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The U.K. General Election 2024 – A Catholic’s view

03-07-2024 12:14

Civitas International

The U.K. General Election 2024 – A Catholic’s view

You will see that this article has a rather British flavour, as befits a piece written for Civitas GB.


Since the introduction of universal suffrage, a question that has arisen for Catholics is whether or not one should vote and, if so, for whom. In this article, I shall attempt to answer this question for British Catholics. You will see that this article has a rather British flavour, as befits a piece written for Civitas GB.

Within a matter of days, there will be a general election in the United Kingdom. Time was when every schoolboy in the land would have understood what that meant, and indeed would have known much of what follows in this article. Alas, in these dumbed-down times it is unwise to assume that people know very much about anything. Given the level of ignorance that prevails, much of this article will be little more than a reminder of (or, for some readers, an introduction to) the mechanics of elections to the U.K. Parliament.

A general election is the election, on the same day, of a member of the House of Commons in each of the (currently 650, the number varying from time to time) parliamentary constituencies in the United Kingdom. It is not the election of a Prime Minister or of a government, although the result of a general election does in fact determine who will be appointed, or remain, as Prime Minister.

For more than a hundred years, nearly all of those elected to the House of Commons have been members of one or other of the main political parties. By convention, and not because of any written law, the person who leads the majority party in the House of Commons is appointed Prime Minister by the monarch. The monarch in the United Kingdom has virtually no political power, and thus is compelled to follow constitutional convention. The new Prime Minister puts together a ministerial team, all the members of which must, by convention – that word again! – be members of either the House of Commons or the House of Lords. So the election in your constituency of a Member of Parliament (M.P.) has only an indirect effect on who the Prime Minister will be, and on the party colour of his ministers.

The United Kingdom is one of very few places in the world not to have a written constitution. That explains why any description of the workings of the U.K. system will contain a number of references to convention.

You will have noticed in an earlier paragraph a reference to the House of Lords. This is the other of the two U.K. Houses of Parliament. Over time (notably with passing of the Parliament Acts of 1911 and 1949) the ‘Upper House’, as the House of Lords is also known, has lost much of its power; its main functions today are those of reviewing and delaying proposed legislation sent to it from the House of Commons. Members of the House of Lords are not elected. Until 1958, when ‘Life Peers’, peers appointed for the duration of their own lives (and not those of any descendants), were introduced, most of its members were hereditary (the two exceptions being the ‘Law Lords’, the highest appellate judges, and the ‘Lords Spiritual’, senior members of the Anglican hierarchy). In 1999 hereditary peers lost their automatic right to sit and vote in the House of Lords. The Law Lords were removed from the House of Lords in 2009 with the establishment of a new institution, the Supreme Court.

Elections to the House of Commons are conducted on a first-past-the-post basis, which is to say that the candidate obtaining the most votes is elected and that there is no compensation whatsoever for the losing candidates and their parties. A consequence of this system is that the smaller parties may receive a large number of votes across the country as a whole, but still win few – if any – seats.

So much for the technical workings of parliamentary elections in the U.K. Let’s now look at the major parties that contest those elections. Overseas readers will probably be surprised by how old these parties are.

At the time of writing, but probably for not much longer, the Conservative Party is the party in government. This party is descended from the Tories (and, indeed, ‘Tory’ remains the nickname for the party), a loose grouping of which the origins can be traced to the seventeenth century. The modern Conservative Party was founded in the nineteenth century. Traditionally it has been a party of the upper and middle classes, supportive of the monarchy and of the hierarchical structure of British society. The Conservative party has been in government for periods totalling about fifty years since the Second World War. Of the seventeen post-1945 Prime Ministers, twelve have been Conservatives.

The modern Conservative Party has a broadly capitalist economic policy, perhaps never more so than under the leadership of Margaret Thatcher from 1975 to 1990. An example of the party’s liberal capitalism could be seen in the early 1960’s when a Conservative government abolished resale price maintenance, thus enabling supermarkets to undercut small family-owned shops. This measure is one of the causes of the current, and lamentable, state of our high streets. In foreign policy the party is, generally speaking, supportive of the United States and Israel. The party is divided on the question of British membership of the European Union, but it is worth remembering that it was a Conservative government that took us into the E.C., predecessor of the E.U., in 1973. Although the party has attempted to maintain a veneer of conservatism, it has done little – if anything – to conserve the Christian morals and culture of the country. Laws introduced by Tory governments in 1984 and 2020 made it easier to obtain a legal divorce. A Conservative-led coalition brought in same-sex ‘marriage’ in 2013, even if many of the party’s M.P.s did vote against it. The introduction of decimal currency (1971), the replacement of the Pentecost (or Whitsun) Monday holiday with the secular ‘Spring Bank Holiday’ (1972), the abolition of the traditional counties of England (1974), Sunday trading (1994) and the final phase of metrification (1995) all took place under Conservative governments. You may well ask what is so conservative about any of that! Indeed, the party has more or less shed even the appearances of conservatism since David Cameron became its leader in 2005.

The only other party to have been in government on its own since 1945 is the Labour Party. This party was founded in 1900 for the purpose of getting representatives of working men elected to Parliament. Until the 1990’s, its economic outlook could be described as socialist. The Labour Party nationalised a number of industries in the post-war period, and some of its Chancellors of the Exchequer were responsible for very high taxation rates for the richest. This approach changed under the leadership (1994 to 2007) of Tony Blair, who advocated a friendlier relationship between the party and capitalism. Although sceptical, even opposed to, British membership of the E.U. in the 1970’s and 1980’s, Labour is now the more pro-E.U. of the two big parties. If the early Labour Party did once have a Christian, in the broadest sense of the term, element among its M.P.s and members (many of them Methodists), the party has long since embraced the moral and cultural left. The legalisation of both abortion and sodomy in the 1960’s, although introduced by individual M.P.s, was only possible because of the support of Harold Wilson’s Labour government. Of the Blair government’s embrace of the moral and cultural revolution, I shall not even speak!

The third British party is known as the Liberal Democrats. It was formed in the late 1980’s following a merger between the old Liberal Party (a distant descendant of the ancient ‘Whigs’) and the short-lived Social Democratic Party (founded in 1981 as a breakaway from the Labour Party). Other than being the junior partner in the coalition government of 2010 to 2015, this party has never been in government since 1945. Before the First World War the Liberal Party was one of the two major political parties in Britain, and often the party of government. Although this party and its predecessors have won several million votes at every general election since 1974, they have never – at least, not for about a century - had more than a handful of M.P.s. The LibDem vote is not concentrated into any geography, unlike that of Labour (urban) and of the Tories (rural and suburban), and so the party has difficulty getting many seats in Parliament. This party is by far the most pro-E.U. of the three big parties. Its economic policies are perhaps best described as social democratic. If the Tories once had a ‘Cavalier’, staunch Anglican, strand in its membership, and even some conservative Catholics (Patrick Wall, for example), and if Labour used to boast a fair number of Methodists and Irish Catholics (Peter and Simon Mahon perhaps being the best examples of the latter) in its ranks, it is hard to detect similar tendencies within the Liberal Democrats. The last leader of the old Liberal Party, David Steel, introduced the Abortion Bill (alas, later to become the Abortion Act 1967) into the House of Commons. At the time Steel was a young M.P. in a small party. The success of his bill was only possible because of the support and encouragement it received from the Labour Home Secretary, Roy Jenkins. Jenkins went on to become the first leader of the Social Democratic Party, and fought the 1983 general election in an electoral alliance with Steel.

I have described above only the three big parties that organise across the whole of Britain. I have not mentioned the Scottish Nationalist Party, Plaid Cymru or any of the Northern Ireland parties. These parties, whilst in some cases enjoying considerable support and success in their respective parts of the U.K., can never form a British government because they only contest a relatively small number of the total seats.

‘But’, I hear you say, ‘the parties often allow their M.P.s a “free vote” on the moral questions’. This is true to some extent. There are, however, numerous matters of economic and foreign policy on which votes are systematically ‘whipped’. ‘Whipping’ is the system of party discipline in Parliament. It is not the fruit of the imagination of a ‘conspiracy theorist’, even if the system is given little publicity. The government Chief Whip never gives interviews to journalists (except, perhaps, in secret), and he does not speak in the chamber of the House of Commons. Each party in the House of Commons has a whip, whose job it is to ensure that members toe the line. Perhaps the most high-profile use of whipping in recent times was the driving through of the Maastricht Treaty by John Major’s government in the early 1990’s. The whip has both carrots and sticks at his disposal. The former include the allocation of a plush office, and – by means of the pairing system – a reduction in the number of votes a member need attend. The efficient whip will make it his business to get to know his flock well, his knowledge often including unflattering details about the personal and financial affairs of members. You do not have to be very intelligent to see that blackmail and bullying are, therefore, among the sticks in the whip’s cupboard. ‘Upsetting’ is how an eyewitness once described the working of the whipping system to me. The ultimate sanction that the whip has is to arrange for the expulsion of a member from his party. The power of this punishment derives from the very party-based nature of our politics; a donkey in a red rosette will be elected as the Labour M.P. for an urban seat in the North of England or East London, but deprive him of the party label and he will likely trail a distant third or fourth in the same seat.

This article has been written in greater haste than was first planned. The writer thought that the U.K. general election would be held in the autumn. It is hoped that these lines will be read by many prior to polling day. Let us now look, albeit rather briefly, at the question of whether or not Catholics should vote in this election.

In each mainland British constituency, there will be a candidate from each of the three major parties, and probably one from the Green Party and from the Reform Party. In nearly all Scottish seats there will be a Scottish National Party candidate, and in most Welsh ones Plaid Cymru will have someone on the ballot paper. None of these parties has a programme that can be described, even remotely, as Catholic. Not one of them is opposed (at least not as a party) to abortion or to the LGBT revolution. From at least some of these parties, one can fear a further weakening of the legal status of true marriage. Their economic policies will be capitalist or socialist, sometimes a mixture of the two, both of these systems condemned by Catholic social teaching. Does Almighty God even get a mention in their manifestos?

Faced with this lamentable choice, what are we to do? What about looking carefully at the individual candidates in one’s constituency? Such a strategy is of limited use, given the operation of the whipping system in Parliament. What about sifting out the least bad? The practice of voting for the ‘least worst’ is questionable, and I challenge readers tempted by it to tell me the good it has achieved.

Is it not a duty to vote? This question really merits its own article. Indeed, had the election not been called so suddenly, a separate article dealing with this question would have been prepared. True, there have been seemingly authoritative Catholic advocates (including, I understand, a pre-Vatican II French catechism) for the concept of voting as a serious duty. On the other hand, there are sufficiently weighty voices for the opposing viewpoint. Given the existence of sufficiently credible voices for abstention by Catholics in elections where there is no positively good candidate, I believe a Catholic may abstain from voting in this U.K. election with a clear conscience. I am not aware of there being any independent candidates in this election with policies wholly compatible with Catholicism; there was a courageous one (not elected) in a (Southern) Ireland constituency some years ago, but I would be pleasantly surprised to learn of the existence of any standing for election in the United Kingdom in 2024. Such a candidate – past, present or future - should, of course, be supported. In the meantime, I believe it morally safe to abstain from voting in this election.

A very final thought… Some voters ‘spoil’ their ballot papers by writing protest messages on them. I know a number of people who have written ‘no abortion’ as such a message. The spoiled papers are shown to the candidates or their agents. Those of you who are keen to make their Catholic voice heard might opt to engage in ballot paper spoiling.

John McAuley

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