Enough of the politics of Punch and Judy
Posted on July 5, 2014
This article was first published in The Huffington Post
The current UK coalition government has worked remarkably well. Everyone I speak to who is not personally embedded in the political process seems to agree. Yet there are calls from parts of the grass roots of both governing parties to abandon the coalition. Why? And are they the right calls?
Governments are about overseeing the building of the kind of society in which we want to live. Getting there is a long term, winding process involving ever changing circumstances and priorities. It should also be a dialectic process that involves, discussion and negotiation among different values, alternative world views and competing priorities. In spite of the posturing of zealots, where we want to go is never obvious, and neither is the optimal route to getting there. In the UK, the tradition has been largely one of single party government. This has been praised as the best way of ‘getting things done.’ The reality is different. The system results in progress by zig-zag. One political philosophy dominates for a period driving society in a defined direction. After a while we tire of the incumbents and a different, often opposing, political philosophy prevails. To prove that they deserved election and that they represent the opportunity for change, the new incumbents change direction. They unpick some of what was done before and try to drive the country towards a different destination. Every few years, this process repeats itself making the whole process seem like a sailing boat that has to tack this way then that in order to make slow and inefficient forward progress. It is also a system that generates a Punch and Judy politics – adversarial theatre that often descends into the absurd and the pointless. A politics where good sense, compromise and respectful discussion and negotiation are portrayed as signs of weakness.
These politics are not only socially but also economically harmful. Business has to cope with endless and largely unpredictable changes in direction. As in highly volatile financial markets, those who benefit are not those trying steadily to build a sustainable, long term future but those who devise ways merely to exploit the volatility without having to bother to create any value.
The politics of coalition are different. They embed the dialectic process on which democracy thrives within the very fabric of government. Discussion, negotiation, compromise and the examination of alternative world views becomes part of the process of governing. Where it works well, as in countries like Germany and the Netherlands, it provides a path for progress with less volatility. We also see the positive results from the current UK coalition. A Conservative government would have been unlikely to introduce Liberal Democrat policies like the highly successful apprenticeship programme or the £10,000 income tax exemption. Similarly, the Liberal Democrats have had to move away from some of their own policies that may not have been appropriate. And more no doubt happened behind the scenes. We are not privy to the difficult discussions that must have gone on following the Snowden revelations but one suspects that their nature might have been different in the absence of a coalition government.
Yet a few party members on both sides want their party to abandon the coalition. They choose to portray a dialectic process as an abandonment of principle rather than as a useful way of finding a better way forward. It’s as if to say “We have different viewpoints. Let’s not discuss them, learn from each other, find ways ahead and accept that we don’t always get everything we would like. Let’s just take our ball and petulantly walk off the playground.” It is to both leaders’ credit that the coalition will not be abandoned this side of the election.
But there is hope. The arithmetic of the next election is such that another coalition government is all but inevitable. While the larger parties hate the idea and do their utmost to pretend this is not the case, both business leaders and ordinary citizens should welcome the prospect. This is not to say that we should not encourage a plurality of political philosophies and descend into a bland centrism. Neither should we abandon the process of energetic political debate. But maybe we can slowly learn to get past governance by zig-zag, reduce the entrenched political volatility that damages our society and our economy and learn how to embed meaningful and respectful, if difficult, discussion as a continuous process within the very fabric of government rather than as simply a game of ping pong to be played out once every five years.