Chapter 31: Splitters!
Transition parties tended to be focused around big personalities rather than policy
“The predominance of leadership is reflected in personalised networks around party leaders. Indeed, a high level of intraparty instability is typical for new parties in a new democracy. This stands in contrast to established democracies, where the number of splits and mergers has generally been limited. Newer democracies tend to see weaker party loyalties and lower party institutionalization. The personalisation of party politics is confounded in newer democracies as parties spring up around established resistance figures. This leads to a great deal of party instability where splits are common. The cost of entry for a new party in young democracies is a lot lower in established democracies.” - Party formation and adaptation in new democracies, Lecture by Ingrid van Biezen, University of Birmingham (2008)
Britain had all the things a hot new democracy needed, freedom of the press, a representative parliament, a slightly dodgy armed forces and the reek of corruption. But Britain lacked the one thing that made new democracies pop, unstable political parties. The new Britain had gone nearly two years without an old fashioned party split. This was until Sarah Brown entered the stage. Sarah Brown was an SDP MP and the widow of Gordon Brown, a University of Edinburgh Academic who had been accidentally killed by the SNLA in a bombing attack targeting Michael Ancram. The experience had shifted Brown solidly to the right, in 2005 she was elected to Parliament for the Social Democrats and became a loud voice calling for a stronger line against Scottish separatism and a crackdown on terror.
Some on the SDP's right believed Johnson had been too soft on SNLA dissidents
Generally liked and respected across the political aisle, Brown would be the perfect figurehead. Brown had been approached by two fellow Scottish women, Ruth Davidson and Joanne Rowling. Davidson was the chair of the Terrorism Victims Defence Assocation (TVDA) a pressure group for the victims of paramilitary violence, Rowling was the bestselling author of the global hit “Harry Potter” books and one of the richest women in Britain. Supporters of National and the Social Democrats respectively, both women had become disillusioned with their parties, Davidson for National’s lack of support for further EU integration, and Rowling due to the Social Democrats soft line of Scottish separatism.
Rowling's wealth and personal brand was a formidable asset
In a University of Edinburgh coffee shop on drizzly April morning they made the pitch to Brown: a new centrist, pro-European, unionist and anti-paramilitary political party. Davidson would provide the extra-parliamentary support, Rowling would provide the fundraising and Brown would act as the party’s figurehead. What could possibly go wrong? After some convincing Brown was in, they got to work launching their new party, holding discussions with politicians from both parties. Brown managed to recruit three other MPs and one MEP to sign onto the new party, from the Social Democrats she recruited Vince Cable, another figure from the right of the party and MEP David Aaronovitch. From National she recruited John Bercow and Stephen Dorrell, both ardant pro-European Nationalists. Her greatest prize would have been Shadow Chancellor Nick Clegg, who according to his memoirs “strongly considered defecting” but ultimately “declined but wished Sarah well”.
“After the new party launched, National HQ was in a panic. I had already told Sarah [Brown] no, but Tim [Collins] and William [Hague] saw fit to lock me in a room for several hours until I pinky promised not to defect. If I'm being honest, if Sarah's new party had been remotely plausible I would have jumped ship, but I didn't see the benefit in leaving National to the hardliners. All Reform did was attract moderate party members and MPs away from the established parties, instead they went charging off a cliff ruining their careers. Sarah and the others could've done a lot more good if they'd stayed in their parties making the case for moderate, pro-European liberal politics. The Cardiff Accords system was designed not to benefit new insurgent parties - and for good reason.” - Excerpt from Nick Clegg’s Memoirs“Between the Extremes” (2016)
At the University of Edinburgh, on the four year anniversary of Brown’s death, Brown, Davidson and Rowling unveiling their new party, it was a slick launch, three young women Scots coming together from across different parties to start a new movement, it was a compelling image. The Reform Party was here, initial YouGov projects conducted directly after it’s launch showed the party winning as many as 10 seats. More noticeably, some polls in Scotland showed Reform eclipsing National and the Social Democrats as the party of Scottish Unionism, whilst Scottish loyalists were a minority they were strongly attracted to this new party.
The Reform Party hoped to be the main voice of British Unionism
Reform sent alarm bells ringing around both major parties as party leaders and their whips rushed to stem the bleeding. Nick Clegg and David Laws were held in Norman Shaw North for nearly three hours as Collins begged them not to jump ship. Over in Downing Street, Chief Whip Hilary Benn and Comms Director Bron Madson were dispatched to squash this story as quickly as possible. Their mission was as much stopping other factions from “getting ideas” as it was trying to stop direct Reform directions, with party elites fearing if Reform was a success the entire two party system could quickly collapse. Both National and the Social Democrats were big tent parties, filled with people who hated each other and cobbled together with duct tape. The small constituencies agreed under the Cardiff Accords encouraged two party dominance but this could only get them so far. In the days after Reform’s launch no new parties launched and no other MPs jumped ship, the establishment was safe for now but a precedent had been set. In a leaked internal memo to Johnson, Benn warned a “snowball of splits” in the future was a distinct possibility.
“Vertical organisation is necessary for voters as they seek to find channels to represent their interests. It shows the instability of linkages among members, voters and parties in new democracies. Such weak party institutionalisation might worsen political institutionalisation in new democracies. In most new democracies, party politics was established overnight and thus they have not experienced spontaneous party evolution. Thus, the unstable organisational changes have a tendency only to make parties a tag for MPs to take part in elections. Split and merger of MPs without partisan support can damage the functionality of parties. Political institutionalisation can only be achieved when parties maintain party stability.” - Party Mergers and Splits in New Democracies, Kyungmee Park, Cambridge University Press (2013)
Brown had shaken Britain's fragile party system, but it remained standing