Parliament to decide on war.” It’s an epitaph which combines both contrariness and confidence in the political process.
The same issue produced a different kind of rebel, a tabloid-driven one, in George Galloway, who swept aside a respected and hard-working MP (Oona King, Bethnal Green and Bow). Grandstanding and ethically questionable he may be, but Galloway undoubtedly emblemizes and articulates a visceral popular anger about powerlessness in the face of great wrong.
Other examples of protest are provided not just by parliamentarians but by those who put them there (in the first chamber, anyway) – electorates. There’s a long tradition of voting in the outsider, going back in recent history to proto-social democrat Dick Taverne (Lincoln, 1973), and taking in such brief luminaries as Martin Bell (the anti-corruption Independent MP in Tatton) and Dave Nellist, Coventry’s militant Labourite, who nevertheless lost his old seat by 1,000 votes in 1992.
Then there is long-standing Westminster parliamentarian Dennis Canavan. At his first election to the Scottish Parliament in 1999, the Labour leadership refused to approve his candidature, despite 97% party membership backing in his constituency. He stood unsupported, gained the biggest majority in Scotland, and defied cynics by repeating the feat four years later.
The highest profile rebel right now is Clare Short. On 12 September 2006, the ex-minister announced that she would not be standing at the next general election. She proclaimed herself “ashamed” of Mr Blair's administration, backed proportional representation, and wished for a hung parliament to achieve it.
On 20 October, Short resigned the Labour whip and now sits as an Independent Labour MP. Her party future is uncertain, to say the least, and many commentators have put her stand, which begun with disquiet over Iraq, down to personalities rather than principle.
But Short is now using her position to engage in action on issues like global development from outside as well as inside the same chamber from which Tony Benn retired after a long career – announcing that he was “leaving the House of Commons to concentrate more on politics.”
In the USA, individual senators and representatives regularly vote against their parties, and there is no equivalent whipping system. That said, the arm-twisting is of a more personal, crude and often commercial kind, and the two-party stranglehold is significantly stronger in some ways. Deadly, even.
There is no ideal system, though reform in the direction of diversity, proportionality, fresh alliances and independent action is clearly important. But systems notwithstanding, it remains powerful personalities and the galvanization of popular feeling which often holds the clue to change in society.
Institutions – both political and religious – offer regularity, security and continuity. That is what the ‘kingly’ and ‘priestly’ roles were in ancient systems. But prophets point to the radical core of a tradition which is about social transformation. Not just new ways of voting, but better ways of living.
A version of this column appears in the February 2007 issue of Third Way magazine.