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Raining on the party

Anthony Ashley Cooper (Lord Shaftesbury) was a hot-tempered man who started the world’s first political party (the Whigs) in 1681. Shaftesbury had been a moving force behind the passage of the Habeas Corpus Act of 1679. He probably acquired ideas about establishing a Parliamentary party while lining up votes for the fiercely contested bill. Shortly after starting his party, Shaftesbury became impatient, an emotion with which many of us can readily identify, and in an effort to force a political point arrived with armed followers at Parliament. He was immediately disgraced, and fled to Europe.

Despite the obvious negatives associated with modern parties, a political party can channel and magnify an individual’s energy, create a coherent national policy, criticize an inadequate one, and protect and sustain freedom. These, obviously, are not always a party's natural inclinations. One of Shaftesbury’s descendants, the 7th Earl, did drive his party and Parliament to pass reforms. He was single-minded, and it took him years, which may account for his melancholy.

I was reminded of all this when reading in the Wall Street Journal (January 29, 2007) that Afghanistan lacks "many of the institutions that go to make up a functional civil society. Of these institutions, one that is most crucial is political parties." These, wrote author Ann Marlowe, could “bring people together across ethnic and class lines and. . .serve as a counterweight to clan ties and religious affiliation.”

Is Marlowe too optimistic about parties? Political parties in Britain are three hundred years old, but increasingly British citizens seem to share the feeling a plague on all their houses. Given the social habits of humans, are parties the natural and inevitable mechanism for national political discourse and decision-making? Must people always battle to keep them ethical and responsive? Probably. The more insidious problem is this, by taking decision-making from Parliament and the parties, the European Union drains them of their energy and relevance.