The UK’s Strategic Defence and Security Review & the Role of Nuclear Weapons

The UK’s Strategic Defence and Security Review & the Role of Nuclear Weapons

This article was originally written for BASIC International’s Next Gen Shapers programme. For more information, and to see the article in its original context, visit http://www.nextgenshapers.com/.

On October 27th, BASIC hosted a roundtable event to discuss the role of Nuclear Weapons in UK defence policy, just a month before the publication of the UK’s 2015 Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR). The event brought together students and young professionals. Paul Ingram, executive director of BASIC, and Heather Williams, MacArthur Fellow, Centre for Science and Security Studies, King’s College London, led off the discussion, with Rachel Staley Grant of BASIC moderating.

Heather Williams first set out some context. Governmental commitment to spending 2% of GDP on defence means the impending SDSR is likely to focus far more on policy than its austerity-driven predecessor. The ‘Main Gate’ decision on the Trident successor programme is expected to be taken in early 2016 and will almost certainly result in like-for-like replacement (estimated to cost £80-100bn over its lifespan) due to political lock-in. Meanwhile Jeremy Corbyn’s election as Labour leader has ensured nuclear policy is a live issue for his party, and internationally Russian sabre rattling is stoking fears of a new Cold War. All this means that there is now a rare opportunity to directly shape policy for the next thirty years, on matters all too often overlooked.

Heather then highlighted some key issues. Drawing on experience at the US Department of Defence and speaking from a pro-Trident perspective, she questioned the UK’s apparent insecurity with regards to the special relationship with the USA, and claimed that this was viewed with some bemusement across the Atlantic. The need to maintain this bond is often cited as a reason for Trident renewal. Secondly, Heather observed a degree of British unwillingness to establish a long-term nuclear strategy, suggesting a favoured policy of ‘muddling through’. Thirdly, she emphasised the importance of values; given the potential destructive power of nuclear weapons, we must give serious thought to what we are defending.

Paul Ingram’s responses provided a jumping off point on several issues. Paul identified an imbalance in the Special Relationship – the British have long lost their global empire, and their nuclear contribution is seen in some British circles as the principle substantial contribution they make to the relationship. Yet, the tendency towards self-doubt remains, damaging cooperation. The burden placed on the nuclear dimension also encourages unintended complacency in other areas (for example, Downing St. can ignore the strategic consequences of a close economic dependency on China). How can our security policy counter the failure of nuclear burden sharing in securing this key relationship; should another form of cooperation receive attention?

Another issue highlighted by Paul and discussed at length was the subordination of nuclear policy to political concerns. Jeremy Corbyn’s anti-nuclear rhetoric benefits his distinctive, anti-establishment identity which won him the Labour leadership. The SNP can use renewal as evidence of the disconnect between Westminster and Scotland – they oppose Trident, yet the Vanguard submarines are based on the Clyde. It is likely that the SNP will want to postpone any decision for as long as possible in order to use it as leverage against Westminster. The Conservatives, meanwhile, can present Corbyn’s Labour as placing ideology above national security, and thus unfit for office. As such, therefore, all parties have an interest in a shallow proxy debate, rather than any real policy development. The use of nuclear debates for political capital suggests the actual outcome is unimportant, and goes some way to explaining the ‘strategy of muddling through’.

Treating nuclear policy as a political football also damages more substantive discussion. Firstly, voters are offered an unrepresentative, monochromatic choice between like-for-like renewal, presented as the only pragmatic option, and unilateral disarmament, supposedly the only moral choice. Secondly, credible arguments across the spectrum are undermined. For example, if opposing Trident becomes seen as the preserve of the ideological left, there is no space for arguments for disarmament from a security minded middle ground.

Heather noted that the alternative to simplistic black and white arguments has other problems. Elite, detail heavy discussion – the preserve of an epistemic community – alienates the average interested party and curtails wider national discussion. A balance needs to be struck between the extremes.

Exploring this theme of nuanced debate, the group shied away from pejorative ‘good’ and ‘bad’ descriptors for nuclear states, turning instead towards a topic of previous BASIC round tables – responsible nuclear armed states. Developing a responsible nuclear strategy requires consideration of numerous factors, going beyond simple adherence to the NPT and engaging the public in substantive policy debates.

Russia was cited as having demonstrated irresponsible behaviour with the use of nuclear sabre rattling, as it continues to position itself against NATO in Syria, and moves nuclear missiles towards its own borders whilst conflict in Ukraine continues. Conversely, the inexorable development of technologies for strategic advantage that could destabilise strategic balances (such as missile defence and prompt global strike), could also be seen as irresponsible.

If Russia is irresponsible, what is responsible? Security was, unsurprisingly seen as the core of any nuclear weapons policy, but as Heather suggested at the outset, careful thought needs to be given to what we defend at what cost. The Humanitarian Initiative, a state and NGO led campaign that is highlighting humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons, was cited as offering a forum to forge a vision of an ethical nuclear weapons state. Stemming from this Initiative is the  ‘Austria Pledge’, calling for legal mechanisms banning nuclear weapons (endorsed by 121 nations to date and recently adopted by the UN disarmament and international security committee). Heather said she believes this to be distracting attention from more realistic discussion of humanitarian nuclear policy, which could be led by nuclear weapon states, especially the USA. Some questioned the value and utility of the proposed ban treaty, and such an initiative being driven by principles and values; South Africa is the clearest example of a state abandoning nuclear weapons on principle, but similar arguments have not resonated well with current nuclear armed states.

Questions were also raised as to the importance of the security of other states. The UK insists on an independent nuclear deterrent, but extended deterrence has long played a role in American nuclear policy. Which of these policies is more responsible? If the former, extended deterrence should cease to play a role in American policy, if the latter, the UK’s independent nuclear deterrent could be eliminated. This might actually strengthen the special relationship, as it would prove that the UK trusts US nuclear guarantees, and focus limited resources on capabilities of greater value to the Alliance.

Political manoeuvring has already been dismissed as clearly irresponsible. Similarly, whilst economic policy is a factor in many decisions, linking disarmament closely to cost-cutting could unwittingly re-enforce the perception of nuclear weapons as prestige projects, encouraging proliferation among rising powers. Furthering non-proliferation should be a factor in responsible policy, yet this stands at odds with the very notion of deterrence. Theoretically, we could maintain a deterrent whilst pursing multilateral disarmament, but the UK has never itself reduced its arms through a multilateral agreement.

The overall conclusion seemed to be that the UK at present lacks a clear nuclear policy, and it is unlikely that one will be outlined in the forthcoming SDSR. Whilst this may appear politically prudent, it is not the action of a responsible nuclear armed state. A nuanced but accessible national debate is needed. It is the nature of this debate, and the resultant responsible policy which needs to be established.

Some questions to consider further:

  • How do we address the lack of nuance and frequent attempts to muddy the waters of nuclear policy discussion?
  • What do we value enough to justify possessing and using nuclear weapons?
  • What is a responsible strategy – what factors inform it?
  • How can we reinforce international partnerships without relying on nuclear burden sharing?
  • Will we have such a debate, or will the SDSR simply come out fully formed, defining nuclear policy for the next generation?
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Paris II – Finding Hope

Paris II – Finding Hope

As-Salamu Alaykum

On Saturday 14th November, 2015, I stood looking on the Cathedral of St Michael of Coventry, ruined and rebuilt, 75 years after the Luftwaffe raid which brought about its destruction. It was raining.

Those who don’t know Coventry’s history would be forgiven for noting the pathetic fallacy of such weather. The irony of a city coming together to mark 75 years since its destruction, the night after grave acts of terror had been wrecked upon Paris was not lost on any of us. There was a sadness in the air as we gathered. Every soul mourned for the 129 people killed less than 300 miles away and 24 hours ago.

But in Coventry, sorrow did not win the day, just as it had not won the 15th November 1940, when people had climbed out of air-raid shelters, or returned from beyond the city limits to find their homes and lives destroyed. The people mourned, but were left ‘not little, nor yet dark’, because they chose to look to the light.

I spent much of the weekend in and around the Cathedral of New St Michael’s, which stands for all that Coventry city upholds. For hope, for peace, for the healing of old wounds. These ideas lie at the heart of Coventry, of its Cathedral, of its people. It is a place which has realised that ‘the opposite of war isn’t peace… it’s creation!’

On Saturday, it was hard to hold on to hope. But everyone there knew the price if we lost hope. Hope, the theme of a global peace forum which had concluded only hours before the first bullets were fired in Paris.

There is a theology to that hope – a theology rooted in love stronger than death, and a God who shares in our suffering. But there are times when strict theology is only a hindrance. You do not need to be a Christian to bear witness to hope in the face of madness and destruction. Indeed, to suggest that only reinforces a polarised view of the world as good or evil, western or foreign, christian or heathen.

This was the way President Hollande of France felt when he called for a ‘merciless and pitiless’ war on those who carried out the attacks. It was that feeling which led 430,000 British people to call for the closure of all UK borders immediately.

But the world is not painted in black and white.

The world has shadows and sunlight, colours and depth. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn said ‘the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being.’ If Albert Einstein had known this, he ‘should have become a watchmaker’, but I would make no such choice. I would have the world no other way than that which it is. Without the uncertainty, the fear and the hatred in our hearts, the conviction, the trust and love would be meaningless.

We do not start with a perfect white canvas, and paint it black, nor with perfect black and hope to scrub it clean. We live, as humanly as possible. It is humanity which allows us to rebuild hate to love. To create what seemed destroyed. It gives us art and music, poetry and love. And that humanity, mixed with the means of grace, affords us the hope of glory.

So on Saturday, night we held up torches and phones, illuminating the night. ‘And the darkness comprehended it not.’

Paris I – Social Media

Paris I – Social Media

As-salamu alaykum

On Saturday morning I awoke happy. The night before, I had temporarily abandoned the world of social media and  gone to sleep ignorant of the events unfolding in Paris.

And then I saw that a friend of mine had marked herself as safe.

At that point I was baffled. I read her post. I scrolled down my news feed, and saw a couple more ‘marked as safe’ post from people I barely knew at university, then some posts expressing horror or sympathy at events in Paris. That’s when I opened by BBC news, and read the headlines. And I froze, staring at my screen. My stomach turned over, my throat caught.

I kept reading. It was all I could do. I shared some thoughts of my friends. A blog post, or rather, an extract from another book which my Mum had posted on July 7th 2005. I had no words. Nothing original. That came later.

My first thought was personal, as it will have been for so many people on hearing the news. Because, you see, the friend who marked herself as safe, one of my best friends from Sixth Form, must have been in Paris. She must have been in danger. And I had no idea. Social media had been able to tell me she was fine. But I didn’t know she was in Paris. If she hadn’t been safe, I wouldn’t have known there had been any danger at all. The social media which allows us to stay in touch despite geography, which has allowed so many people to visibly show their solidarity with Paris, had not actually connected us. I was horrified by my ignorance of my friend’s life.

Among all that destruction, it was the fact someone was safe which first rocked me to my core.

Then, other things began to happen. In 2005, Facebook wasn’t even open to everyone. Twitter hadn’t even been dreamed up. The Charlie Hebdo shootings had of course provoked a response earlier this year, but this was perhaps the first time in the age of new social media that there had been a public attack on such a scale.

At least, looking at the internet, you could believe that. When a right-wing extremist killed 77 people in Norway, there was no option to cover your profile picture in a red, blue and white cross. The shooting of nine people in a church in Charleston did not lead to a #notinmyname shared among white people. At the other end of the spectrum, well over 300,000 people have now signed a petition calling on the UK to immediately close all borders and halt all immigration. Something about the attacks in Paris on Friday seems to have struck right into the heart of the West, on a scale not seen since 9/11.

I am deeply saddened by #notinmyname. Not because condemning the violence is the wrong response – of course such inhumanity must be condemned – but because of the picture of the world painted by the demographics of those sharing it. Young Muslims, primarily.  I am saddened because these people, people my age – students, singers, unemployed graduates, whoever they may be – are so vilified by the world that they feel the need to assert that they don’t approve of murder. How did we get to a point where that doesn’t go without saying?!? And, if it really doesn’t go without saying, why has the rest of the world not taken up the call? #notinmyname didn’t appear on my news feed, but perhaps it should have done.

I don’t want anyone to mistake me. The world’s response to these dreadful killings is undoubtedly a good and appropriate thing, a suitable way to mark a tragedy, and stand in defiance of hatred.

The poet and author John Donne is a man I much admire. He once wrote “any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in Mankind”. He captured something the world is long overdue to recognise. The deaths in Paris are tragedy writ large, and alarmingly close to home. But they are only one part of a tragedy which continues every single time a human life is taken.

Many of my friends, being intelligent people in touch with the world, were quick to frame their horror in the context of attacks in Beirut and Baghdad that day, of civil war in Syria, of bodies found lying on the streets of Bujumbura each morning.

The violence in Burundi, which is politically motivated, and has resulted in the killing of around 250 people since the spring, should feel closer to me. I have had lunch with people who are caught up in the violence, who have lost loved ones. I have talked to them about Coventry’s ministry of Reconciliation. I have read messages they send back.

But somehow, our collective consciousness makes it much easier, more natural to sympathise with the events in Paris. If I talk about Burundi, I am a lone voice on my news feed. If I talk about Paris, the world is behind me.

So throughout this weekend, the world has remembered Paris. The Tricolour was projected on landmarks the world over. Today, at eleven o’clock, the BBC news offered a minute of silence. This is as it should be, and I have been a part of these acts of memorial and defiance. But we have all of us failed. If we remember only a part of the world, our claims of solidarity will ring hollow. If I remember Beirut and Baghdad, only because I feel guilty for focussing in France, I have failed. If I don’t speak of Bujumbura, because I don’t want to sound like a scratched record, I have failed. If I condemn the use of the death penalty in the US, but tacitly accept extra-judicial drone executions, I have failed.

It is only when we stand with the whole world that we become truly human.

The Problem of Prayer

The Problem of Prayer

My thanks to David Neaum (Chaplain and Fellow, St Catharine’s College, Cambridge), for offering a sounding board for another aspect of my slightly weird theology. A good chaplain is an invaluable thing.


As a good Anglo-Catholic, I feel I am long overdue a confession, so here goes.

I have a problem with prayer.

I don’t just mean I am bad at it. I do struggle to keep focused – I end up either wanting to go and do something substantial (which is unhelpful half way through a Eucharist), or find my mind wandering to what’s for supper, or the mistake I made in the anthem. But far more than that, I am honestly not sure prayer has an impact, at least, not the way most people think.

The idea of prayer is that it allows one to develop a relationship with God. What people believe about the extent of that relationship varies – some people think that God sends signs as direct answers, or that they feel moved to act in a certain way. Some people believe in divine healing in answer to prayer, or even that praying will help them find their keys. But in all of these conceptions, prayer is reciprocal. It is a conversation.

Now, if we accept that God is transcendent (which is pretty much fundamental to the definition of God), then any relationship relies on God choosing to reveal something of His nature or will. But this suggests our prayers make God react. Indeed, in many cases, our prayers seem to be asking something physical of God – some miraculous intervention to bring peace, healing, winning lottery numbers, good weather for a wedding. Well, if God chooses to answer some prayers, why not answer all prayers? Perhaps some prayers are somehow not ‘good’ enough – in which case why is my prayer for a friend with cancer less valuable that someone else’s prayer for a successful driving test? What metric is God working from? The alternative is that God answers prayers on a purely arbitrary basis (since He could answer all prayers). We haven’t accepted that shit from our kings for 800 years, why on earth would anyone worship a God who behaves in such a way?

I can only conclude that God does not directly respond to prayer. God is bigger than that. All times and experiences are present to God, and part of what God is. He shares in all our experiences from, every mother hugging a daughter, to every three-year-old washed up on a Turkish beach. God constantly suffers and rejoices as we do. This is embodied in Gethsemane, Golgotha and the Easter Garden. But more than that, all our lives are constantly present to God, so to think of God replying is to misunderstand his nature. God will always act as God, because all eternity is present to him. We only experience God as responsive because we exist in time, and see cause and effect. Where there is no time, there is no cause and effect, only being. God is constantly giving Himself out of love for us. It is not just an experience for God, it is His nature. What we experience as a relationship is His very being.

So if prayer doesn’t change God, what is its purpose? He does not intervene directly as a result of some prayers because they are somehow better, nor on some arbitrary basis (though all prayers are present to God’s existence). Prayer does not reap some physical response, where God miraculously removes cancer cells. There is no divine voice from the clouds.

+Justin Welby, who we must assume is relatively authoritative on such matters, recently tweeted that “Prayer changes us and it changes the world around us, because it makes us more like Jesus Christ.” This may well be true. Inasmuch as Jesus was human and divine, He embodies the perfect ideal of wisdom, justice and love, and prayer allows us to cultivate such virtues. But it is not clear exactly how +Justin thinks this happens. If prayer simply offers the chance to focus our minds on what we should be thankful for, or what we need to work on, it is not clear to me how prayer is any better thank any other meditative practice.

If I want to encounter the divine, I am most likely to manage through poetry, art or music – something with a magic which can’t quite be explained. Such things are a way of catching a snippet of what God is, in an allegorical way. That seems to be what prayer is really about. Augustine believed that there was no meaningful distinction between the natural and the miraculous since every moment is founded upon the divine will of God. The music of John Sheppard, the poetry of George Herbert, the art of Hans Memling, the very buildings of Durham Cathedral, are all glimpses of, and responses to the Divine will. Prayer is an opening of the self to notice God in everything, and to make all that we are a part of this pattern.

G.K. Chesterton wrote:
“You say grace before meals. Alright. But I say grace before the concert and the opera, and grace before the play and the pantomime, and grace before I open a book, and grace before sketching, painting, swimming, fencing, boxing, walking, playing, dancing and grace before I dip the pen in the ink.”

Every moment is an act of divine will, so all moments are miraculous, and every interaction with each moment a chance to participate in the unfolding of God’s nature. Prayer isn’t sitting back and waiting for God to answer. It is seeking the better answer in a world crammed full of God. That sounds like something I can get behind.

The Great Myth: The Freedom of Parliament

The Great Myth: The Freedom of Parliament

This article was first published by bloc, a left leaning political forum based in Yorkshire. As always, my thanks to them for supporting my writing. 

This article is inspired, in part, by comments made by a Chris Bryant MP at a recent conference on the relevance of Magna Carta to modern democracy.

Voting data was drawn from The Public Whip (http://www.publicwhip.org.uk/), a not-for-profit, open source website created in 2003 by Francis Irving and Julian Todd and now run by Bairwell Ltd. Data was collected in August 2015, and was correct at time that time. Given the nature of parliamentary process, this is inevitably subject to change. It should also be noted that this was written prior to the election of Jeremy Corbyn as labour leader, and the resultant shadow cabinet reshuffle.

I am sure we all agree that politicians should vote as their conscience and their constituencies direct. They are our elected representatives, and should be free to do that. The ideal of a free parliament has been an established in British political theory for centuries. But this freedom is slowly being worn away. My great grandmother, Evelyn Emmet was a Conservative MP, and later a peer. Elected in 1955, she was involved in politics until her death in 1980, serving as a deputy speaker of the House of Lords from 1968-1977. She spoke with disdain of a shift in the way parties controlled their MPs via the whip system, which became increasingly strict. Direct instructions to specific MPs are not allowed of course, so the party’s wishes are expressed unequivocally but indirectly. At one end of the scale is the ‘one-line’ whip – simple advice on the party line – whereas a three-line whip is a strict instruction, breach of which might lead to expulsion from the party (though precise information on these rules and repercussions is not available to the general public). During my great grandmother’s time in politics, standard instructions shifted from the moderate to the more severe, with the one-line whip becoming a rare beast.

But this article is not going to focus on whip, primarily because it is very hard to get concrete information on them. Sites such as The Public Whip do not have the information, nor are MPs vocal about it. The weekly briefing on votes (also, confusing called the Whip) is confidential, and when I mentioned the matter within a letter to my constituency MP it received no reply. The party whips will continue to operate from the shadows, unless we can secure the publication of the weekly Whip briefing. But that is a challenge for another day. Instead, I will focus on the general freedom of MPs to as they see fit and to rebel against the party.

Between them, the Conservative and Labour Parties hold 582 of the 650 seats in the House of Commons – 330 Conservative MPs and 232 Labour MPs. This means that just under 90% of the votes will tend to follow one of two, predictable party lines. On core issues, where the whip is likely to be strong, 90% of the votes can be predicted with reasonable reliability beforehand. Given the Conservative majority, it is therefore likely that, on the issues most fundamental to their party, the government will be able to push their legislation through the Commons. The Lords is more complex – the government does not have a majority, the make-up is more mixed, and includes the cross-bench peers with no party affiliation – however in the commons it is the case that, for their core policies, the government is likely to win the day.

More interesting are the votes on less fundamental issues where the whip is likely to be weaker. Of course, information on Whipping is not made public. For a detailed discussion of this issue, see the Public Whip FAQ (http://www.publicwhip.org.uk/faq.php). All we can do, therefore, is consider information on all votes as if they were the same, and consider average voting records. Public Whip makes available the voting records of members going back to 1997 (though data from before the last election can be challenging to use – I speak from experience here), including the percentage of votes in which they voted differently to majority of voting members of their party. Voting against the majority of your party is deemed to be a rebellion. This is not a perfect system for reckoning rebellions – it doesn’t account for free votes, or for cases where the party line was to abstain (as was the case for the recent welfare reform bill, in which 47 Labour MPs actively opposed the bill). These 47 rebels are not recorded as such, because they represented the entirety of the party’s voting members. Despite these flaws, one can still do a substantial amount with it as bulk data. While the information that Adam Afriyie (Conservative MP for Windsor) apparently rebelled in 2.1% of votes in this parliament is not particularly reliable (for the reasons outlined above) or particularly informative (given the small number of votes in this parliament so far), we can draw some interesting correlations if we take the data en masse, allowing for a certain margin of error.

In the 2015 parliament, the Conservative party secured 331 seats. These 331 MPs have rebelled, on average, in 0.4% of votes – not a particularly high number. Furthermore, the 90 front bench MPs (i.e. a little under 1/3 of Conservative MPs) have never rebelled at all. All rebellion has been confined to the back bench, with an average rate of 0.5%. In fact, only 42 MPs have rebelled at all, with an average rate of 2.9%. In other words, only 12.7% of Conservative MPs have rebelled in this partliament, and they have done so in just under three votes in every 100. It is unlikely that 87.3% of Conservative MPs agree with all party policy, people being inherently diverse, so we must assume that many MPs choose not to rebel against the party line, when they might actually disagree with the official policy.

A similar (albeit less pronounced) picture emerges when looking at the voting records of Labour MPs since May. The party average for rebelling is a measly 0.1% – that is one vote in every 1000 cast by party MPs. Again, none of the Labour Shadow Cabinet have been rebels in the last parliament, nor have any of the three Labour MPs with Knighthoods. Only eight MPs are recorded as rebels, on average in 2.8% of votes.

First of all, it is clear that only a few MPs are willing to rebel against their party. Although it is axiomatic that party policy is likely to match the views of its members, factors such as the distinctive needs of local constituencies and personal ideology will inevitably mean that MPs’ views do not always match party policy. Disagreements may be insignificant, few and far between, but given the diversity of the country, and the breadth of different views held by party members (as evident in the recent resurgence of a more socialist side of Labour), it is impossible that a party can perfectly represent the views of everyone. I am not a perfect judge of human nature, but I find it hard to believe that only 0.1% of Labour Party policy faces internal opposition, or that 289 Conservative MPs agree with every aspect of party policy voted on in this parliament.

We must, therefore ask why MPs are willing to compromise their views. This can be explained by a sense of duty to their party, which could be stronger than their sense of duty to their constituents or to their consciences. Parties are constructed as a means of collectivisation. It is far easier to get your voice heard if you join it with others, and it is certainly the case that rebellions damage the unity of a party, and undermine its collective voice and leadership. This can therefore provide one reason not to rebel, especially on issues which are not especially important, but this of course undermines the extent to which the diversity of opinion amongst the population people are represented.

More significantly, choosing to be a rebel against the party Whip can be damaging to an individual MP. It is notable that all Conservative rebels are backbenchers, as are the majority of labour rebels. There is a clear inverse relationship between seniority and likelihood of rebellion. Given that rebellion can be damaging to the reputation of the party, rebels are less likely to gain high profile positions (a notable exception to this rule is the newly announced shadow cabinet of Jeremy Corbyn, see http://www.theguardian.com/news/datablog/2015/sep/14/jeremy-corbyn-labour-shadow-cabinet-statistical-breakdown). Similarly, it is highly unlikely that an MP would rebel once a significant role is gained as it would threaten their position come the next reshuffle. It is sometimes hard to tell what is cause and what is effect – if you are a rebel, you wont be promoted; if you are promoted, you will be less likely to rebel – but the two are certainly linked. The natural conclusion of this is that those MPs looking for career advancement and the quarter of MPs who sit on the front benches are not truly free vote as their consciences and constituents direct.

There is another problem inherent to the prevailing view of rebellion as something which will damage the party as a whole. Because it is seen in a negative light and prevents the party passing the policy it would like to see, repercussions against rebels are likely to be harsh, in an attempt to discourage others. Much of government is run on informal conversations and agreements with informal networks and relationships developing, based on favours and mutual support. In the later middle ages, a system known as bastard feudalism developed (so called because it was initially seen as a degradation of traditional land-based feudal ties). In bastard feudalism, rather than owing money or service to a lord in exchange for land, systems of patronage developed. Higher elites would help advance the careers of those below them, who in return offered service to their lords on an ad hoc basis. Anyone who has read Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall will have seen bastard feudalism at work, as the career of Thomas Cromwell is gradually progressed through his service to Cardinal Wolsey and later Henry VIII. In turn, Cromwell is able to offer ‘good lordship’ to people in his service such as Thomas Wriothesley and Rafe Sadler. Such bonds were never formal, and could be broken and reforged, but it was in the interests of all parties to maintain mutually beneficial relationships. The modern political landscape is eerily similar to this.

The ability of an MP to win concessions for his constituents, or have significant influence at Westminster can depend on this sort of informal relationship, but rebellion, even if it is in the best interests of the people the MP is paid to represent, is generally seen as a bad thing by other members and especially by the whips. This means rebellion can damage an MP’s relationships with their colleagues, it can even lead to their being ‘sent to Coventry’, or otherwise isolated or punished by the whips. Leading MPs wont rebel, and those who do will be less able to get their voices heard subsequently. The idea that MPs are really free in how they vote is clearly false.

Of course, there are some notable exceptions to this rule. Among Conservative MPs, the 18 members with knighthoods are the most rebellious, with an average rate of rebellion of 1.2%. Of the 18, 5 have been rebels since May 2015, with an average rate of rebellion 4.3%, far high than the rate of rebellion for all rebels, which stands at 2.9%. Meanwhile, in the Labour Party, two front-benchers both of them Whips – Tom Blenkinsop and Heidi Alexander – have been rebels. These are senior party members, people who should be worried about rebelling, as it could damage their relationships of mutual support with their colleagues, and damage their political capital. However, these exceptions only prove the rule, they do not undermine it. Knighthoods cannot be easily revoked, and none of the knighted rebels are front-benchers. They have all been rewarded for their services (not necessarily to politics), but none now sit in the party spotlight. If they are not seeking prominence, then the loss of political capital which results from rebellion will not bother them. If anything, their titles give them permanent authority, which might encourage them to rebel more than their more vulnerable colleagues. Likewise, the two labour Whips are less vulnerable, because of their roles. They are responsible for controlling other voters, but they themselves do not need to be scared. 

Despite all this, rather like the British prison system, parliament has a reoffending problem. Once a member has broken ranks once, there is a tendency to do so again. This does not make itself evident in the data for this parliament, as there have been too few votes to draw conclusions, however if one considers Labour rebels in this parliament, it is a small thing to note that every one of them rebelled in the last parliament as well, and half of them did so on more than 10 occasions. Once the beneficial relationships have been damaged, an MP has little incentive not to continue to rebel against party wisdom. At least then they might be seen as an idealist by their party. 

Throughout this piece, I have referred to Public Whip’s data for rebellion, which suggests Labours rate of rebellion is substantially lower than that of the Conservatives, possibly indicating that the Labour Whips are more powerful than their conservative counterparts. However, the data for Labour’s rebels doesn’t account for the mass rebellion of Labour MPs over the Welfare Reform Bill. On this matter, the party line was one of abstention, however 47 members broke ranks and actively opposed it. Because Public Whip identifies the party line as the way most members have voted, these votes do not appear as rebellions. This means that, rather than only 8 rebels, the party in fact has some 52 rebels, of which 4 are front-benchers. Thus, the number of Labour and Conservative rebels is of a similar order of magnitude (52 and 42 respectively), suggesting the Whips are similarly powerful.

It is clear that, as party seniority increases, likelihood of rebellion falls (in all but a few exceptional cases), and that having chosen to rebel once, a member is likely to do so again. The obvious reason for this is that rebelling seriously undermines the informal relationship which MPs to influence policy, and is strictly punished in order to maintain a party’s public face. Given the plethora of senior positions (for example 90 Conservative front-benchers out of 330 MPs), it is increasingly clear that the vast majority of MPs are not free to vote with their conscience, even if the whipping is not especially strong. Of course, we have limited data available from this parliament, and part two of this article will explore data from the 2010-15 parliament, to see if these correlations hold up. But for now, one thing is clear. When political capital depends upon following the party, we cannot reasonably believe that MPs can vote freely. The freedom of parliament is one of the great myths of British politics. We must either work to change this, or accept come to terms with the reality of a parliament which is not truly free.