The Voice of the Backbenchers. The 1922 Committee.

Author:Levy, Gary
Position:Book review

The Voice of the Backbenchers. The 1922 Committee by Philip Norton, Conservative History Group, London, 2013, 86p.

Canada and the United Kingdom supposedly share a similar form of government known as the Westminster Model but the argument can be made that we follow it in name only. The reason is not our federal constitution or the limits on parliamentary sovereignty imposed by the Canadian Charter and the Supreme Court or any other obvious constitutional distinction.

The real differences are more subtle and take the form of various practices and attitudes that have kept Parliament a central part of the British approach to governance (the debate on Syria being one recent example) while the Canadian version seems to sink lower and lower in public esteem.

One unique British institution is the 1922 Committee. It consists of all Conservative private members in the House of Commons. When in Opposition this includes everyone except the Leader and when in Government includes all the party backbenchers.

Philip Norton is one of Britain's most prolific parliamentary scholars and since 1998 a member of the House of Lords where he sits as Lord Norton of Louth. In this little book he outlines the history of the 1922 Committee, its structure, operation and its importance in British politics.

The 1922 Committee survived because in its early years it was seen as a neutral forum for conveying information to members and, at times, serving to rally support for leaders like Baldwin in 1931. It was during the Second World War that the Committee became more of a force for policy, taking issue with various policies supported by the war coalition on matters of coal rationing and wages for example.

The Committee also developed its independent reputation by inviting speakers who were not Conservatives to address the committee. Clement Attlee, the Labour Leader, was even invited to speak to the Committee at one point.

Following the Suez crisis in 1956 the Committee began to focus more on leadership. Under Prime Minister Heath

Tory MPs began to vote against the government in greater numbers, on more occasions, and with greater effect that ever before in the 20th century. (p.20). The government suffered six defeats, three of them on three line whip. Following his loss of the 1974 general election Mr. Heath tried to get his supporters elected to the executive of the 1922 Committee in order to stop the internal criticism. Their defeat was the first step in a process that...

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