Albert Venn Dicey Vinerian Professor of English Law at the University of Oxford in the 1880s authored one of the classics on the British constitutional system entitled “Introduction to the Study of the Law of the Constitution”. Dicey’s groundwork on English constitutional history and principles may be described as legendary. In this post I would like to summarise/list part of an unpublished lecture by Dicey that was prepared in July 1898 – in the hope of provoking a discussion on the merits and demerits of the UK party system as inherited by us in Malta.
The lecture was called “Memorandum on Party Government” and he deals with the pros and cons of the party political system as developed within the British constitutional structure.
In section C of this lecture he outlines the “Inherent Demerits of Party System” as follows:
1. It makes impossible consideration of measures on merits.
2. An Opposition which cannot carry out its own policy maims & renders abortive the policy of the Government.
3. The Party system involves a waste of capacity.
4. The Party system leads to an exaggeration of the points on which the whole of one party, e.g. the Tories, are supposed to agree & to be opposed to the whole of their opponents, e.g. the Whigs.
“(…) it is still true that the party system intensifies the tendency of politicians & their followers to look upon their own side as the party of the good, & upon the opposite side as the faction of bad men, whence, among other evils, results the sort of political hypocrisy which leads men of sense & merit to overlook or palliate the decline in moral principle of a party which they have at one time held, perhaps rightly, to represent public virtue.
The patent evils, in short, of the Party system, even at its best, are that it presents men from considering measure on their own merits, that it produces the kind of vicious compromise by which an opposition maims a policy which it cannot resist, that it involves a waste of political capacity, that it exaggerates the differences which divide one party from another & promotes the idea which is often false, & at best only partially true, that one party in the State has a monopoly of public virtue.”
In the next section (D) Dicey expounds “The Conditions Necessary for the Beneficial Action of the Party System” and he divides them into four broad conditions, namely:
1. All parties in the State must be loyal to the Constitution.
2. The distinction between the two parties in the State must depend upon real differences of principle.
3. Parties must not be kept together mainly by personal interest.
4. There must if possible exist only two important parties.
5. The nation must take a real interest in Politics.
And what happens when these conditions fail? Well here is Dicey’s answer:
“(…) all these evils may be summed up under one head whenever they exist they mean that parties are degenerating into factions, that is to say that they have become or are becoming, bodies of men not bound together by community of principles but either by self interest or by the feelings of partisanship“.
Finally Dicey also suggests two obvious ways of mitigating the negative effects of the party system:
1. The judicial & administrative bodies of the country should be kept as far as possible from the sphere of the Party.
2. Large questions of general policy should whenever possible be so determined that they may be placed outside the realm of the party.