Whither Compromise

When John F. Kennedy said in his inaugural address “Let us never negotiate out of fear. But let us never fear to negotiate” he was stating one of the most basic political truths, which is that there are always differing and often contradictory views on everything and that, outside of an outright dictatorship, the only way to get things done is to achieve a compromise. There have always been, and probably always will be, two diametrically opposed political philosophies, described so eloquently by Ben Okri in “The Famished Road” as “The Party of the Rich” and “The Party of the Poor.” On one hand we have the libertarian, right-wing, elitist idea that, given free rein, certain talented individuals can enrich themselves and by so doing not only do they lift the average but by employing people and supplying more or less useful goods and services the whole population benefits. On the other hand we have the socialist, left-wing, progressive view that everyone is of equal worth and has talents to contribute; those with entrepreneurial and managerial talents may in some cases work harder and/or risk more and so may deserve somewhat greater reward but kept within bounds and, on the whole, they are simply contributing to the general well being of society like everyone else.

The compromise between these two positions, the so-called centre ground of politics, is not a fixed position. It has no real accompanying philosophy apart from a mish-mash of the two opposites. Instead it emerges from current political thought and action, and it constantly shifts as attitudes, personalities and parties change. Historically, particularly in the “western” democracies, the story has been of a gradual move leftward, though with some, sometimes extended, periods moving back rightwards. When a party tries to move toward the centre for what they deem to be electoral advantage, the actual effect is that real centre, the average, moves as well. When Tony Blair and his chums decided to move the Labour Party towards the centre, a move to the right, the centre itself also moved rightwards with the result that the Tory party, without making any change, actually appeared closer to the centre. With the proviso exemplified by Achilles and the Tortoise, the end result can be much larger shifts as one party or another chases the moving target of the centre ground.

There is a myth that “the electorate”, in so far as such an thing exists as an entity in its own right, occupies this centre ground. It is a myth. Firstly because electors follow a wide ranging variety of beliefs, so for them the centre is just as much an average as it is for political theorists. Secondly because most people accept that there are a wide variety of opinions and possible courses of action, and they expect politicians to negotiate, make the necessary compromises and just get on with the job of running the country. That does not mean that they all believe in that compromise as the ideal policy.

In many countries, with a system of Proportional Representation, governments can only be formed as coalitions. Often one party may stay as a small part of the government through elections, forming different coalitions. This makes for continuity and a consistent set of policies with less variation when the largest parties change. In the United Kingdom, and other countries with a “First Past the Post” system, one party will often have sole control and will only have to compromise with its own internal factions. This results in much wider swings when control changes, wasted time and effort as incoming governments seek to undo the policies put in place by their predecessors and governments that attempt to introduce sweeping radical changes very quickly to try and avoid being dismantled at the end of their tenure.

This brings me to the core of my argument about when and where to compromise, given that it is an essential part of political life. When there are a small number of political parties, in the worst case a one-party state or, almost as bad, a two-party system, then it is inevitable that each party covers a wide spectrum of views and attitudes. When the time comes to present a unified manifesto, or to actually govern as a single party government, then in order not to be seen as divided and inconsistent they have to agree on a common set of views and attitudes, a compromise or an average. This means that most likely every member of that party will actually be presenting and promoting policies with which they do not wholeheartedly agree. It is no surprise that politicians are viewed with such a high level of distrust! Because each policy is a compromise the arguments continue and as circumstances and power structures change different compromises emerge and so the policies actually implemented may differ, often a great deal, from those presented. This is another cause for distrust and the end result is that people are discouraged from taking part in the political process and, as we see, the turnout at elections falls. If, on the other hand, we have a larger number of small parties, then each party can be consistent, it can propose policies in which all its members believe and everyone will know what they are voting for. When the inevitable coalition occurs the members of each party can still openly argue for their own set of beliefs. Of course compromise will still be necessary but the process will be a lot more open. The electors will see that their representatives have maintained their position and remain trustworthy. The compromise at the end will be seen as one that is necessary to get something done, not as a means to get elected. C.S.Lewis said “Do not let us mistake necessary evils for good.” The compromise that achieves some positive result, even if each individual involved does not see it as the ideal that they want, is indeed necessary, even a necessary evil, but it is possible to allow it to happen and still maintain the honesty and integrity of those involved if it happens at the right time and in the right place.






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