This week the House of Commons held a debate to mark the tenth anniversary of the Iraq War. The motion, in backbench business committee time, was introduced by Caroline Lucas, the Green MP for Brighton, Pavilion. A central part of her argument (‘the burden of what I am saying’) was that one lesson of the Iraq war was political parties should not whip future votes on military action: ‘We cannot allow ourselves to be taken along by the rhetoric of party leaders or to be bullied by party whipping and therefore, in a sense, to abrogate our responsibility to make our own decisions’.
It’s easy to see the superficial appeal of the argument. Free votes – those on which parties do not issue instructions to their MPs – are often held on so-called ‘issues of conscience’, and it would be a curious MP whose conscience was not engaged by a decision to engage troops in military action. But this is to misunderstand the nature of representative politics as well as what happened ten years ago.
Think about what it means when a party has a free vote on an issue. It is saying that it has no formal position on that issue. Officially at least, it is saying that it doesn’t mind what the outcome of the vote is. This is tricky enough to justify when it applies to some of the issues where free votes normally apply – witness the pressure recently for Labour to whip the votes on gay marriage, on the grounds that it would be wrong for the party to say that it had no position on an issue that advocates saw as one of human rights. Insofar as there is a justification for treating issues like gay rights or abortion as ‘free’ it is that they are somehow not central to political debate and ‘cross-party’ (although they are, in practice, not half as cross-party as is claimed).
But it would be difficult to make this case about military action – and even harder for the party of government to do so. Is the Prime Minister really supposed to say that his or her government have no position on the issue? That there will be a vote in the House of Commons on going to war and the government do not have a position on it? That they are ambivalent on the issue? Imagine the Paxman interview: ‘So, Prime Minister, your government doesn’t mind whether we go to war or not?’ The idea is absurd.
And this leads onto the second point: that Ms Lucas misunderstands what happened in 2003. The whips certainly did deploy what pressure they could, but the votes on Iraq saw the two largest rebellions against the party whip by members of the governing party since the birth of modern British party politics. And whilst some MPs reported coming under lots of pressure and found the vote very difficult (some voting in tears, others drinking themselves stupid before going through the division lobbies), others said they found the vote relatively easy. ‘The issue is so enormous’, as one Labour MP said to me, ‘and the rebellion is so big, it’s essentially a free vote’.
And of those who did vote for the war, and now regret it, would they have voted differently had there not been a whip? Let’s listen to Michael Meacher, speaking in the same debate, who voted for the war, and who now says that he is ‘utterly ashamed of what I did on that occasion’. This is his explanation of why he voted for war:
I did it because I listened carefully to the then Prime Minister during those two crucial debates. He spoke with enormous assurance and authority, and I believed that, as Prime Minister of this country, he would have been presented with the fullest degree and comprehensiveness of UK intelligence, and he would use those data in a proper and honest manner to make the case. Perhaps I was naive to think that—I now believe that I was—but that is what I believed.
In other words, Meacher wasn’t bullied into voting for the war, by the presence of a whip (a whip he has regularly ignored on other occasions). He was persuaded to vote for war. Maybe he was wrong; he now thinks so. But it is difficult to see how the absence of the whip would have made much difference to him – or to many others, who were swayed by similar factors.
The precise parliamentary arithmetic would have been different in our hypothetical parallel whip-free universe. But in March 2003, the House of Commons voted for military action by 396 to 217, and it is almost impossible to see how the mere absence of a whip would have made that much difference. In other words, the outcome would have been the same.
Of course, we can invent a different version of events (can’t we always?) – one in which in addition to the absence of a formal whip, there was no informal pressure at all placed on MPs, and in which the Prime Minister wasn’t so convincing – but that is about far more than the absence of the whip.
Lastly, this is also a pretty old trope, part of a long hostility to political parties. Writing at the beginning of the 20th century Sidney Low noted that the easiest way to get a round of applause at a public meeting was to claim that something was non-partisan. ‘No sentiment’, he said, ‘is likely to elicit more applause at a public meeting, than the sentiment that “this, Mr Chairman, is not a party question, and I do not propose to treat it from a party standpoint”’. Clearly not a lot has changed since.