Monday, December 22, 2008

The Curse of Castle Circus Strikes again?

One of my very favourite politicians of modern times was Harold Macmillan, the ice-cool composure of his generation is an utter inspiration in these hysterical 24 hour media obsessed world we now operate in.

In 1958 Macmillan remained committed to maintaining full or nearly full employment, bringing him into dispute with many hard-liners in his own party. Super Mac rejected the advice of his more monetarist Chancellor Peter Thorneycroft, and two treasury Ministers (Nigel Birch and Enoch Powell) who wanted to support the value of Sterling by exchange controls which would save the pound but cost jobs. On January 7th as Macmillan was leaving for a Commonwealth tour all three of them promptly resigned in protest.

Mac refused to cancel a tour of the commonwealth and famously described this near-collapse of his Government to journalists as ‘a little local difficulty’.

In fact what he said to reporters at Heathrow airport was this: “It is always a matter of regret from the personal point of view when divergences arise between colleagues, but it is the team that matters and not the individual, and I am quite happy about the strength and the power of the team, and so I thought the best thing to do was to settle up these little local difficulties, and then turn to the wider vision of the Commonwealth”

Parties are a coalition of people sharing a broad philosophy; they are not a firm where everyone has no choice but to put up or shut up. I welcome independent thinking and recognise that councillors have the right, the duty even, to disagree with their party, or their colleagues when necessary.

I think Macmillans quote above sums up almost perfectly how a political party should be run.

In Torbay the Tories have been all over the newspaper for all the wrong reasons this week. Firstly there has been lively row between a councillor and an officer, which became the cause of a disciplinary hearing, followed by the councillor concerned being suspended. This was promptly followed up by the fairly acrimonious resignation of the political assistant to the group- and all under the steely gaze of a local newspaper desperate for copy at an otherwise quiet news week.

This kind of row is not helpful to my election, there is no doubt that the public tolerance for councillors is very low, especially when rows blow up over ‘trivial’ or non essential business matters like this seems to be.

Anything that builds on the idea that all they do is argue about pointless procedures (famously the Lib Dems spent a whole evening arguing about whether to scrap free tea and biscuits a few years ago and a week or two ago our lot spent two hours debating the merits of having free reserved car parking spaces for themselves) is a bad thing and only encourages people not to vote in local elections.

On the other hand I do get frustrated that any disagreement between councillors in the same party is leapt on by the media as ‘a damaging split’. It is simply not possible, or desirable, to have 20+ local councillors agreeing the whole time - democracy and indeed Torbay would not be served with such poor scrutiny.

Councillors are there to debate, discuss, challenge and sometimes even to disagree on your behalf, for the things he or she believes you want; and sometimes this will not be the same as is wanted by his or her party colleages or even the Conservative mayor.

The mayoral system means that the Mayor proposes and the council debates. Broadly councillors and Mayors of the same party share the same philosophy but - as Macmillan was aware - you cannot always see eye to eye.

What they don’t have the right to do is to behave disrespectfully to each other and even more importantly, towards their (our) civil servant employees.

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