The Insidious Dangers of an Impotent Opposition; Britain's Premier Constitutional Expert and Historian of the Tory Party on the Threat Conservative Weakness Poses to Democracy

Daily Mail (London), May 1, 1998 | Go to article overview

The Insidious Dangers of an Impotent Opposition; Britain's Premier Constitutional Expert and Historian of the Tory Party on the Threat Conservative Weakness Poses to Democracy


Byline: LORD BLAKE

TONY BLAIR and his advisers have good reason to congratulate themselves at the end of their first year in office. Seldom, if ever, has the Conservative Party seemed so marginalised and so irrelevant.

Not since 1906 or 1945, when the great wartime leader Winston Churchill went down to stunning defeat, have the Conservatives been so battered and so rejected. No wonder serious commentators are asking whether there is any future at all for the party which, for much of this century, has been seen as the natural party of government.

But this is not to say that the Tories are necessarily in terminal decline. Far from it.

William Hague can take comfort from the aftermath of the Conservative defeat of 1906.

Only four years later, they were once again the largest party in the House of Commons.

And Winston Churchill was back in Downing Street in 1951 after the debacle of 1945.

The truth is that New Labour has, with great skill and much cynical spinning, created the impression that there is a broad national consensus on all the major issues of the day.

It has further persuaded us that to oppose that consensus with serious, sustained and determined criticism would be negative, destructive and somehow deeply unpatriotic.

Of course, this is a convenient situation for the Government - and one which the fatigue and failures of the previous Conservative government did much to encourage. But it is bad for democracy as it has evolved in this country over the past two centuries and more.

You see, our unique, unwritten constitution is adversarial in nature. It needs conflict.

That is its great strength. That is why our Members of Parliament face each other across the floor of the House instead of sitting on horseshoe-shaped benches, Continental-style.

To put it with brutal simplicity, the job of the Opposition in the United Kingdom is to oppose, not to behave with sweet reason. Its task is not to produce detailed and responsible proposals in answer to Government policies.

No one will take any notice of them, however sensible they may be.

Neither is its task to acquiesce in half-baked Government initiatives, such as Labour's plans for Scottish and Welsh devolution, merely because they are popular.

The task of the Opposition is rather to test ministerial ideas and policies to the point of destruction. That is what it is there for, and that is what it must do - both in the national interest and in its own narrow party interest.

Indeed, I would go further and argue that one of the most original, effective and important concepts in our constitution is that of Her Majesty's Loyal Opposition.

The Leader of the Opposition holds a recognised and paid position within the constitution. His loyalty, patriotism and sense of responsibility are beyond question. But his duty, and that of his party, is to keep the Government on its toes.

Of course, it is not easy when the government of the day, with a massive majority, deliberately devalues Parliament and permits much of the political action to take place outside the Palace of Westminster. But no one ever said that opposition should be easy.

When the Opposition fails to oppose effectively, when there is no group of shadow ministers prepared and able to test ministerial ideas to destruction, good government is undermined, not strengthened. …

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