“The Greatest Political Party on Earth” – Prime Ministerial hyperbole

Chris Game

Reader alert!  This blog’s sole excuse is its loose topicality. Its connection with local government, certainly, is tenuous in the extreme, and needs rationalising right away.

My chief role in INLOGOV, throughout most of my time as a full-time employee, was as Convenor of its undergraduate degree, latterly entitled the BSc in Public Policy, Government & Management. When we launched its predecessor in the early 1980s, ICT was in its youth, if not infancy. PowerPoint presentations, when they arrived, were seriously challenging, and one was constantly looking out for new IT developments that might illustrate current events and generally enhance the student learning experience.

The technology left me behind years ago, but the fascination with entertaining visual aids remained. Meanwhile, we quickly learnt that casually deployed, but now much more easily checkable, references and assertions, particularly superlatives, were a gift to the evolving technology. I was naturally aroused, therefore, by our new PM’s extraordinary phraseology in acknowledging her leadership victory: “Thank you for putting your faith in me to lead our great Conservative Party, the greatest political party on Earth.”

Never mind that she hadn’t had the faith of even half of that party’s modest-sized 170,437-member electorate.  Why the senseless GPPoE bit?  ‘Oldest PPoE’ might just have worked – by treating the C17th Tory Party’s demise in the 1830s and 1840s as an evolution, rather than dissolution, into the Conservative Party.

‘Great’, though – definitionally, etymologically – is chiefly and initially about large size. But accuracy, etymology, or even common sense clearly aren’t what Liz Truss is about, and I half-thought, therefore, of trying to make a blog out of it.

At that point, though, I hadn’t fully grasped, in addition, the extreme limitation of the Truss vocabulary, and there was suddenly more material to work with: the PM’s apparently considered evaluation, to her fellow MPs, of the late Queen as “one of the greatest leaders the world has ever known”.

Apart from the “one of”, no qualification or explication in sight. No “constitutional”, or “peacetime”, or even “modern-day”. Not “one of the world’s most recognisable faces”, possibly after Hitler. Or one of the most photographed. Not even one of the greatest women leaders, which would get rid of all those tricky men – Jesus Christ, Muhammad, Buddha, Confucius, Gandhi, Einstein, Mandela and the rest of the usual crew.

Actually, “one of the greatest women leaders” might at least have generated some informative debate. Elizabeth II’s chief competition would then have been merely Elizabeth I (obviously), Russia’s Catherine the Great, Austria’s Maria Theresa, and, with perhaps 30 seconds Googling, probably Ancient Egypt’s Pharoah Hatshepsut, and China’s C19th Empress Dowager Cixi.

If there really has to be a QEII superlative, there’s possibly “the most recognisable face in the world”. “Head of the world’s most effective democratic monarchy” could have done – interesting, and still a pretty big deal – but might have required a few seconds’ thought. And, pleasingly, that’s just what it got – even including a superlative. Not from Truss, but from local government, or, more specifically, LGIU Chief Executive, Jonathan Carr: “Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II – our country’s greatest public servant”.

Sadly, though, it seems we’re simply going to have to get used to these ludicrous hyperboles as a Truss ‘thing’, though hopefully, PLEASE, not on a twice weekly basis. Meanwhile, back to her “greatest political party on Earth”, and, while there’s no knowing what, if anything much, she may have had in mind, it almost certainly wasn’t anything measurable or internationally comparable.

‘Great’, though, remains in the first instance a size adjective; so, as they say, needs must. Membership size of national parties is one of the many countable phenomena nowadays measured and compared – skilfully, entertainingly, and literally movingly by YouTube Ranking Charts. Other providers are available, but in my limited, amateurish judgement, these are the most comprehensive, user-friendly, and have the better background music tracks.

I’m a fan, and, were I still lecturing, the charts would be an early student recommendation. Not, sadly, in most cases for any immediate relevance to the world of local government, but for their sheer fun – and, by my reckoning, the products of often quite impressive research. 

The above link will get you to a whole catalogue of charts, usually headed by the ever popular ‘Top 10 Largest Armies in the World, 1816-2021’, which will serve as a brief illustration – yes, that’s 205 years of annual rankings, Napoleon to Putin.  Actually, Putin would be dead envious. In 1816 Russia’s 800,000 ‘Active Military Personnel’ easily outnumbered the world’s next four largest armies – the UK (255,000), Austrian Empire, France and Prussia – combined.

A century later in WWI we had 4.4 million troops, behind only the German Empire, Russia and France, and in WWII that increased to over 5 million – modest compared to the US and the Soviet Union (10 million+), but comparable to Nazi Germany and Japan, and, unsurprisingly, way ahead of France.

We finally dropped off the Top 10 chart altogether in 1963, as eventually did France in 1991. And today, if you were wondering … Russia’s I million+ troops rank them in a rather modest 5th place, behind China 2.1 mill., India 1.5 mill., the US 1.4 mill., and North Korea 1.3 mill.

Apologies for that even further digression. Back to “the greatest political party on Earth” – by registered party membership. The principle is the same as for ‘Largest Armies’ – annually reported, with the totals, bar lengths and positions constantly changing, starting here in 1950, rather than 1816; checked and validated as much as possible, which explains the present-day absence of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. Missing too is the UK Conservative Party – because, well, you can guess from all the other figures running into the several millions how far down the list its 172,437 would be.

To summarise: largest parties in 1950 were the US Democrats and Republicans (7.2 and 6.5 million members respectively), followed by the Communist Party of China (CCP) (6.5m) and the Indian National Congress. Not making the chart, but impressive in their way, the Conservatives’ membership would have been in the high 2 millions (including at least my father, not sure about mother) with Labour, excluding affiliated TU members, around 1 million.

Within two years the CCP had overtaken both US parties individually, and by the mid-1970s both combined. By 2019 it had 90,000 members, the two US parties 77,000 between them.  All three combined, however, had long since been massively overtaken by India’s Baratiya Janata Party (BJP), Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist party.

Founded in a 1970s multi-party merger, the BJP had grown gradually, topping 5 million members for the first time in 1993, compared to the Indian National Congress Party’s 13 million. By 2002, however, its then 15 million members had overtaken the Congress Party, following which it grew fast and steadily, reaching 38 million in 2006, overtaking the Chinese Communist Party’s 78 million in 2010, and in 2014, with 129 million members sweeping to national power under Modi, who remains PM today.  

And that, Prime Minister, is what the currently “Greatest Political Party on Earth” looks like.

Chris Game is an INLOGOV Associate, and Visiting Professor at Kwansei Gakuin University, Osaka, Japan.  He is joint-author (with Professor David Wilson) of the successive editions of Local Government in the United Kingdom, and a regular columnist for The Birmingham Post.

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