Collected Writings of J.A.A. Stockwin: The Politics and Political Environment of Japan

By J. A. A. Stockwin | Go to book overview

English version of a lecture delivered at Doshisha University, Tokyo, as part of the 1998 Neesima Lectures Series (Joseph Hardy Neesima, 1843-90, was Doshisha's founder)


36

Do Political Parties Matter? Reflections on Japan and Europe

POLITICAL PARTIES are now an almost universal feature of political systems, and the rare examples of party-less political systems are widely regarded as freaks. On the other hand, many different kinds of political entity are designated 'party'. A fairly standard definition of 'party' is that a political party is a political organization competing for government office at national level, on the basis of a policy programme which is presented to the electorate in campaigns for national elections. Such a definition has the effect of distinguishing a party from an interest group, on the grounds that an interest group seeks to influence government policy without taking office itself. It also distinguishes it from a government ministry, in the sense that whereas a ministry implements policies laid down by governments, parties are in the business of formulating policy and seeking the endorsement of Parliament for that policy. According to the same logic, parties are also different from companies. Companies create a product, from the sale of which they seek a profit. In other words their principal aim is to make money. Parties, by contrast, though they need sources of income in order to remain solvent, do not have money-making as their primary aim.

Finally, parties, according to the definition I am using, are not the same thing as factions. This is perhaps a more difficult distinction to make, because in the history of thinking about parties in Europe, historically 'faction' and 'party' were terms used almost interchangeably. Moreover, when, during the nineteenth century, they came to be generally distinguished from each other, a great part of the distinction was a moral one.

Another interesting and important point about political parties is that they appear to be a modern phenomenon. Although it may be possible to identify bodies analogous to parties in European antiquity, they do not easily fit into modern definitions of what is meant by party. It seems reasonable to suppose that the institution of political party is a product of the modernization processes that are such a central feature of the history of the world in the past 200 hundred or so years. Indeed, the near-universality of parties throughout

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