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An unsavoury tale

Anthony Ashley Cooper (first earl of Shaftesbury) was a hot-tempered man who is said to have started the world’s first political party in 1681. If so, he has much to answer for.

Over the course of decades Shaftesbury was involved in many causes and disputes. Toward the end of his partisan and fractious life, after he had struggled with Cromwell, Charles II, and fellow members in Parliament, he was imprisoned in the Tower by the King, and had time to reflect on the importance of Habeas Corpus. While he cooled his heels, Shaftesbury made a list of members of Parliament, noting those who were possible allies with a ‘w’ for worthy, and those who were enemies with a ‘v’ for vile.

Fighting against the policies of the King, Shaftesbury gathered his allies into a political party that was probably the origin of the Whigs. After a series of setbacks he became impatient, an emotion with which many of us can readily identify, and impetuously planned an armed rebellion. When this went off like a damp squib, he fled to Amsterdam.

You may be wondering why I am describing a man who seems to have so little to recommend him.

Well, in his defence, Shaftesbury was struggling against what he thought was tyrannical power. (A few years later his countrymen would agree, and pull off the Glorious Revolution.) In a remarkable political pamphlet called “A Letter from a Person of Quality to his Friend in the Country”, Shaftesbury wrote a 15,000-word accusation against men he believed were conspiring to make ‘the Government absolute and Arbitrary’ and not ‘bounded or limited by humane Laws’. It caused a sensation when it hit the streets of London, and shot up in price from 1 shilling to 20.

It's thought the pamphlet was jointly authored with John Locke, his secretary and doctor, whose ideas influenced American revolutionaries a century later. I imagine Locke learned quite a bit about the deficiencies of government at Shaftesbury’s elbow.

What is significantly different about Shaftesbury’s struggle and the struggle in Parliament today is that he was trying to balance the King’s executive power with the legislative power of parliament and the judicial power of the courts. Today, there is for all intents and purposes no separate executive power. Parliament has usurped it, or, if you prefer, acquired it, almost certainly in violation of the British Constitution. This has made Parliament into a tyrant, as John Adams predicted, and as recent proceedings in the House of Commons have made clear.

Three hundred years of history have not endeared political parties to the voters. A party’s willingness to sacrifice the good of the nation for its own self-interest has become distressingly familiar.

Even so it is bizarre in a democracy to have a party strong-arming members of parliament and threatening them with political death if they vote their conscience and their country's best interests. Yet this is exactly what the Labour Party threatens, demanding its MPs ratify the EU’s Lisbon Treaty, which will give the EU unprecedented control over Britain and the British people, and deny them their fundamental freedoms.

If the Labour Party persists in reneging on its promise to the British people to hold a referendum on the EU constitution, the party will have reached its nadir. It will have become the oppression it was created to oppose.

David writes below about the political action challenging this state of affairs.