Conservative MPs Must Find their Political Conscience

Dr Stewart Tolley

Conservative MPs should follow the examples of Burke and Mill and not allow party loyalty or the wishes of the electorate stop them exercising their judgement in the national interest.

One of the defining features of British representative democracy is that members are directly elected to represent the interests of their constituents and the nation. This sets it apart from continental systems of democracy, which tend to use party lists to select MPs, and has allowed British MPs a far greater independence of thought and freedom of action, letting them exercise their own judgement rather than slavishly follow a party line. It is also a key feature of traditional conservatism which is most closely associated with the philosophy of Edmund Burke.

Edmund Burke is a celebrated figure in the history of Conservative thought. It is therefore rather ironic that very few current Conservative MP’s seem to follow his views on national interest and party loyalty.

Burke was extremely critical of unquestioned party loyalty; something he believed constrained individual judgement. This was especially true when he believed an MP was forced to sacrifice their principles and put the interest of nation below that of the party or their constituents.

As he said in 1779 ‘all acting in corps tends to reduce the consideration of an individual in who is of any distinguished value’.

Burke was the very antithesis of a party drone. He went against his own party grouping in 1790 when he (accurately as it turned out) warned of the dangers posed by the French Revolution. It is interesting that MPs who warn about the dangers of Brexit are similarly maligned.

Burke was also not afraid to vote and speak out against the wishes of his own constituents, on contentious topics such as Capital Punishment, Catholic Emancipation and Free Trade. The last of these in particular
angered his constituents in Bristol to the extent they voted him out in 1780. This was not before Burke had written that this point of principle on Free Trade was so important that he ‘dared to resist the desires of his constituents’.

The Tyranny of Majoritarianism

These debates were going on at the same time as radicals such as Rousseau were writing that a ‘general will’ existed which meant all governments were obliged to follow the tyranny of the majority, no matter how irrational the beliefs of that majority may be.

In our own times, this has now morphed into the ‘will of the people’ which means MPs now feel obligated to ignore their own better judgment for the sake of the government’s interpretation of what 52% of the electorate said in a national plebiscite.

Some ultra-right wing Tories supported an enlargement of the franchise in the Great Reform Act of 1832 precisely because they knew that the ‘general will’ would at that time not have accepted progressive causes like Catholic Emancipation.

In a curious echo of the past, modern populists seem to be embracing increased democratisation precisely because it often produces reactionary responses.

Later writers like J. S. Mill saw this attitude as a form of ‘social tyranny’ where individual critical judgement was sacrificed. Mill as an MP always voted with his conscience, championing causes that were ahead of his time, but few in his party or constituency would support. Most notably in 1866 he attempted to insert an amendment into the Second Reform Act that would have enfranchised all women. It will probably come as no surprise that this was defeated. It took a war to give women the
vote in the UK and not fully until 1928.

Brexiters and populists love Switzerland because of its direct democracy, but it is precisely because of this system that it took until 1971 for women to get the same rights as in the UK. This again shows that MP defying the electorate is often a necessary condition for the national interest.

In Mill’s time governments were routinely defeated, normally 10-15 times a year. Voting along party lines mattered little; in 1850 it was as infrequent as 37% for Liberals and 45% for Conservatives. However by 1903 it was 88% and 83% respectively.

Entrenched Party Loyalty as a New Norm

Entrenched loyalty has now become the established norm. Much of it has to do with a more sophisticated operation of party whips. These
can often be coercive and arbitrary and often it is a result of a leader’s own hobby horse or preference.

Ian Duncan Smith should have allowed a free vote on allowing gay and unmarried couples to adopt but decided to impose a three line whip in 2002. Big figures like Ken Clarke and Michael Portillo rightly led a rebellion against this decision. Famously John Bercow sacrificed a high profile position in the shadow cabinet.

When a government or party impose an irrational diktat on their MPs or when an MP feels that the direction their party and country is heading in is wrong, it is only right that they speak out and vote according to their conscience. It is easy to forget that the largest rebellion since the Corn Laws was over the invasion of Iraq, when 137 Labour and 16 Conservatives MPs defied their whips to vote against what they rightly saw as a bad policy. Many MPs have already done the same over Brexit and
they should be roundly praised for having done so.

Of course the great issue for our times, Brexit, is not the Iraq War or the French Revolution. However, it is just as contentious and despite its vocal supporters there is no clear popular majority for a specific type of Brexit. This means that it is imperative for MPs not to follow a nebulous and ill
defined ‘general will’ but to vote with their conscience rather than their party or constituents. In an ideal world, parliament would allow a free vote to reverse a policy that is clearly not in the national interest. However, populist politics got us into this mess so it is now expedient that we harness it one last time to get out of it.

Only another referendum will be perceived to have the legitimacy to
overturn the previous decision. Hopefully MPs will speak out in greater numbers to back a people’s vote, especially as like the Iraq War, there is beginning to be a strong belief that the public have been similarly hoodwinked. Boris’ bus and Fox’s easy promises is the dodgy dossier of the current parliament, MPs must take the courageous decision to not allow a similar act of folly again.


Dr Stewart Tolley is the Chief Historian of “The Past  – Bringing World History Alive”, as well as Secretary of the Northamptonshire Branch of the European Movement and the Academic Officer of the Young Conservative Group for Europe.