I have spent much of the past month in the U.K., watching the roof cave in on a Westminster House of Commons divided against itself. Canada has its own divisions but they pale by comparison.
However, there are common attributes between the SNC Lavalin affair and the British parliament’s civil war over Europe — the idea that political party unity should be subverted to the personal convictions of MPs.
Parties have had a bad rap since the days of Gilbert and Sullivan’s HMS Pinafore, when Sir Joseph Porter sang of “always voting at my party’s call, and never thought of thinking for myself at all.”
The idea that backbench MPs are required to be witless bobbleheads controlled by domineering leaders has been reinforced by the media coverage of the treatment of former ministers Jody Wilson-Raybould and Jane Philpott. In an interview at the weekend on CTV’s Question Period, Philpott said she “stood up and said what I believed, tried to advance the truth, tried to stand up on principle and was essentially pushed away as a result of that.” Who could not commend such resolve — after all, don’t we want all our elected representatives to be righteous and lack restraint? Up to a point, Lord Copper.
The U.K. is a cautionary tale of what happens when party systems begin to splinter and voters become disenchanted. British Prime Minister Theresa May is facing more hostile questioning from her own Conservative Party MPs than from Labour these days, the consequence of seeking a compromise Brexit deal with opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn.
There is no consensus to be found in Westminster these days, except for the sense that the two main parties cannot survive Brexit in their current forms. Eight Labour MPs have already quit the party to form a pro-European Union group, and been joined by three Tories. More are set to follow. One polling expert noted that the share of the Conservative-Labour vote has tumbled over the past 15 months. The Economist said the Conservative Party, “once the instrument of the British establishment, is in the process of metamorphosing into a full-scale nationalist-populist party.” At the next election, it will be faced by a populist left-wing Labour Party that has its own divisions over Europe.
The British public has had enough — three-quarters feel like the main parties “no longer serve the best interests of the country.” More worryingly, 54 per cent now want a “strong leader who’s willing to break the rules,” according to the poll by the Hansard Society.
A country where playing by the rules is part of the national psyche is apparently ready to embrace authoritarianism. This should make Canadians wary about cheering splits in party unity.
As Stephen Harper’s former chief of staff Ian Brodie wrote in At the Centre of Government, his excellent guide to power, political parties are a necessary, indeed desirable part of responsible government — they structure politics, organize parliament and the leader of one of the parties becomes first minister.
“Parties are also our reminder that politics is, by its very nature, a team sport. A leader without followers, as the saying goes, is just a person going for a walk,” Brodie noted. “Responsible government relies on the institutionalized competition between parties.”
Anyone who has spent any time in politics knows Brodie is correct when he says the internal life of a political party is “no cotillion” — each has its own factions and friendships, alliances and interests. Unity is tested on a daily basis.
Like military regiments, parties inspire fierce loyalty. That is something that Wilson-Raybould and Philpott, with their shallow roots in the Liberal Party, did not seem to grasp.
Philpott’s attempt to have the Speaker of the House rule that Justin Trudeau breached her privilege in expelling her from caucus was quixotic — each party controls its own destiny and, while upset at Trudeau’s weak leadership during the SNC affair, a clear majority of MPs wanted her and Wilson-Raybould gone. Having expressed a lack of confidence in their leader, they should have left without being asked.
It was the prerogative of both former ministers to speak out. The former justice minister said she put principle over party, having been pressured to intervene in the SNC case after making it clear she did not want to do so.
She was portrayed as a latter-day Joan of Arc, even if an uncharitable interpretation events suggests the breach only became public after she was demoted and Trudeau refused to meet her conditions for rapprochement.
Our culture is predisposed to celebrate non-conformity. But party discipline protects us from the political chaos Brexit is inflicting on the U.K. If Trudeau is deemed to have broken the rules by enough people, his team will lose the next election.
Every four years, Canadians choose a governing team and leave two or three other teams that could form government in opposition. Each team needs to stick together if it wants to be seen as being ready to govern.
Partisanship has become a dirty word. But as Brodie concluded, “parties are the vital crucibles for forming politicians, political leaders and, in the end, popular consent in our form of government.”