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  1. Politics
20 February 2019

First Thoughts: Why Tories rarely split, how the pro-Brexit papers lost faith – and the age limit on stupidity

Throughout Margaret Thatcher’s 15-year leadership, the Conservatives lost only one MP, to the SDP.

By Peter Wilby

The Conservatives had their big split over the Corn Laws in the 1840s. Nothing like it has happened since. In most parliaments since 1918, Labour has lost many more MPs to political splits than the Tories. The only exceptions were in 1956-57 when ten Tory MPs resigned the whip over the Suez crisis (all but one opposed pulling troops out of Egypt, not the invasion itself) and in the 1990s and 2000s, when five Tories defected to Labour, and one to the Liberal Democrats.

Labour had three significant breakaways before the latest one this week involving seven MPs who, according to some reports, could be joined by dozens more. In February 1931, Oswald Mosley and five other Labour MPs formed the New Party to advocate Keynesian economic policies (Mosley’s fascism came afterwards). Later that year, faced with a global financial crisis, 15 Labour defectors joined the Tories as “National Labour” to form a government that imposed welfare spending cuts. In the 1980s, 28 Labour MPs joined the Social Democratic Party. Labour has also had several mass resignations or withdrawals of the whip, mostly over foreign or defence policy.

Unlike Tory splits, Labour splits usually involve leading figures: Mosley was a minister until May 1930; Labour’s prime minister Ramsay MacDonald led National Labour; the SDP was led by four ex-cabinet ministers; Michael Foot, a future leader, twice lost the whip; Aneurin Bevan, founder of the NHS, was once expelled.

The Tories take class war seriously. Since Labour’s emergence, they have stood shoulder to shoulder, defecting only during the New Labour era and then in small numbers. Throughout Margaret Thatcher’s 15-year leadership, they lost only one MP (to the SDP). Labour’s latest defectors have so far been joined by just three Tories. Perhaps there will be more, but history suggests they won’t be many.

Changing climate

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For years, teachers have told me that “this generation” of children “really” cares about the environment. Yet each generation of adults buys bigger cars, drives further, takes longer and more frequent flights, and protests more hysterically against wind farms, rises in fuel costs, road pricing proposals, and more or less anything that could slow global warming.

Today’s young people could become ultra-green adults, as the recent demonstrations by schoolchildren may cause us to hope. Most predictions of cities submerged by rising sea levels have the words “by the end of this century” in them somewhere, which sounds a long way off to us 70-somethings. To a 12-year-old, 2100 must seem frighteningly close. But 12-year-olds don’t have bills to pay, distant jobs to travel to, or indeed children pestering them for designer clothes imported from the other side of the planet. It’s easy to take a day off school to march around London or Manchester. The acid tests come later.

All my sons

Perhaps, to strengthen support for green policies, children should be given the vote, as the Cambridge politics professor David Runciman proposes. American kids, however, must wait two to three decades before they can even aspire to be president. The leading advocate of the “green new deal”, 29-year-old Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, newly elected to Congress, cannot run in 2020 because the constitution stipulates a minimum age of 35. Why? James Monroe, who became the fifth US president, argued that, since “in the course of nature”, most presidents wouldn’t have sons who had reached 35, they wouldn’t be able to create dynasties. After the two George Bushes, to say nothing of a possible President Donald Trump Jr, that doesn’t seem to have worked.

Another early American politician, Tench Coxe, wrote that the rule ensured the president “cannot be an idiot, probably not a knave or a tyrant, for those whom nature makes so, discover it before the age of thirty-five”. That hasn’t worked very well either.

All quiet

The Brexit drama, we are told, is reaching its climax. Within weeks, we could be deprived of food, medicines and even water, and face civil insurrection. But pick up the morning papers and you wouldn’t believe it. As I write, the Telegraph papers (daily and Sunday) haven’t led their front pages on Brexit since 7 February, the Mail papers not since 1 February. Both are pro-Brexit. Have they lost the faith?

Cape fears

A brief dose of winter sun – something that Mrs W and I have never tried before – prompted reflections on the legacy of colonialism. We went to Cape Verde (now officially Cabo Verde), 560 kilometres off the Senegal coast. Portuguese colonists used the ten islands, uninhabited before the 15th century, as a staging post for the slave trade. On that basis, the islands prospered despite increasing drought and famine, mainly caused by the colonists’ over-grazing and deforestation.

Now Cape Verde depends on tourism for more than half its foreign earnings. (The rest is mostly from “investment”, a euphemism for companies avoiding tax.) We stayed on Sal, an almost entirely barren island where even the palm trees look sad. The only things growing there – Cape Verde imports 90 per cent of its food – are hotels and apartment blocks, mostly western-owned. They line the enormous sandy beaches and are packed from October to March with north Americans and Europeans. The locals, we were told, suffer regular water and power cuts so that tourists are not deprived for a single second.

In many respects, Cape Verde is a success story: independent since 1975, it has been a multi-party democracy for nearly 30 years, ranks top in Africa for press freedom and civil liberties and, despite much poverty, is categorised as a middle-income country. But it is still, for all practical purposes, a colony, ministering to Western needs just as it did in centuries past.

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This article appears in the 20 Feb 2019 issue of the New Statesman, The last days of Islamic State