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Years after the Brexit vote, long after losing her majority in the House of Commons, and days before the extended Brexit date, the Prime Minister (Theresa May) is now talking to the Leader of the Opposition. To me this seems like an obvious move (if 3 years too late), but it is apparently controversial. In most European countries, it is normal to seek compromise and consensus; The Netherlands has the famous polder model and Germany has often been ruled by a coalition of the two main rival parties. Yet in Britain, a government based on consensus appears controversial: it took years for Theresa May to make this move and then still under considerable criticism, being accused of giving influence to pro-Remain politicians or "marxists", although the Labour Party scored 40% in the 2017 elections.

Why does a consensus-based approach appear to be so controversial in Britain?


In the words of EU vice-president Frans Timmermans interviewed in Die Welt:

„In welchem Land würde es fast drei Jahre dauern, dass eine Regierung, die sich nicht einig ist, mal daran denkt, in einer lebenswichtigen Frage mit der Opposition zusammenzuarbeiten? Das ist eigentlich unvorstellbar, dass das in Großbritannien erst jetzt passiert.“

My translation:

„In what country would it take nearly three years, before a government, that is not in agreement gets the idea to cooperate with the opposition on a vitally important issue? It is really incredible, that this is happening in [Great Britain] only now.”

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    This is a logical but difficult question. There are certainly historical reasons but I would argue that there was bad luck for the timing of the referendum. Not only the result was nearly 50/50, but it also seems to be transversal to all major parties (brexiters and remainers exist in both camps). Further there is also the bizarre situation of having a brexiter (?) leading mostly remainers in the labour party. Since no party has a clear majority it leaves its leadership very vulnerable to smaller in-party groups (like hard brexit supporters, and perhaps, full europhiles).
    – armatita
    Apr 3, 2019 at 15:28
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    @Gerrit No, not at all. It's the biggest issue today for sure, but does not justify all decisions. The UK is not unique in this situation. In fact I would argue that (but I have no scientific basis to support it) this is more common the more competitive the electoral systems are. Party consensus are fairly common in multi-winner systems, and less common in single winner systems (I think). Competitiveness often lead to situations where doing effective opposition is far more important than doing good opposition. The fact remains that labour (as a party) gains very little in helping the tories.
    – armatita
    Apr 3, 2019 at 15:51
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    You are using "consensus" where you should use "compromise" instead. en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/consensus
    – M i ech
    Apr 4, 2019 at 8:54
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    @Miech - Nothing wrong with using "consensus" here - May is seeking consensus with Corbyn.
    – AndyT
    Apr 4, 2019 at 9:00
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    @JJJ The UK could have negotiated with itself before invoking Article 50, so that it could have used the full two year period to negotiate with the EU-27. The sensible thing to do would have been to recognise the referendum result as an issue of vital national importance, seek consensus between parties (naturally losing the extremes of both main parties) and between constituent countries, then trigger Article 50 and take negotiations with EU-27 from there. See also Why did the UK trigger Article 50 before having a negotiation position?
    – gerrit
    Apr 5, 2019 at 7:15

7 Answers 7

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Press

"Freedom of the press in Britain means freedom to print such of the proprietor's prejudices that the advertisers don't object to"

Americans like to believe their press is neutral. In the UK, hardly anyone bothers to maintain this pretence, and the press are openly engaged as political factions. The press circulation is much larger than the membership of the political parties, and has an impact beyond its actual numbers in terms of influencing opinion.

The three largest papers are the Sun (owned by Murdoch's News Corp), the Daily Mail (owned by Viscount Rothermere), and the Times (News Corp again). All have a right-wing anti-Europe stance, and will happily print inaccurate articles about Europe. Boris Johnson got a particularly bad reputation for this while working as a journalist before he was a minister. He is still employed as a journalist, and is in fact paid more for that than his role as a Minister of the Crown.

The press benefit from controversy: it sells papers. Readers enjoy outrage bait that panders to their prejudices; a pre-internet version of the "fake news" problem.

Sidebar: the Spiked/LM axis

There is a small group of people who used to write for Living Marxism until it was sued out of existence for denying the Bosnian genocide, then formed a successor Spiked!. They seem to be surprisingly influential in the commentariat despite their small size, and despite the intellectual incoherency of having gone straight from revolutionary communism to libertarianism without passing through common sense on the way.

One of these people is Brendan O'Neill. Another is Claire Fox, now Baroness Fox of Buckley.

BBC Question Time

A similar story prevails here. What ought to be a discussion show has succumbed to the temptation of getting on the most extreme guests possible, provoking highly strung arguments, and letting planted audience members inject outrageous questions.

Edit: another example of the revolving door: the man who ran the BBC's political output during the Brexit campaign was later appointed as Theresa May's director of communications and is a "hard Brexiteer".

Culture: The Establishment

The leaders of the country overwhelmingly come from a very narrow educational background: private school followed by Oxford PPE. This produces people with a bulletproof opinion of their own correctness and practice in intellectual bullying.

Culture: Ruins of the Empire

This mostly manifests as a belief that Britain can "punch above its weight", and therefore does not need to engage in international compromise. While the influence of this in negotiations with Europe is obvious, I would argue that it also prevails internally. (This is easily a graduate-thesis size investigation!). It seems to me that the country is run centrally as a tiny empire. Councils have little power and little funding autonomy; council tax rates can be capped centrally, and they are dependent on "block grant". The relatively recent devolved assemblies also get little respect from Westminster; the Scotland Office and Wales Office still exist despite seeming redundancy. The Scotland Office has a substantial budget for anti-independence campaigning.

The situation is even worse in Northern Ireland, land of No Surrender, where there has been no government for about two years following its collapse over a fraud scandal. Compromise is even more foreign there. People tend to forget that the UK had a live-fire civil war in living memory, but I think that matters to the uncompromisingness.

Systems: First Past the Post

The voting system at Westminster discourages coalition or minority governments, so there is no tradition of sound coalition-forming by seeking consensus.

Edit: as a piece of metacommentary, this is the first time I've noticed an answer getting significant numbers of upvotes and downvotes. I am aware that it can be considered opinionated, but I think that's a symptom of the polarisation that leads to no consensus. Politically engaged people disagree on increasingly basic things.

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    @gerrit Endorsements are made by the editorial boards. There is a clear (if not always perfect) distinction between the news and editorial sides of the paper. Obviously, there is bias in all news (it's written by humans, after all), but that doesn't conflict with the claim that "Americans like to believe their press is neutral"
    – divibisan
    Apr 3, 2019 at 22:35
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    "Americans like to believe their press is neutral" I think its more like we'd like them to be neutral, not that we believe they are.
    – Andy
    Apr 4, 2019 at 1:28
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    On the topic of general elections, it's working pointing out how the Lib Dems were effectively wiped out in the house of commons after joining a coalition government. The public are evidently ready to punish MPs who make compromises with opposing parties.
    – Richard
    Apr 4, 2019 at 10:18
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    @Richard The Lib Dems were perceived as having failed to effect coalition policy in any way, having simply gone along with Tory policy in all areas except the AV referendum - which failed where a genuine option for proportional representation might not have. Nick Clegg just rolled over and capitulated to Cameron immediately, and a lot of the anger comes from people like myself who voted Lib Dem because we lived in wards where this was the best option to stop a Tory getting in.
    – AJM
    Apr 4, 2019 at 10:32
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    @Richard The point is that the Lib Dems didn't need to go into coalition. The most powerful politician in Westminster today isn't Teresa May, it's Arlene Foster. The Lib Dems could have kept their principles and been the kingmakers in a hung parliament. That would have had everyone working with compromises. Instead they decided to take the scraps Cameron threw them.
    – Graham
    Apr 5, 2019 at 0:57
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Most Prime Ministers don't need to seek consensus. The first past the post election system tends to produce parliaments with a clear majority for one party, the Prime Minister automatically the leader of the Majority Party. And since ministers are chosen from among MPs, they are mostly willing to vote the party line.

As most PMs don't need to seek consensus, to do so indicates that the PM is in a weakened state, in which she does not have a clear majority, and cannot get her own MPs to follow her directives in voting.

From a partisan point of view, doing a deal with the opposition is a form of betrayal, and this is why members of her party have criticised her for attempting to deal with Corbyn.

There is a further, more philosophical point: If the major parties agree on a consensus position, then there is no effective scrutiny or an real choice for the electorate. The opposition opposes a large amount of government business. This ensure that the acts of the government are closely examined by its opponents. In the situation in which a government forms a grand coalition is the parties reach a consensus, and there is nobody to tell them that it is wrong. When the election comes round, the parties either have to reject policies that they agreed to as part of the coalition (and appear hypocritical) or enter the election with very similar manifesto to their opponents.

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    This is an important point: The "most European countries" that the OP mentions are used to having coalitions and no strict "ruling party", to the point that some are ruled almost entirely by compromise. Spain, quite infamously, had a period around 2015-2016 where the various parties were so busy arguing and compromising with each other that no actual governance was getting done, with everything in a deadlock. Apr 4, 2019 at 12:22
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    Most PMs only need to seek consensus within their own party
    – Caleth
    Apr 4, 2019 at 15:25
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We did have consensus politics throughout much of the 20th century, despite enormous social changes and strains. There were consensus-based governments from 1914 under Lloyd-George and Asquith, then after the 1931 depression a 'national government' of all parties was formed and 'national' governments continued until WWII. In 1940, another consensus-based coalition was led by Winston Churchill with other parties.

Although Attlee (Labour) won in 1945, from that time onwards was a period of 'national consensus'. This meant that whoever won, Conservative or Labour - there was a broad agreement on certain issues like housing, healthcare, social security etc. This post-war consensus was ended by Thatcher in 1979 who had a different, harder ideological form of Conservatism to her predecessors. Now, a group of very vocal pro-Thatcherite extremists mostly aligned to groups like the ERG and Legatum are making any form of compromise or consensus impossible.

The problem is May called an election in 2017 to get a bigger majority and a mandate for a harder Brexit, but she didn't get one from the voters. Instead of realising she had no mandate and reaching out to find a consensus in Parliament for Brexit, she tried too hard to placate the extremists in her party and gave money to the Northern Irish DUP in return for support. She also put 'red lines' through the kind of Brexit that was discussed in the referendum and around anything that both sides could form a consensus around. This has led to two diametrically opposed sides to Brexit and years wasted in negotiations with the EU which ONLY cover the terms of leaving.

The divisions in Parliament are really indicative of the divisions in the country, neither side will compromise, each side is furious at the other and any sensible compromise route cannot find a workable majority.

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    It's still remarkable that the precipitating factor is always crisis, though. This remains odd to followers of other countries' political systems.
    – phoog
    Apr 4, 2019 at 14:35
  • This means that the country should split into separate parts where a compromis can be found in each part. Use the balkan model where you split people and force them to move somewhere along their ideological lines. Just do it without the war this time and consider "we can do a war and then the end point will be X, or we can do it without the killing and just all move".
    – paul23
    Apr 6, 2019 at 0:56
  • @paul23 This could be a possible outcome to all this, as I write this, it's too early to tell. But I could imagine Scotland separating from England/Wales to rejoin the EU or EFTA/EEA as an independent nation.
    – Frank
    Apr 8, 2019 at 6:52
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In addition to the other great answers, it's usual for politicians to continually denigrate their opposition.

Corbyn has been called a Marxist (!) and "dangerous", and that's just the milder stuff. The Tory party and Tory press have spent years demonizing him, so to cooperate with him now looks like doing a deal with the devil. They can't pivot fast enough.

Another worry is that Corbyn wants to be PM and will use the situation to further that goal.

There is also great suspicion from the Labour side that it's a trap, designed to spread blame for Brexit to the Labour party.

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    Well, Labour too voted for the triggering of article 50.
    – JJJ
    Sep 9, 2019 at 12:31
  • @JJJ they did, but in their manifesto in 2017 they promised to get "the exact same benefits" as membership and dramatically increased their share of the vote on that basis, forcing the Tories into a minority government backed by the DUP.
    – user
    Sep 10, 2019 at 9:38
  • Of course, all Brexiteers promised things would be better (at least in some aspects), otherwise it would just be a waste of everyone's time. My point is that a lot of them voted for triggering Brexit some years from then without having a clear strategy. As for the blame in your last sentence, one might argue those who voted for triggering article 50 without having a strategy are too blame as their actions have consequences. Of course the same can be said about those who voted in the referendum, but those are laymen as opposed to professional politicians.
    – JJJ
    Sep 10, 2019 at 9:49
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Yet in Britain, a government based on consensus appears controversial.

This statement draws far too broad a conclusion from a single anecdote. There are myriad issues upon which consensus decisions are made every year in Britain. But, usually these are on issues upon which there was a consensus in the first place, or upon which nobody had strong positions staked out in the most recent round of elections.

If anything, there is consensus on a broader array of issues in Britain both now and historically, than, for example, in the U.S. or France. For example, from 1931-1940, the U.K. was run by an all party coalition known as the National Government, to address a clear and present crisis (while the U.S. merely ended up with partisan dominant party rule by the Democratic Party in the Great Depression and Weimar Germany started out with a greatly divided partisan mix in parliament).

What makes this particular issue different is that it has a history of being highly partisan and divisive. Brexit split the U.K. almost 50-50 in the last referendum. It was a close vote and the political parties in parliament were divided on the issue (in addition to intraparty conflict on the issue).

Therefore, seeking out a broad coalition implicitly means that a lot of the people in the coalition have reversed themselves with respect to prior promises made to get them elected on that issue. This comes across as something of a breach of trust and so it is controversial.

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  • To call the national government of 1931-1940 "all-party" is somewhat misleading. The Labour party split over it, and there were far fewer National Labour MPs than "original" Labour MPs. Apr 5, 2019 at 8:04
  • Yet you only need to seek out a current majority: dealing with brexit can be separate of -say- dealing with healthcare. That's the whole idea of making compromises: sometimes you get what you want sometimes you don't, and you deal with different people at different times.
    – paul23
    Apr 6, 2019 at 0:59
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Taking a point out of your question: Mind that in the German system's need for compromise not only comes from the recent tendency on "big coalitions" between CDU/CSU and SPD in the Bundestag but also from the second chamber, the Bundesrat.

In the Bundesrat each state's government has votes which they can only use together (i.e. if a state is having a coalition government they can't split the votes)

For many bills agreement by the Bundesrat is needed, thus even if a party had majority in the Bundestag they still need to cooperate with the majorities in the state governments.

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Consensus isn't controversial.

The complaints about Theresa May meeting with Jeremy Corbyn are from people in their respective parties who think that their own party's position is right and the other party's position is wrong. To such a person, "consensus" means "doing something that's less right and more wrong."

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    On the other hand, isn't doing nothing more wrong that the consensus? Even in the eyes of those people?
    – JJJ
    Apr 4, 2019 at 16:23
  • Consensus is the whole idea of adding water to the wine, so yes you won't get the perfect solution (for you). But you get a solution everyone is fine with. So those people are basically against consensus on this topic. "My way or the highway" is the opposite of consensus.
    – paul23
    Apr 6, 2019 at 1:01
  • The Belfast Agreement (Good Friday Agreement) is an example of consensus, and it took a very long time and a lot of pain to reach, but it shows that the concept is known in a part of the UK (even if one party to the consensus doesn't want to be part of the UK).
    – gerrit
    Apr 7, 2019 at 17:26
  • @JJJ In this case, both sides want to do nothing. The Remain side wants to do nothing and stay in the EU. The hard core Leave side wants to do nothing and leave the EU without a deal. It's only the people in the middle that want to do something other than nothing. Nothing is by far the most popular choice. They just disagree on what exactly doing "nothing" means.
    – Brythan
    Jun 12, 2019 at 2:26
  • @Brythan no. Staying in the EU requires action on the UK part: withdraw article 50 letter, minimise damage (e.g. EMA and EBA leaving). Leaving per hardcore leavers suggestion also requires massive action: negotiating trade-deals with the rest of the world. Liam Fox has been sent around the world over the past few years but he hasn't come back with anything more substantial than promises.
    – JJJ
    Jun 12, 2019 at 3:30

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