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Winston and PR

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I've never really understood the Conservatives near uniform opposition to proportional representation. I can understand that it's harder for the big two to embrace to PR but within the Labour Party there are a lot of PR supporters, especially those who support the Labour Campaign for Electoral Reform. But in Tory party ranks support for PR is much less common.

This is odd and I don't really understand why it should be however here's two bits of history which make it even more curious.

The first is the story of the founding of the Electoral Reform Society in 1884 (as the Proportional Representation Society). To quote the ERS's own web site:

The founding members included academics, barristers and almost equal numbers of Conservative and Liberal MPs; the Labour Party had not then been founded.

So in those days PR was supported equally by both of the main parties.

But here's the corker. I've been reading Peter Hennessy's Having it So Good which is an account of Britain in the 1950s and I came across something interesting. He writes about a speech Winston Churchill was making on behalf of the Liberal candidate for Colne Valley. He was doing this because the Conservatives had entered into a pact with the Liberals during the 1951 general election not to contest certain seats where otherwise the Labour candidate would certainly win (it didn't work in the case of Colne Valley, which still fell to Labour). That's interesting enough in itself as they were effectively making up for inadequacies in First Past The Post via this route.

But it's in relation to Churchill himself that Hennessy makes the most interesting comment. He says:

He had been trying, albeit vainly, to get Conservative Party managers [to] think seriously about proportional representation for the urban constituencies.

Now to be fair Churchill was a special case: he had started out as a Liberal and by all accounts he was really far happier with broadly based government, perhaps because of his experience of wartime rule.

But it's still interesting that such an icon of the Tory party was an advocate of PR.

Tags: national politics Written 08/03/09


Previous comments about this article:

On 09/03/09 at 12:02pm Andrew Haley wrote:

A lot of this has to do with the Tories' love of constitutional tradition, and in particular the political philosophy of Salisbury.

There are some risks associated with PR, and, quoting Salisbury,

"Whatever happens will be for the worse, and therefore it is in our interest that as little should happen as possible." "The use of conservatism is to delay changes 'til they become harmless."

As Scruton put it, Conservatism is the politics of delay. For many Conservatives, delaying or preventing constitutional change is the whole point.

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