Ethical Politics

What is morally wrong cannot be economically or politically right

Truth lies within a little and certain compass, but error is immense.

Henry St John, Viscount Bolingbroke – Lydiard Tregoze

In Britain the concept of morality in politics has two points of origin; one, Henry Bolingbroke, from Wessex, a Tory, who resurrected the idea of a Country Party (a term first used for the 17th century Clubmen in parts of the region); the other, Thomas Gordon, from Scotland, accredited as the originator of the term political morality, and whose works were the inspiration for the Commonwealth men.  

Henry St John Bolingbroke, born at Lydiard Tregoz, in Wiltshire, became MP for Wootton Bassett in 1701.  He stood against “Whig attempts to transform the English Constitution into an oligarchy“.  Bolingbroke was influential in stating the need for a systematic parliamentary opposition, which he called a “country party” opposed to the court party. Liberty could only be safeguarded by an opposition party that used “constitutional methods and a legal course of opposition to the excesses of legal and ministerial power”.  His vision was that one is “free not from the law, but by the law“.  The Country Party claimed to be a nonpartisan force fighting for the whole Country’s interest, against the self-interested actions of the Court Party, i.e. the politicians in power in London.  It believed the Court party was threatening the proper balance of authority by shifting power from Parliament to the prime minister. It opposed any practices it saw as corruption and attracted influential writers such as Jonathan Swift and Samuel Johnson.  

Thomas Gordon, a Scot, in the 1720s wrote essays condemning corruption and lack of morality within the political system. His ideas played an important role in shaping republicanism in Britain.  He observed how politicians were judged, not by the justice or morality of what they did, but whether or not they were faithful supporters of a party line.  His followers, the Commonwealthmen, were highly outspoken religious, political, and economic reformers during the early 18th century. They were active in the Country Party. They promoted republicanism; condemned corruption and lack of morality in political life.  Some have seen in them an early version of Christian Socialism.  

It is possible that Maximilien Robespierre, one of the leaders of the French Revolution, was aware of and influenced by these movements.  In 1794 he produced a paper entitled “On the Principles of Political Morality“, in which he outlined that he wanted “to place the interests of freedom in the hands of truth, which is eternal, rather than in those of men who change”.  He summarised the principles as “We wish in our country that morality may be substituted for egotism, probity for false honour, principles for usages, duties for good manners, the empire of reason for the tyranny of fashion, a contempt of vice for a contempt of misfortune, pride for insolence, magnanimity for vanity, the love of glory for the love of money, good people for good company, merit for intrigue, genius for wit, truth for tinsel show, …”. 

Taking a lead from these concepts, CW in the 1940s espoused the principle of Morality in Politics, later adopted bythe Wessex Regionalists in the form of Ethical Politics, which it applies to all policies be they concerning human and animal rights, civil liberties, trade (at all levels but especially the arms trade and trade with poorer nations), the impact of human activities on the rest of the animal kingdom and the wider natural environment, and our region’s dealings with other regions/nations. It governs the party’s attitude to nuclear power, nuclear weapons and war.

The lack of a written Constitution presents a challenge to Ethical Politics.  It makes governance flexible and can move with the general mood of the times rather than becoming ossified or even ignored.  Its weakness lies in the ease with which it can be manipulated especially within the current Parliamentary system which allows minority parties to form governments and change laws.  Under a first-past-the-post system the vast majority of MPs are elected by less than half of the votes cast and all fail to gain 50%+1 of the total electorate.   The way in which constituencies are organised can also be manipulated in order to give one or another party a slight advantage.  There clearly needs to be a change to the voting system but there also needs to be some fundamental principles that should be enshrined as unalterable rights in order to protect the populace against undemocratic actions by powerful groups or individuals no matter what the circumstances.  Within Wessex we would seek to establish a Charter of Fundamental Rights as the bedrock of society.