World o’ Words: The Party Whip, For Better Parties

The Mother of Parliaments has descended into a state of chaos.

“Things fall apart, the centre cannot hold

“Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world …”

That’s right — the House of Commons in Westminster, UK, is coming unglued. Venerable British political parties are breaking apart under the centripetal force of the United Kingdom’s Brexit crisis. Members of Parliament are quitting their parties in disgust, to sit as independents. They’re resigning the whip.

I saw the Whip (with a Capital w), the demonic king of all whips, in the Naval Museum in Greenwich a few years back. The Cat O’ Nine Tails, a fearsome instrument of discipline, with its multiple cords teased into knots, designed to flog a misbehaving sailor’s flesh from his backbone while he was lashed to the mainmast. How could a device like this become a metaphor for anything but inhumanity, pain and cruelty?

Aha! “Whip” has taken on a political connotation, for use in democratic institutions in the United Kingdom, Canada, and the U.S. Senate, to mean party discipline and solidarity.

So, for instance, the opposition Labour Party in the Westminster House of Commons wants its members to vote against Prime Minister Theresa May’s Brexit deal with the European Union. And so, “Labour will whip its members to vote no.”

I read a sentence like that, my mind’s eye pictures crowds of frightened Labour MPs, bleating like sheep, running fearfully into the “No” voting lobby, while Labour’s Chief Whip and Junior Whips drive them forward, brandishing Cats O’ Nine Tails. Democracy gone mad!

This scenario, of course, only applies in the case of a “three-line whip,” issued by the party leadership. A one-line whip is an expression of a party’s position or policy on an issue to its members. A two-line whip, sometimes known as a double-line whip, is an instruction to attend and vote, partially binding for voting according to the party’s position. A three-line whip is a firm instruction to vote, act or follow suit, according to the leadership’s line.

If you as an MP don’t want to do that, and want to vote differently, you might have to “resign the whip.” As a backbencher, that generally means you have to quit the party. A cabinet minister would have to quit cabinet to vote against the government’s instructions, and likely face further party discipline. That might not go so for as having you lashed to the mainmast, and having the Cat applied to your back, but …

Well, as it turned out, the political term isn’t actually descended from whips like the Cat O’Nine Tails per se, but has rather evolved from fox hunting — the whippers-in, who were those servants of the hunt whose job was to keep the packs of hounds grouped together during the chase. Can’t have a hound getting distracted by some squirrel off by the hedgerow, or wandering off to lift its leg over some wayside country stile. No sir — mere anarchy would be loosed upon the hunt. Got to keep those hounds focussed on pursuing the fleeing fox. Tally ho, what!

I suppose fox hunting is a gentler metaphor for parliamentary democracy — that engine for the collective good of society — than whips like the Cat O’ NineTails, an instrument used to enforce obedience by causing great pain.

But perhaps the latter is more accurate. Look at the kerfluffle in Ottawa, with the Liberal Party of Canada voting to expel the former Attorney General Jody Wilson-Raybould from its caucus. Is the Liberal Party Whip instructing caucus members how to vote? Is that more like fox hunting, or more like a savage beating at sea?

This Party Whip must be a tough as nails customer. I can imagine him or her throwing a recalcitrant MP up against the wall — “Let me make myself clear: You’re going to vote this way. Understood?” But back in my young man days, a Party Whip was that awesome individual we were all waiting for to arrive at our parties. “If you’re gonna throw that party, make sure you invite R —. He’ll whip your party into shape.”

The Party Whip whips party-goers into a heightened state of enthusiasm. He or she pours out drinks with a heavier hand, tells irrepressible jokes that have party-goers laughing so hard they’re gasping for air. If things start to slack off, the Party Whip throws a lampshade on his or her head and reels around the room, inciting much merriment. And when your guests finally stagger home at dawn’s first light, they’re all saying to themselves, “What a swell party that was!”

In this way, our fun parties serve as a bright mirror to the not so fun voting parties held in parliaments.

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