I have never known a Parliament without its scenes, the ugliest and the most insulting to the Speaker being that arranged by the Tory Party when the Parliament Bill [of ] was being discussed and the sitting had to be suspended.
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For any follower of the Tory or Liberal Party to hold up horror-stricken eyes to heaven on account of disorderly Labour Members is only a proof of forgetfulness, of ignorance, or of hypocritical humbug. MacDonald, then, was indeed trying to steer his supporters towards moderation, his technique for doing so was complex.
Lecturing MPs on the need for disciplined behaviour would have been unlikely to work in isolation. The government had been defeated the previous day over the question of the treatment of ex-servicemen entering the civil service, and it was its failure to make clear how it was going to respond to the defeat that led to the Labour attempt to prevent the transaction of further business until it did so.
The behaviour was justified with reference to the precedent of a similar Conservative action against the Liberals in November As on that occasion, the episode culminated in the Speaker suspending the sitting. The advent of the short-lived Labour government of had a calming effect on the PLP. Whitley in the guise of the referee. It seems doubtful, in particular, that the Prime Minister felt that MacDonald had successfully tamed his left-wing.
Views from inside Westminster
When Parliament was sitting Baldwin sent daily letters to the King describing and commenting on events there. These letters were likely drafted for him, but there is no reason to think that they did not reflect his views, and they are at any rate a useful source of partisan commentary. Moreover, notwithstanding the fact that their violent and abusive tactics have been treated with quite remarkable patience and conciliation, they explode in outbursts of rhetorical imagination whenever a Conservative Member is carried away to the extent of making a provocative or inflammatory remark.
Thus although MacDonald was strengthening his hold over his MPs, this was at the price of him continuing to tolerate some unruly behaviour, and even to defend his supporters against excessively strict discipline by the Commons authorities. The new strategy did not mean quiescence within Parliament itself, nor an end to the familiar charges that the party was bringing the Commons into disrepute. The uproar when he refused led to the sitting to be suspended. By the time of the Labour government, there had been a considerable measure of adaption to the norms of the House of Commons, but it was still often felt desirable to use disorder to make principled points, albeit within certain limits.
A clear sense of the bounds of acceptability can be gained from the notorious episode in in which the ILP MP and future fascist John Beckett seized the Commons mace. Now you have proved what I was told is untrue. Socialist legislation would undoubtedly meet with resistance, not only from the House of Lords a minor obstruction , but from the aristocratic, plutocratic, financial and capitalist classes generally.
Organised action by the working class in the country would almost certainly be necessary to support the political action of their representatives in Parliament. The impact on the Labour Party as a whole was profound, although on the face of it its reaction was quite different to that of the ILP. It did not revert back towards direct action or for the most part embrace the language of revolution.
It should not be imagined that the Commons of the s was entirely quiescent. This did not mean, it should be emphasized, that any of its thinkers or politicians wanted to abolish it, or that unlike the ILP they placed any hope in the extra-parliamentary route.
Welfare Policy Under New Labour: Views from Inside Westminster (Electronic book text)
Rather, they were increasingly doubtful about the ability of Parliament, in the absence of procedural reform, to deliver the social and economic transformation that the party desired. As we have seen, there had, in the past, been a fair measure of interest in such reform and this continued to some extent in the s. But neither the , , or manifestos made mention of the idea, even though MacDonald himself felt the need for greater efficiency. However, the failure of the second Labour government to tackle unemployment led to growing doubts the capacity of the parliamentary system as a whole to respond meaningfully to economic crisis.
This was exemplified by the radical reform proposals of Mosley, who then left Labour to form the New Party and subsequently the British Union of Fascists. But although Mosley marginalized himself, some of his key concerns were more widely shared.
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The historic rights of the Opposition to criticize, censure, and discuss were not to be affected, it was said. Reforms in this spirit were in due course carried out early in the life of the Attlee government. Comparatively modest as they were, it may be thought that they were of no great significance. At this time there was growing faith in economic planning and in the capacity of technocratic experts to carry it out. In the thirties, the more radical expressions of this type of thinking were associated with Sir Stafford Cripps and his Socialist League.
If the specific reforms to parliamentary procedure that they proposed were in fact fairly limited, this was partly because they saw ways to achieve what they wanted by more extensive use of existing techniques, such as delegated legislation. Indeed, they expressed admiration for the way that the National Government had used Orders in Council extensively since ; the substance had been wrong but the technique right. In due course, the Attlee government inherited the sweeping emergency powers granted to the government by Parliament during the Second World War. It retained many of them for the purposes of carrying out its post-war reconstruction programme.
However, the puritanical streak which disapproved of pomp continued to find support amongst a minority of MPs for many decades, and likely generated considerable resonance with many ordinary party members. It neglects the differing views within the party on how Parliament was to be used and ignores the tactical nods that MacDonald was obliged to make towards the principle of direct action and the use of Commons disruption. The consequence is that, while some historians have disapproved of parliamentarism, they have never doubted that MacDonald was the quintessential embodiment of it.
Yet, there is an argument to be made that in fact his confidence in Parliament as a part of a rational public sphere was rather limited.
How democratic are the UK’s political parties and party system? : Democratic Audit
He may have been influenced by his memories of wartime xenophobia in — and —8. He saw little innate value in parliamentary speech, which he saw as a distraction from meaningful activity. By contrast, many of the new Labour MPs came to Parliament vesting enormous hope in it. They may not have been truly convinced that they were going to persuade their opponents in the Commons through debate, or indeed have expected to have their own minds changed through the interplay of conflicting ideas.
But they did believe that the Commons chamber was an appropriate pulpit from which to deliver a form of morally compelling speech that would awaken the country to the plight of the working classes. This was not just the preserve of the Clydesiders. In the simplest terms, they believed that the things they did within the walls of the Commons would actually change things.
Disillusion did not long follow. Bevan was first elected in He delivers himself therefore with great force and, he hopes and fears, with considerable provocativeness. When his opponent arises to reply he expects to hear an equally strong and uncompromising answer.
His opponent does nothing of the sort. In strict conformity with Parliamentary tradition, he congratulates the new Member upon a most successful maiden speech and expresses the urbane hope that the House will have frequent opportunities of hearing him in the future … the new member crawls out of the House with feelings of deep relief at having got it over, mingled with a paralysing sense of frustration.
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Publishing with a purpose
Tanner et al. Cooke and J. Dalton, Practical Socialism for Britain London, , This work was first published in , with a new edition appearing in St John Stevas, ed. VII London, , —33; H. Bevan, In Place of Fear London, , Benn, Keir Hardie London, , 92—5.
A declining force? Parliament under Blair
For the significance of posters during this period, see J. Henderson, The Aims of Labour London, , Webb and B. Attlee, As It Happened London, , Cole, History of the Labour Party from London, , Quotations at 69, 74, See also R. It was sometimes suggested that those Labour figures who opposed direct action did so merely for political convenience and for the time-being only. See e.
Throughout the s, the Conservatives were accused of unconstitutional behaviour, sometimes on seemingly flimsy grounds.
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