Friday, October 26, 2007

The top 10 acts of political altruism?

Following on from my Top 10 Political Misjudgements, which looked at political bad calls which adversely affected the careers of those who made them, a number of people have asked whether I could compile a list of acts which, while bad for their perpetrators, actually turned out to be good for the country.

My initital, perhaps rather cynical reply was to doubt that there were actually ten politicians who had been prepared to sacrifice their careers in such a way, but I am open to being proved wrong!

Politaholic, writing on Westminster Wisdom, nominated John Hume, saying:

"I can think of one act of political altruism (or at any rate putting public interest ahead of party interest): John Hume's participation in the Hume-Adams talks. Bringing Sinn Fein into the political mainstream was something from which the SDLP could only lose. I don't think this was a misjudgement: Hume knew what he was doing."

I can think of one other example - Roy Jenkins' decision to rebel against the Labour leadership in 1972 and vote with the Tories in favour of joining the EEC. Readers will have different views as to whether this course of action was good or bad for the country, but ultimately it cost him the Deputy Leadership and the inside track in the race to succeed Wilson.

Are there more examples? If readers can find at least ten, I will duly compile the list based on your nominations.

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8 comments:

David Boothroyd said...

Roy Jenkins (again) not reflating the economy to help Labour win in 1970, resulting in Labour losing but giving the Heath government a stable inheritance. (which it proceded to piss away, but that's another story)

Edward Heath sacking Enoch Powell in 1968, alienating the racist working class vote but sending a signal that racism was unacceptable.

Clement Attlee going into the Korean War in 1950. Britain was only just recovering from bankruptcy and the war was extremely expensive, wrecking the government's spending programme and requiring the politically damaging imposition of NHS charges. However it let the USSR know that expansionism would be prevented multilaterally, and thereby helped stop a Third World War.

Oona King voting for the liberation of Iraq from Baathist tyranny in 2003, although knowing it would damage her own career.

Denis Healey not defecting to the SDP in 1981. Times were grim in the Labour Party in the early 1980s, and Healey would have been joined by many allies and left the Labour Party unelectable while making himself kingmaker for the centre. Instead he never saw office again (he would have loved to be Foreign Secretary).

JRD168 said...

Peel splitting the Tories over the Corn Laws? Bit of an old one granted!

skipper said...

Paul
I'd go back to Thomas Wentworth in 1641; obscure, I know, but stay with me. As Earl of Strafford, he had come to be seen as representative of a monarchy which was bitterly resented and insurrection was in the air in the preCivil War atmosphere. Parliament decided it wanted Wentowrth gone and passed a 'Bill of Attainder' to expedite this. The King hesitated before signing the death warrant but Wentworth, mindful of the monarch's delicate position, released him from any obligation with the words:
'I do most humbly beseech you, for the preventing of massacres as may happen by your refusal, to pass the bill' Wentworth was executed 12th May 1641; sacrificing his life to save the lives of others and the reputation of his king. It did the King little good, his head followed eight years later.

Paul Linford said...

Judging by the repies so far, I think RJ is well on the way to bein voted Britain's all-time most altruistic politician!

I agree with David about the 1970 pre-election budget. What was even more self-sacrificial about that from Jenkins' point of view is that he must have known that had Labour won that election, he would have been Prime Minister inside three years.

I disagree however about his other nominations. Heath was not harmed politically by taking a strong line against Powell - he won a general election less than two years later. Attlee only went into the Korean War because we were coming up to an election and, with Churchill as his opponent, he didn't want to be seen as soft on communism. Oona King is a careerist of the worst sort and voted for the Iraq War in the hope of ministerial preferment, no doubt calculating that she would still manage to hold on to her seat. And as for Denis Healey, while he did indeed take a stoical, self-sacrifical stand in staying in the Labour Party and fighting his corner (and Tony Benn), his career would not necessarily have prospered any more from joining the SDP than it did by remaining with Labour.

The Half-Blood Welshman said...

There's a very obvious one everyone has missed - Neville Chamberlain in 1940.

Chamberlain could have tried to continue as Prime Minister even after THAT vote in 1940 (he still had a majority of 80-odd and neither of the alternatives to him were acceptable to the House of Commons as a whole) and even after resigning, could have elected to sulk on the back benches like Heath and nurse his waning physical strength.

Instead he recognised the inevitable (that continuing as PM would divide the country when it desperately needed unity) resigned, and then agreed to serve as deputy to the man whose bungling over Norway had ended his premiership (Churchill) depsite the fact that he was dying of cancer at the time.

Chamberlain kept the House of Commons united (which it would not have been had he refused to serve under Churchill) and thus did his country a great service. But boy, it must have been hard.

Cameron goes easy on the PM said...

Surely the biggest act of altruism was when Cameron refuses to refer to Brown as a scottish one eyed, gargoyle, jew loving, gay, impotent, bottler who no one can understand.
The public need to be taught that Brown is perfrming terribly at PMQs. Everone in the know knows this Only the ignorant and uneducated are too stupid or ill to see this. He has no knowledge of PMQ etiquite. The public must leanr this.

Hopi Sen said...

Altruism is always the hardest to identify, especially in politics, after all, one mans altruism is another mans weakness!

A few possible nominations though- Lord Halifax declining to be considered as an alternative to Churchill in 40- he might well have got the Prime Ministership, but it would have been the wrong thing for the country.

Rab Butler, for his refusal to bring down the Conservative party over Douglas-Homes appontment as PM. He might well have been an inevitable PM if he'd threated to quit, but didn't.

Away from the front bench, I think there's a noble tradition of politicians who have sacrificed hopes of office to do something more worthwhile. it'd be a shame not to mention Wilberforce on slavery- or Humphrey Berkeley, who always believed he lost his seat over gay right. They both deserves a mention.

Stephen Rouse said...

John Major's refusal to play the race card in 1997, despite the prospect of electoral obliteration and pressure from within his own party. His parliamentary reproof of Nicholas Budgen provoked spluttering outrage from Boris Johnson and other commentators on the right. But Major, better than any leader of any party in our history, knew multicultural Britain and was not prepared to betray it for political advantage.