Monday, 3 January 2011

Loyalty: an over-rated virtue

I begin with a declaration of interest: I don't do Loyalty very well, either to people or institutions. I probably still think it's a Fault, but I want to persuade you that there are reasons for thinking, maybe not such a big one.

When other people pull Loyalty on you - either their own Loyalty or your own lack of it - it's to make you feel bad. The world is full of Loyal Wives and Loyal Husbands who have burnished their Loyalty into a powerful weapon of attack. The other party is left cowering.

It sounds a weak answer to protest that you would rather have a loving wife or a loving husband than a Loyal one.

Servants are expected to be Loyal to their employer, especially if that's a Prince Charles or a Princess Diana. The servants' loyalty is necessary if the employers are to conduct their affairs and trysts and intrigues without risk of discovery. This kind of Loyalty is a one-way street which the powerful expect of the powerless. It's really obedience by another name.

British politics is characterised by tribal loyalties. Young men must choose their party no later than Oxbridge and stick with it through thick and thin if they are to have any chance of rising to the top.

Only the prospect of imminent foreign invasion in 1940 allowed the party-hopper, Winston Churchill, to become Prime Minister - which he did on the back of the disloyalty of over 70 Conservative MPs withdrawing support from their own government following a string of military set-backs. For such disloyalty, we have profound reason to be grateful.

(Already in the 1939 House of Commons debate following Hitler's invasion of Poland, the Tory right-winger, Leopold Amery, called across the chamber to Labour's deputising leader Arthur Greenwood - rising from his place to reply to Tory Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain - "Speak for England". Those words became famous because they called for something which politicians can't usually manage; they can't usually tell their country from their party.)

The side-effects of party loyalty saturate British political life. It is what is responsible for the froth of indignation which fills the letters pages and substitutes for any kind of critical thinking: "Labour traitors", "LibDem sell outs", "Tory wets". Instead of articulate citizens, even our bloggers behave like reincarnations of parade ground sergeant-majors. Their brains switch on only when someone steps out of line; their wrath is instantaneous.

I can do without this kind of loyalty. Times are going to get worse. We need people to speak for England.

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