Questions of Honour: What Douglas Carswell’s Defection to UKIP Means for British Politics

by Andrew Alexander
The views represented in this article are solely those of the author and may not be construed as in any way representative of the views or policies of Oxford Royale Summer Schools.










It has been an interesting fortnight on the honour front.

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Let us deal firstly with the case of the Prime Minister who announced that he would not be resigning should the people of Scotland vote to break up the most successful union in history. David Cameron’s announcement was one of the more surreal moments in British political life this century. The idea that a sitting Prime Minister unable to fulfil the most elementary function of his office – keeping the sovereign nation intact – would not consider this to be in any way negligent on his part is an intriguing one. While it is reassuring to learn that Mr Cameron’s belief in his abilities would not be affected by this development, I think we may take it as a certainty that Parliament’s would falter and he would be extremely unlikely to survive a vote of confidence. In any case it is, for now, the assertion which is interesting – killing the country you govern is the single greatest failure a public servant can bring about. It suggests a defective sense of honour not to consider such a thing a resigning matter.

Model of a knight in armour.
Carswell’s defection is generally seen as an honourable act.

The vote on Scottish independence eventually wrestled the limelight back from the other major political story of the moment, the Conservative MP Douglas Carswell’s resignation and decision to stand as a UKIP candidate in the subsequent by-election. This too was a story framed by the media in terms of honour. To most, Mr Carswell was pursuing an honourable course of action in giving the electorate in his constituency the opportunity to return another Tory MP if it was so minded. This stands in stark contrast to the infamous defection from Tory to Labour by Shaun Woodward in 1999 and in which a member representing a true blue constituency switched parties and refused to put the issue to the test, as he was certain of defeat. At the next election, Mr Woodward then switched to a safe constituency in Labour heartland territory. Complaints about conduct of this sort acknowledges the fact that while our system elects individual MPs, our voters largely elect on party grounds and possibly even more narrowly on party leader grounds (hence the ire when Gordon Brown declined an election early in his premiership). There can be no question, on this basis, that Mr Carswell has acted with distinction when contrasted with recent Tory defections.
Image is a button that reads, "Browse all Politics articles."There is, as usual, another view though. The line pushed by Conservative Central Office (and also found in this eloquent piece by the always independently minded author Allan Massie) is that Mr Carswell has acted disreputably. In resigning his seat he has abandoned his constituency association and switched to the party most likely to beat the Tories in the local ballot at the next election. In this sense he has acted no more honourably than his predecessors in the Blair years. In addition, the UKIP constituency party had already selected as its candidate a man named Roger Lord who fully expected to romp to victory at the next election. Mr Lord was apparently not consulted on Mr Carswell’s move and took being usurped as the UKIP candidate badly. It is, of course, a perfectly good answer to such objections to say that if anyone is entitled to contest the seat it is the sitting MP, but the issue does introduce a note of cynicism into an otherwise noble story.

The national impact

The question of what this all means for British politics is an exciting one. Starting at a macro level, the defection of Mr Carswell may have a marginal impact on the Scottish independence vote. One of the most fascinating aspects of this campaign is that the polling has indicated it may break one of the fundamental rules of secession votes in recent times – if the voter surveys are to be believed the undecided voters are breaking heavily in favour of leaving the Union whereas in every other case they have, on the day, decided to stay put. These two issues, disparate though they may seem, are connected.
A substantial part of the appeal made by the ‘yes’ side in the Scottish vote is that unlike in other referenda, a vote for secession is a vote for the status quo. This may, at first glance, appear to be a splendid example of political double think, but it is actually a great deal less intellectually dishonest than it appears. The argument runs something like this: the Scottish electorate is politically to the left of that found in England, and while this was not unduly problematic under the Labour governments between 1997 and 2010, the Conservatives are now travelling to the right, meaning that being tied to an English electorate more likely to return a Tory government will result in Scotland being governed from Westminster by a government ideologically removed from the existing status quo, which is very generous in its social protections and demanding in its taxation. While Mr Carswell presumably believes that the Conservatives are in fact headed left electorally, his defection does lend credence to this narrative – the pressure on the Prime Minister from within his own ranks to shift right is substantial and will not subside soon.
There is a caveat to this view, and it’s a large one: if the electorate is not politically engaged enough to have made up its mind on the independence vote after months of campaigning, it is possibly quite unlikely that they will be unduly influenced by the actions of an English backbench MP always on the fringes of his party and certainly on the periphery of national life. The impact of Mr Carswell’s defection on the final vote will probably be very marginal, but then the margin of the vote itself may be very fine.

The party political impact

The impact of Mr Carswell’s switch at a party political level is also fascinating. As Adam Boulton put it in the Sunday Times, “the ice is beginning to crack” under one of the parties on the right – the question is which one? If the Conservatives lose the ensuing by-election and the UKIP vote holds firm at the next election, as such a thing would indicate, the party cannot possibly return to power even as part of a coalition. While 15% of the vote will not be enough to return more than a small clump of UKIP MPs, it is more than enough to hold the Conservatives below the waterline. Such a scenario would leave Ed Miliband in Downing Street and the right desperately divided amongst itself with those divisions now entrenched by the mass movement of voters to the UKIP cause.
Alternatively, those cracks in the ice may in fact be under the UKIP leadership. If the challenger party cannot convert the arrival of its newest recruit into by-election success, given that the main opponent will be a party led by a mid-term prime minister and with a candidate plucked from obscurity, then it can hardly expect to compete well at a general election. Defeat in Clacton will not only damage party morale, but it will re-enforce the Conservative message to prospective UKIP voters that a vote for Nigel Farage’s party is a wasted one, a vote for Labour by proxy. In the ensuing by-election, something has to give, and in giving it may well set the tone for the coming election.
Which way the Conservative/UKIP tug of war breaks is very important for the future of Britain. I say this for a number of reasons. Firstly, there is the manner in which both sides engage with Labour voters. This may seem an odd criterion with which to determine the character of a party of the right, but it is a very important one. The Conservatives, with their London focus, have interpreted the average Labour voter to be a metrosexual with strong views on social justice and no understanding of even the rudiments of economics. As such, their pitch to the wider electorate has been built around creating a soft left society while tip toeing towards a marginally greater degree of economic continence.
The UKIP understanding of the Labour voter is completely different – they see such a person as a traditionalist with a sense of patriotism bordering on nationalism, socially conservative views and a preference for Labour which stems largely from class hatred and economic envy. As such, their pitch to the wider electorate is a much more conservative one but delivered by people who benefit from being a long way removed from the sensitive new Conservatives in Parliament. In truth the UKIP manifesto is one which many Tory MPs dream of being able to put forward but have been told by their party leadership that to do so would be suicidal – if this proves not to be true, internal discipline – always problematic – will break down entirely. A flourishing UKIP will mean an ungovernable Conservative party.

Heirs to the Heir to Blair?

I supposed for a long time that the end of the Conservative party as an electoral force would look something like this: an election defeat to Labour attributable to votes being taken by UKIP is misattributed to a failure to woo Labour voters, the party moves further left and loses its purpose entirely. The Cameroons do not believe that a move to the right is capable of garnering more voters than sticking to the centre ground. They do not believe this from pragmatism, as they would have it, but for ideological reasons. They do not believe that there are a large number of nationalistic traditionalists in Britain because they do not want to – the thought disturbs them. Instead they tell themselves that a breakthrough in Grimsby or Hull is only another social reform away, and so they reform and they lose their own voters and gain no new ones.
For the first time, I am now questioning this verdict. The intellectual hollowness of the Cameroons is something which has been exposed within the parliamentary party. The deal with the Devil struck by backbench Tories, swapping their principles for those of New Labour on the basis the recommendation of a small cadre of reformers, was made on the premise that those reformers knew what they were doing, that they represented the brightest and best of the party. This has now been exposed as a fraud – the party could not win the last election and will not win the next one, foreign policy is in a state of disarray, the national debt has more than doubled and education reform is in limbo at the last. The voice of the reformers come the next leadership election will be a quiet one.

The problem the Conservatives have is and has always been one of personality. The quivering lip and gratuitous emoting of Tony Blair was an embarrassment when set against the gravity of the great office he held – even so, he was a man of his time and he matched the emotional incontinence of Britain in the Diana era. The Tories have been seeking to emulate this strange man ever since, and have hit upon a solution in Mr Cameron who has all of Mr Blair’s emotional insincerity and nothing of his everyman appeal. They are still perceived as the party of the posh but without the virtue of being sincere in their convictions. The next leader will need to combine conviction with a telegenic face and a tough pragmatism largely forgotten by the existing party if they are to be successful – it is a measure of the times that the party will instead probably rise to acclaim the immensely silly Mayor of London or the Chancellor, a man who has failed on austerity, the yardstick he himself set as his measure.
By-elections are always more about the losers – there will be an earthquake on the British right after Clacton declares, and I suspect that it is the Conservative party which will see its foundations damaged badly by the tremors.

Image credits: painting; thin ice; Tony Blair.