Is the UK drifting towards a dictatorship by stealth?

Is the UK drifting towards a dictatorship by stealth?

by John Strafford
article from Friday 26, October, 2018

COULD WE END UP under the heels of a dictator and nobody notice? Conservative Party Accounts for the year ending 31st December 2015, item 17 states:

17. Controlling PartyAs described on page 7, the Board of the Conservative Central Office is responsible for the management and administration of the Conservative Central Office”.

Just a year later, in the Conservative Party Accounts for the year ending 31st December 2016, added on to the same note is: 

“and the Leader of the Party is considered to be a person of significant control due to the right to appoint or remove a majority of the board of the Party”.

What happened in 2016?  After the referendum on the European Union the Leader of the Conservative Party, David Cameron resigned and a new Leader, Theresa May took over the position.   

Under Part IV, clause 17 of the Party’s Constitution, The Board of the Conservative Party “shall have the power to do anything which in its opinion relates to the management and administration of the Party”.   Does this now mean that they have given significant control to the Leader?  If so, the Leader would now have the “power to do anything which in her opinion relates to the management and administration of the Party”.  Leadership elections, Candidate Selection, Membership, Party Conference etc. – the Leader decides!  

We now have a Prime Minister who was not elected to that position by the people, was not elected to that position by the members of her Party and has “significant control” of that Party. In addition to which, when the Conservative Party did not get a majority in Parliament the Prime Minister promised to spend £1 billion of taxpayer’s money in Northern Ireland so that the 10 Democratic Unionist MPs would vote with the Conservatives.

In addition to that the Prime Minister can exercise considerable power under the Royal Prerogative, has a payroll vote of over 100 MPs and makes appointments to various bodies including the House of Lords. 192 former members of the House of Commons from all parties now sit in the House of Lords receiving £300 per day tax free for life. Nice work if you can get it! 

At the General Election of 2016 I received an election address from our local Conservative candidate which never once mentioned the Conservative Party.   It was all about Theresa May’s party.   The Party Leader can and did create ten Vice Chairmen of the Party, paying them £10,000 per annum with no reference to the members of the Party who put in long hours of service to the Party and get a pat on their heads for their efforts.

Then, to top it all, the Conservative Party went into a General Election with a manifesto put together by the Leader and a couple of aides. No input from the members of the Party. No input from the Conservative Members of Parliament. No input from the members of the Cabinet.

Now, who thinks we live in a Dictatorship?

Today the Conservative Party faces an unprecedented existential threat.   That threat arises because there is a wide gap between the hierarchy of the Party, backed by the Parliamentary Party – and the voluntary Party members.   The hierarchy of the Party includes the Leader, Party Chairman, Deputy Chairmen, Vice Chairmen, Treasurer, none of who have been elected by all the members.  The backbenchers are reliant on the hierarchy for their promotion within the Party and in Government, so are mainly deferential to that hierarchy.   

The gap between the hierarchy and the Party members has been growing for the last twenty years since the revision of the Party’s Constitution and has been brought to a head by Brexit.   The following example provides a classic illustration of what the position is.  70 per cent of the hierarchy and Parliamentary Party support remaining in the European Union whilst 70 per cent of the members of the Party want to leave the European Union.   If we do not leave the European Union on terms that are acceptable to the members of the Party large numbers will leave the Party, hence the existential threat.  How have we arrived at this appalling situation?   We must go back to 1998 to see how this gap was created.

Once the 1998 Constitution was brought in Conservative Central Head Quarters (CCHQ) began to demolish all lines of communication between the members and the hierarchy.   All the checks and balances which existed prior to 1998 were abolished.   Pre 1998 the Party Conference was organised and run by the National Union (the voluntary Party). It invitedthe Leader and other Ministers to speak at the Conference.   There were motions for debate tabled at the Conference and published in a handbook.   Votes were taken on the motions.   After CCHQ took over, 1999 was the last Conference at which we had motions for debate.

What else happened after 1998? The Central Council of voluntary members met twice a year and the Party Chairman and other Ministers used to attend.   It consisted of several thousand members including representatives of the Women’s Organisation, Young Conservatives and others and at which motions for debate on Party organisation were tabled. – It was abolished.

The National Union Executive Committee met regularly and was addressed by the Party Leader, with elected representatives by the membership. –It was abolished.

Regional meetings for Party members used to be held four times a year and had officers elected by the members, motions for debate etc. –They were abolished with a couple of exceptions.

Regional meetings of the Conservative Political Centre discussed policy issues and had officers elected by the members. – They were abolished, also with a couple of exceptions.

The National Committee of the Conservative Political Centre had members elected by the membership of the Party and had meetings with the Leader. – It was abolished.

A new Conservative Political Forum was set up under Oliver Letwin – and for years did nothing.

The Annual Conference of the Conservative Political Centre, which any member could attend, was addressed by Ministers. – It was abolished.

In other words all the lines of communication between the Party hierarchy and the ordinary membership of the Party were eliminated.   It was as though the hierarchy didn’t want any members!

One of the main reasons CCHQ wanted control was so they could control the Conservative MPs.

Prior to the 1998 Constitution the Constituency Associations had effective control of their candidates in a General Election.   This issue came to a head in the General Election of 1997 when CCHQ sent Robin Hodgson (Chairman of the National Union) to Tatton to ask the Constituency Association to drop Neil Hamilton as their candidate.   They refused and Hamilton was defeated by Martin Bell.

In the new Constitution of 1998 CCHQ were determined to take control and this came to a head just before the General Election of 2005 when Howard Flight had the Conservative Whip withdrawn by Michael Howard.   Not only was the whip withdrawn but he was not allowed to be a candidate.   The Party Chairman went to the Association and told them that unless they dropped Howard Flight they would be put into “Support Status” and CCHQ would take over.  The Association backed off and Howard Flight was dropped.   After this episode the Parliamentary Party became very uneasy about their status and moved to improve their position by increasing the number of MPs on the Party Board and the Constitution was amended in 2009 to add two more MPs to the Board.

The original Party Board consisted of six people appointed by the Leader plus two MPs – which the Leader now controlled – out of a total of 17 members of the Board.   With the additional two MPs the Leader now controlled 10 out of the 19 members of the Board.   The Leader now had majority control.  

Fairly soon after this change took place the MPs realised what they had done and in 2011 I was invited to a meeting in Portcullis House with Graham Brady (Chairman of the 1922 Committee).   He expressed concern about CCHQ’s powers regarding Conservative MPs and asked if I could do anything to strengthen the position of backbenchers.   I drafted a motion for the National Convention which included the following point:

c) No sitting Member of Parliament shall be removed from the Candidates List without the prior approval of the Executive of the 1922 Committee.

This clause strengthened the position of a sitting MP, because although the Whip could be withdrawn, the MP could not be stopped from being a candidate without the approval of the Executive of the 1922 Committee. Other changes stopped the Party Board interfering. After this everything went quiet and so the motion was dropped. The Leader not only controls the Conservative Members of Parliament but through the Party Board also controls anyone who wishes to become a Member of Parliament, because the Board appoints the Chairman of the Candidates Committee which determines who may be a Conservative Candidate. 

The Conservative Party Constitution of 1998 gave total control of the Party to the Party hierarchy.   In the twenty years since then there have been five General Elections. The Conservative Party won one.   In the 20 years prior to the Constitution, when the members ran the conference, ran the Conservative Political Centre, determined who their parliamentary candidates should be etc., there were five General Elections.   The Conservative Party won four of them.

In promoting the benefits of being a member of the Conservative Party it is always pointed out that you can elect the Leader of the Party.   However in every Leadership election to date there have been attempts to frustrate the members’ rights.

• In 1998, when William Hague introduced the new Constitution he was anointed by the membership without any competitor. So the members didn’t get a choice.

• In 2001 Michael Portillo was the front runner and the MPs wanted the run off to be between him and Iain Duncan-Smith, so they transferred votes from Portillo to Duncan-Smith. The result was that Portillo lost by one vote to Ken Clarke.

  • In 2003 Michael Howard was the only name put forward, so the members didn’t get a vote.
  • In 2005 Michael Howard tried to change the Party Constitution so that the MPs would have the final say on who should be Leader.  The change was defeated.
  • In 2016 only one name came forward, so the members didn’t get a vote.

Two meaningful votes (in 2001 and 2005) out of five. Not a good record for Party democracy is it?

I have mentioned the gap that exists between the Party Hierarchy and the membership of the Party.   That gap has been growing for the last 20 years and Brexit has brought it to a head, but it is not only Brexit. Traditional Conservatives believe in a philosophy of an economy based on:
• Free markets and free trade
• Minimum intervention by the State
• Low taxation; and a  society based on:
• Reciprocal rights and responsibilities
• Respect for law and order and strong defence

We seem to have forgotten these principles.   Now we have regulation poured onto regulation poured onto even more regulation, whether it be gender equality, equal pay, minimum wage, living wage, labels on cigarette packs labels on drinks. We are even told how much sugar we can eat and whether to use plastic straws. I am reminded of Hayek’s book The Road to Serfdomwhen he explains that at the end of the road after regulation has been imposed on regulation after regulation you end up with a Totalitarian State, Tyranny and Dictatorship.

I can see the end of the road.   We are sleepwalking to disaster.

If the Prime Minister pursues her goal of the Chequers agreement in the face of the 17.4 million voters who voted to leave the European Union, in the face of a large number of her Members of Parliament, and in the face of a sizeable majority of Party members, then she will be showing all the characteristics of a Dictator.   If it looks like a duck, quacks like a duck, walks like a duck – it is a duck! 

Now, before it is too late, is the time to reform the Conservative Party to create a democratic party to save not only itself but democracy in the United Kingdom. We can start by having an Annual General Meeting to which all party members are invited. We can elect the Party Chairman, Deputy Chairman, Treasurer, Chairman of Candidates and Chairman of the Conservative Policy Forum and make them accountable to party members.

We can have a party conference at which members can table motions for debate and on which votes are taken, but most of all: we must have a constitution which can be amended on the basis of One Member One Vote.  That is democracy

John E. Strafford

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