IN MY VIEW: Somerton and Frome MP David Warburton on how principles role in politics has evolved

A few decades ago, politics and principles were usually one and the same. In the red corner, being towelled down and swigging on a water bottle, sat mighty State Socialism. And limbering up on the ropes in the blue corner was the colossus of Free-Market Capitalism. As the bell sounded at election time they’d barrel out of their corners, smash together and trade punches; one or two below the belt; a jab here, a right hook there.

Meanwhile outside the ring, the electorate were ferociously partisan. There were very few shades of grey back then. Either you were red or you were blue. 

Around the time I took my first teetering baby-steps, political party membership was ubiquitous. It’s true, the Liberal Party was at a bit of a low ebb with, as now, just a handful of parliamentary seats; a decline which wouldn’t be reversed until the SDP-Liberal Alliance in the 1980s. But the Labour Party brandished a membership of almost a million, and the Conservative Party stood with nearly three million paid-up members.

In those days – and for decades thereafter - each party seemed set on a firm mission. A clear philosophy and purpose. An obvious rationale which sent a luminous signal to those who might lend it their support.

You didn’t so much choose which party to vote for, as look hard in the mirror and measure your own disposition. Based on the sort of person you found gazing back, you then knew which party to stick with. It was a matter of belief. Policies and manifestos could be ephemeral: nothing more than temporary notes pinned to a noticeboard. It was the hand that wrote them – the permanent principles behind - that mattered. 

Oh, how things have changed. Now the National Trust has eight times as many members as all our political parties combined and, you’ll recall, the last General Election was fought broadly over a procession of single policy commitments rather than underlying rudimentary principles.

You see the thing is, a manifesto pledge is only one possible expression of its underlying principles. So it’s short-lived and transitory. It’s only a tiny part of the story, where actually the whole narrative is so much more meaningful. Your marketing team might shout, “sell the sizzle, not the sausage”, but they’ve been ignored.

With the forthcoming EU referendum, many curious people, quite understandably, feel that they lack the necessary tools with which to make an informed decision. And they suspect that the facts coming from both sides of the debate are not to be trusted. They’re right, of course. 

But perhaps the facts - those fanciful, notional statistics, dreamed-up by each side; those hallucinations designed to strike joy or fear – aren’t really the point. 

The real point lies with the underlying principles. Where do we really stand in relation to the EU and where do we feel we could stand? And what would a change - if that’s what the mirror calls for - achieve for us all?