Magazine article The Spectator

In Defence of Treason

Magazine article The Spectator

In Defence of Treason

Article excerpt

'CONSISTENCY is contrary to nature, contrary to life. The only completely consistent people are the dead,' wrote Aldous Huxley in 1929. Yet his words are rarely applied to politics, where consistency of party allegiance is prized as a great virtue. As the Tory defector Ivan Massow has discovered, those who change sides are usually subject to a barrage of accusations about treachery, with their motives impugned and their past record traduced by erstwhile colleagues.

One way of responding to such attacks is to boast of a higher political consistency, a loyalty to sincerely held principles that goes beyond the party label. `I'm not the one who has changed. It is my party,' is the usual line in such circumstances. Ivan Massow used it when arguing that the Tories had become increasingly `nasty' under William Hague, as did another recent Tory defector, Shaun Woodward, who said that his move to the Labour benches was prompted by the Conservatives' abandonment of one-nation politics. Given that both Massow and Woodward joined the Tory party in the Eighties, when Mrs Thatcher was leader, such claims can be treated with a heavy dose of cynicism.

Nevertheless, the urge to trumpet adherence to lifelong convictions is common among defectors. The founders of the SDP in the early Eighties, such as David Owen and Shirley Williams, were always keen to stress how little their own moderate views had changed in contrast to the radical leftward shift in Labour policy. Similarly, when Reg Prentice joined the Tories from Labour in October 1977, he said his move was not the result of a change of heart but because of the growing influence of militants in his local party.

Yet where is the shame in saying, `Yes, I used to believe all that, but now I think it's a lot of nonsense'? This is certainly the journey that I have undergone. When I was at Cambridge University in the early Eighties I was a passionate supporter of CND, joining in marches through London and protests at American airforce bases. I became a member of the Labour party in 1985 and was so committed to the Labour cause that I worked as a party researcher at Westminster and served as a councillor in Islington. Yet by 1995 my left-wing outlook had almost completely disappeared. It was through an article in this magazine five years ago that I made a very public declaration of my decision to leave the Labour party.

In making this move I could not pretend that there was any consistency of conviction on my part. Indeed, writing in the Independent last week, the columnist David Aaronovitch said that my defection was hardly credible, for `Leo McKinstry suddenly discovered that he possessed the brain of Norman Tebbit trapped inside the body of an Islington Labour councillor. What kind of operation did it take, one wondered, to entirely remove that useless, dangling appendage, his social conscience?'

Aaronovitch is adopting there the characteristically smug, arrogant and wrongheaded liberal belief that only people on the Left can have a social conscience. After all, it was Islington Council, with all its supposed superiority in social concern, that had presided over one of the most sickening child-abuse scandals of modern times, had produced the worst examination results in the country, and had dismal services for the most vulnerable people in the community. It was precisely this level of failure that shifted my views to the Right, for I no longer had any faith in the efficacy of state action for every social problem. …

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