Sunday 29 January 2012

What Price Principle?

A bit over a week ago, as I’m sure you’re aware, in exchanges in the House of Commons Prime Minister David Cameron called the MP for Bolsover, Dennis Skinner, a ‘dinosaur’. I was probably not alone in being somewhat irritated by this. Aside from the obvious and initial outcry that this was an ageist provocation (Skinner is 80 next month), you have to question to what extent someone who is a product of the archaic institutions of Eton, Oxbridge, landed wealth and the old school tie can call somebody else a ‘dinosaur’. However what I was particularly annoyed about was that the likes of Dennis Skinner, who would appear to be one of the few good guys left in British politics, could be sneered at for being stuck in his ways by Mr. Cameron. For me, politics aside, his compassion is something others in the House would do well to emulate.

Skinner has stayed loyal to the ideals that he came into Parliament to represent, for a long time using his position on the National Executive Committee to fight against Labour’s drift to the right. He has consistently been recorded as the MP who votes the most, refusing to miss a debate on the grounds that if he had skipped a day at the pit, he would have been sacked. He has always refused to use the Westminster bars, on the grounds that you should not drink and work, and will not use the pairing system of abstaining from votes. He emerged completely unscathed from the expenses scandal and allegedly won’t even accept a cup of coffee from an interviewer. He has rebelled on numerous issues. I could go on. It is probably a reflection of our political system that someone of this ilk who was elected to an incredibly safe seat at the age of 38 has made relatively little forward progress.

However, it could be said that he clings to his ways to the detriment of the greater good. He has told others that he is prepared for his socialism to hurt him. He has been suspended from the House at least ten times, and this disrespect for its traditions has been explained as a result of his ardent views. If this is the case it’s somewhat counterproductive, as is his refusal to participate in all-parliamentary groups. His reaction to Cameron’s jibe was perhaps also evident of this inability to accept that there could be validity to another’s viewpoint. Normal procedure would have been to respond with a wry smile; Skinner flapped his arms and looked to those on his side of the House in outrage.

Principles on the whole, rationally, are not wholly useful things in politics, which necessarily requires some compromise and opportunism. Often little separates the holding of strong principles from the belief in an ideology of some form. These unyielding views are not good. It’s unlikely that one will come across someone holding perfectly matching views and so they are prone to making people good haters. One of the most successful politicians of recent times stole the middle ground and can’t be described as loyal to the principles of his party; though as we now know, Tony Blair’s Britain was built on foundations of sand. However these centrist politics hold the widest appeal and logically, though crudely, the most straightforward way to a reasonable compromise between left and right.

I’m focusing a lot on principle here, though I believe it to be the main reason for Skinner’s harrying of Cameron, and his constant positioning of himself on one of the front benches, the best position to rile his Tory counterparts. Their views on the world could barely be more different. Also I believe it to be paired fairly solidly with compassion, especially in the mind of the public; the most admirable of Skinner’s qualities as mentioned earlier. I’m aware I’m perhaps blurring the two in an excuse to discuss principle, though I feel in this case the link is justifiable. The holding and keeping of strong principles suggests an attachment and a care for things, regardless of whether or not they may appear outdated, friendships, loyalties, etc. In Skinner’s case it represents a desire to push through the policies he still considers to be best for his ex-coalmining constituents. In short we shouldn’t really respect Skinner due to his principles (not politics, just principles) but we do.

It’s probably for the same reasons that I hold a grudging respect for Margaret Thatcher. I don’t advocate Skinner’s politics but I despise Thatcher’s. She of course could hardly be described as compassionate, but she was certainly brave, another noble asset that we attach romantically to being principled. In our minds those who appear to flit unpredictably from one policy to another are portrayed as somewhat slimy, though I would argue this flexibility often requires equal bravery. However I would still rather have a chamber full of Skinners and Thatchers (and equally principled moderates, if there are such things). Perhaps this belies my own hopes, maybe the historian within me longs for ideologies again, and there is certainly an element of romance to this wish. Mostly though I think it’s because in an age of spin and scandal, it’s good to know that some MPs are definitely there for a reason, which is that they care.