British political life at the present moment seems peculiarly fissiparous.footnote Four major parties are competing for the popular franchise (in Wales and Scotland five) where previously there were two, and there is an amoeba-like growth of minorities and tendencies within the parties themselves. With the rise of the Alliance, Labour can no longer claim monopoly rights as the Party of ‘conscience and reform’, nor Conservatives enjoy undisputed hegemony in the outer suburbs—a heartland of their electoral support ever since the rise of the modern Party system.footnote1 Party organization is increasingly molecular in character, with competing centres of influence rather than a clearly marked hierarchy of command. At the top there is no ‘magic circle’ from which leaders can emerge, as Mr Gaitskell did in the Labour Party of the 1950s, Lord Hume in 1963, or Mr Thorpe in 1967; while at the base, in the constituency associations, there is a far more assertive sense of autonomy and rights. The Labour Party tolerates degrees of indiscipline that would have been unthinkable in the days when Herbert Morrison swept the steps of Transport House, and its decision-making processes are almost as dispersed as those of the Liberals.footnote2 At all points on the political compass there is a secularization of loyalties, a vertical disintegration of authority, a Balkanization of thought.

The Communist Party has split for the first time in sixty-five years of existence, its frail barque threatening to capsize under what, by comparison with the tempests of the past, must seem the merest squall—the wording of an article in Marxism Today. The Labour Party too has experienced its first decisive schism. Ramsay MacDonald, in his celebrated defection of 1931, took with him a mere handful of supporters, his ‘National Labour’ party becoming no more than a temporary convenience to his Conservative masters. But the Social Democratic breakaways of 1981–82 must now be acknowledged, even by those (like the present writer) hostile to them, as a genuine political secession which has peeled off generational layers of the professional classes—the parallel secessions from the Fabian Society, and its difficulties in coping with them, are indicative of the magnitude of the effect—while in the longer term it has proved seriously damaging in many erstwhile Labour strongholds.footnote3 The trade unions, apparently untouched by the tremors of 1981–82 (though the secretary of the etu, not then ennobled, was a signatory to the original Council for Social Democracy appeal), have recently succumbed to divisions of their own making, with a dramatic intensification of sectional rivalries and serious threats of both individual and collective defections. At the Blackpool tuc rippling hostilities on the conference floor found expression in angry charges of treachery, and counter-threats of secession. After lumbering peacefully through 120 years of British history, and negotiating such pitfalls as the New Unionism of the 1890s, ‘Direct Action’ and the General Strike, the tuc has been threatened for two successive years with a prospect of imminent break-up. For its part, the Conservative Party seems more seriously divided than at any time since Munich on policy matters. Behaviourally it is threatening to blow apart, with right-wing students throwing over the traces and blossoming out as seaside hooligans, Ulster Unionists accusing it of treachery and Elder Statesmen of sell-out. In the Centre there are now two major parties—the Liberals and the sdp—instead of one, and though at the time of writing they are working together in electoral amity, their personalities, constituencies and ethos seem likely to grow more, not less distinct (the incipient division between modernizers and greens may well scythe both in two). The leader of Plaid Cymru, bravely nailing socialism to the Party’s mast-head, finds himself at war with his constituents, the farmers of North and West Wales. Even the Workers Revolutionary Party has split. Founding Fathers, whether on the Right or Left of the political spectrum, are experienced as an embarrassment, an incubus to escape from rather than an authority to invoke.

There has been a quite extraordinary mushrooming of inner-party groups. On the ultra-Left—the dissidence of Dissent—a dozen ‘vanguard’ parties, and as many tendencies and groups, compete for the honour of leading a non-existent revolutionary working class,footnote4 while on the wilder shores of life-style politics fragmentation and separatism grow. The Communist Party is becoming as faction-ridden as the Liberals, as Byzantine in intrigue as the Tories, and as Aesopian in its in-fighting terminologies.footnote5 In the Labour Party there is no longer a united Left, as there was in the 1920s, when visionaries, idealists and impossibilists grouped around the ilp, or as there was in the years of the Cold War, when a more or less solid bloc of constituency Parties and MPs campaigned for a ‘socialist’ foreign policy. Today the Labour Party is honeycombed with competing factions and groups.footnote6 The so-called ‘Hard Left’—like the mobilizing committees which preceded it—is an ad hoc alliance of radically different tendencies which, perhaps symptomatically, has recently lost the support of its most popular public figure, Ken Livingstone. In the Conservative Party oppositional tendencies are quite unable to form a common front. The succession struggle of 1975 still festers on, ten years after it was ostensibly settled; Centre Forward is no sooner formed than it falls apart; and there is a spectacular division between the mainly Heathite (or Priorite) Young Conservatives and the punk right-wingers of the Federation of Conservative Students.

Political identities, then, are incomparably more fragmented than in the past, political loyalties more divided, political commitments more provisional. The electorate—in trade union elections now, as previously in contests for parliament and local government—is notoriously unpredictable, though the political scientists tell us that this has more to do with selectivity and discrimination in a widening field of choice than with ‘fickleness’ or ‘volatility’.footnote7 A political party is no longer a stable formation, ‘something’ (as Graham Wallas defined it) ‘that can be loved and trusted, and which can be recognized at successive elections as being the same thing that was loved and trusted before.’footnote8 On the contrary, it seems nowadays to be a chameleon, changing both in character and kind from one decade to the next. Even when the organizational forms remain the same, the complexion of a party seems liable to alter out of all recognition—not only its leaders and policy but also its members and activists. Old Communists complain that their party has been hijacked by strangers, Conservatives that theirs has got into the wrong hands; Labour veterans plaintively appeal for the ‘real’ Labour Party to re-emerge. A party these days is not a church for collective worship, but rather a thoroughfare for people on their way to somewhere else, an empty space to be colonized by settlers, or—in the metaphor which launched the sdp—an aircraft waiting to take off. In the case of the Centre parties one might describe it—taking up David Steel’s reference to the Quakers at this year’s Liberal Conference—as a meeting-house where the faithful mingle together, thinking their own private thoughts, worshipping their own private myths. On the left it is an arena for contending interests, a congregation of simmering doubts. On the right it is a gathering of rival courts.

Ideologically, the political parties are increasingly hybrid, no longer corresponding to any well-defined constituency of thought or system of belief. Each makes up its programme from fragments, and there is a great deal of intercommuning between them. What passes for socialism nowadays, is very often liberal progressivism under another name—as, say, in current campaigns for minority rights, or against racial and sexual discrimination; likewise contemporary Conservatism is apt to be a promiscuous mix of radical individualism with more traditional Tory doctrines such as the belief in original sin. Statism is disavowed right across the political spectrum, decentralization acclaimed. All parties adopt a rhetoric of modernization. Pluralism is a universal value: whatever the good society, it will allow us to go our separate ways and be our several selves.