The Tory Party has been to date the most effective election winning party in British politics since 1688. Whilst the Left frets about compromising its principles, if it ever gains power, an unhelpful tradition the Greens are now following, the Right worries about not being in power and, thereby, being able to steer, if not stop dead in their tracks those parties with reforming instincts.
The Tory Party’s lack of firm principle is how it has survived over three centuries of economic and social change. It is Darwinian evolutionary theory displayed in a political setting. Only when it has become obsessed with policies such as resisting parliamentary reform, opposing free trade or being against our having more than a guest membership of the European Union has it weakened its electoral chances. It is worth reflecting that since the National Health Service was founded in 1948 by a Labour Government, the Tory Party has been in government, if not always in power for 40 years out of the 67 that the NHS has been in existence.
Robert Peel in his Tamworth Manifesto of 1834 set out his view of Conservatism, a refinement of the policy of opposing change, merely because it was change. Peel said Conservatism was about reforming the bad and conserving the good. I share his vision, but I suspect we would not necessarily agree on the definitions of what is bad and what is good. Peel was seeking to break with the High Toryism of the likes of the Duke of Wellington, a great general, but a lousy politician and one high up on any list of the worst Prime Minister since that title was accorded the First Lord of the Treasury.
One wonders how Peel would have regarded Hague’s last act as a Member of Parliament? The independence of the Speaker of the House of Commons is, in my humble opinion, more than worth conserving. We executed a King to make just that point in 1649. One would have thought Hague, who has aspirations to be treated as a serious historian, would have remembered the words of Speaker Lenthall, addressed as they were to Charles I when he entered the Commons Chamber to attempt to arrest five Members of Parliament:
“May it please your majesty, I have neither eyes to see nor tongue to speak in this place but as this house is pleased to direct me whose servant I am here; and humbly beg your majesty’s pardon that I cannot give any other answer than this is to what your majesty is pleased to demand of me.”
The Speaker did his duty to the House and refused to assist Charles in his attempt to subvert the will of the common people as represented in the Commons (the very name of the House is no accident). Now William Hague seeks to give the executive, standing in for the Monarch, the power to unseat the Speaker. Never forget that the payroll vote, that is the number of Ministers and other MPs linked to Ministers, exceeds 100 and whilst that block may be embarrassed being seen to vote en bloc in an open election for the Speaker, one assumes Hague hopes to vote away that hindrance to the executive, as opposed to the Commons, determining who should sit in the Speaker’s chair. Moreover, once the precedent has been set for secret ballots in our Parliament how far might it extend? Perhaps to contentious pieces of legislation where MPs would prefer anonymity to explaining to their constituents as to how they voted or why they were not in the House to vote?
I fear that for many Hague’s proposed change may seem a minor one in elections to a position that may not seem to be of much consequence. But the guy in the funny wig, bellowing, “Order, order!” is as much our representative in the House of Commons as our MP. We, the people, have a right to know not only who is in the running for Speaker of the House of Commons, but as for whom our MP votes in elections for that position. I want a Lenthall or a Bercow as Speaker, regardless of which party sits on the right of that person’s chair. I am confident that Peel and I suspect most, if not all of my other political heroes, from Wilkinson to Castle, Bevan to Wilson, FE Smith to Jenkins, Gladstone to Lloyd George, Disraeli to Churchill, Asquith to Attlee, Bevin to Bright, Canning to Grey, Benn to Skinner and Russell to Melbourne would agree with me. I suspect that even the Baroness would have thought twice about what Hague is proposing and in which the Liberal Democrats are acquiescing.
I beseech the House to defend its right to decide who sits in the Speaker’s chair for the holder of that position is their servant, their shop steward even and crucially the only person capable of forcing Ministers to attend Parliament to account for their actions. Surely that is a good which is worth conserving against the High Toryism that Hague now represents? As for William Hague’s ambitions to be taken seriously as a historian? I am not convinced that the world needed another biography on William Pitt the Younger, but both literature and the study of history have been enriched by Ffion Jenkins’, sorry, Hague’s engaging, sympathetic portrait of Lloyd George’s women. I commend Ms Hague’s book to my readers. I urge MPs to consign her husband’s last act as an MP to the pile marked remaindered, fit only for pulping and recycling.