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16 November, 2004

Blair isn't Britain

I don't plan to comment on this extensively, but Urban Fox has gone to the effort of writing a reasonably fair summary of the current party political system in the UK, thereby saving me the trouble of doing so myself.  It might be of use to non-Brits interested in our system.

Had I written it, it would have been in this context: the commonly-expressed view that the UK and USA have stood 'shoulder to shoulder' in Iraq, particularly in the run-up to the war, is a misconception.

As Urban Fox's text explains, the UK population don't directly elect the Prime Minister.
We vote for a Member of Parliament (MP), a local representative who nominally serves as our intermediary at Westminster. Last time, Lancaster elected Hilton Dawson, and Sedgefield elected Tony Blair.
Thereafter, the public don't get to vote on issues; our MPs do so on our behalf. However, MPs aren't free agents, they're affiliated to political parties.
The party with most constituency MPs becomes the Government, the party in second place is the official Opposition.
The leader of the governing party (him/herself a constituency MP, elected in exactly the same way as any other) automatically becomes Prime Minister (PM) and appoints favoured colleagues to ministerial posts.

Once Prime Minister, it is quite possible for an individual - one man or woman, alone (or with advisors, typically unelected) - to force through a policy. Blair controls Labour MPs in a way Bush can't control Republican Senators/Representatives.
If the PM decides on a policy, and presents it in a sufficiently emphatic manner, his/her MPs are trapped. They either reject it, and make the PM, and hence Party, look foolish in front of their political enemies and the public (and face internal disciplinary consequences, and discard any career aspirations they might have had), or vote the way they're told. Few choose the former. The Labour party has a clear majority in Parliament, so the PM's policy becomes law.

So, it would probably be fair to say Blair and Bush stand 'shoulder to shoulder', but that isn't automatically analogous to entire nations. The view of Parliament isn't always that of the people on specific issues, and in this case the actions of the PM don't necessarily represent the true will of Parliament.

I'm scrupulously avoiding an outright statement of my view. This might seem anti-war, to a reader with an agenda, but I definitely haven't said anything in this posting to justify that presumption.
I have no party affiliation and my own opinion simply isn't relevant here - I'm merely saying that it's unsafe to assume the UK population as a whole support current actions in Iraq, or ever did.

[Clarified and continued]


We have the same system in Canada, and while you're technically correct about voting for MPs and not PMs, I would suggest that most voters decide which party to support based on the leader and then vote for whoever is running for that party in their constituency. At least, that's how it works here.

Having said that, under the "first-past-the-post" system of electing representatives, a party will often end up in government with substantially less than 50% of the vote. In fact, I don't think a Canadian federal party has received over 50% since 1984 (although it might have happened in 1993, I'm not sure).

So you're quite right in saying that the views of the MPs and the PM are not an accurate reflection of the views of the populace, although I think you may be overstating the case a little.

Posted by Jon. at November 16, 2004 09:29 PM

You are right to a degree, but just as in the US, people are overstating positions.

A year ago British citizens opposing the war was only 24%, that number has risen to 57% (not surprising considering the slant of international media). Still almost half of the country supports the effort.

The most telling story, however, is not the polls, but the vote. Last election
Labour Party (support Iraq) - 26%
Conservative (support Iraq) - 38%
Liberal (oppose Iraq) - 30%

58% percent of the population voted for party affliations supporting the war in Iraq, that would seem to contradict the thesis.

Posted by MG from KS at November 18, 2004 03:14 PM

Not really. Three points bear particular scrutiny.

The proportion of the population supporting the war did indeed increase one troops had been committed. However, even unscientific media reports and public discussion at newspapers' websites revealed a strong element of patriotism, or a sense of duty to more-or-less unconditionally support our armed forces. That might be commendable, in one sense, but doesn't represent true support for the objective itself.
I'm not certain, but I seem to remember the Conservatives were anti-war until troops went in, at which point they switched to show solidarity, simply because that's the done thing in times of war. It's etiquette, not conviction.

The central tenet of this and the follow-up entries is that it was Blair who took us to war, not the Labour Party (whose MPs vote the way the PM instructs them to vote, apart from rebels). I don't think it's fair to say that given a free vote (and the full information), the Labour Party would have supported action in Iraq.

Iraq wasn't an issue in the most recent general election in June 2001, and the parties obviously didn't treat it as a manifesto topic. Hence, it's unrealistic to say over half of the UK electorate voted for 'pro-war' parties - the parties took those stances well after the public had voted, and as I said, I don't think it was the entire parties anyway, just the leadership(s) imposing their personal will on their MPs.

Posted by NRT at November 18, 2004 06:00 PM
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