Friday, 25 September 2009

Is a proposal for a government of national unity for ten years such a bizarre idea?

By Tim

The UK has some pretty serious problems. But surely the idea of a government of national unity-conjuring up images of wartime as it does- is going a bit too far? Isn’t it all a bit overly dramatic and apocalyptic sounding? And anyway, what’s wrong with PR? I’m going to go out on a limb and say I don’t think it is an over- reaction and that in the short term it is actually preferable and more do-able than PR. It has been mentioned already by the journalist and blogger Xan Philips and even Guardian columnist Michael White, although I'm going to employ slightly different arguments for it.

Here’s why I think the circumstances are so special that we can’t afford ten years or two terms of politics as usual. If all went well, we’d be able to return to that later, in 2020, if we really wanted to.

1. Global capitalism -while not inherently bad- has become too complex, too quickly, for any one political party to be believed when they say they know how to manage the profound implications it has for our economy and for our way of life. It will take ten years to properly understand it and get to grips with the challenges it presents (including the current crisis), by which time our economy may be in irrevocable decline.

2. In parallel, rapid changes in consumerism, media , technology and the cultural, sexual and ethnic mix of our cities have transformed our lives so utterly, that there is now an unprecedented gap between the life experiences of one generation and the next.

Approaches to managing these social revolutions fall far beyond the usual Labour-Conservative divide. In fact it is responses to these problems that are most emotive and create the most bad blood within the parties themselves. The gap between Conservatives who are both economically and socially liberal on the one hand, and economically liberal but socially conservative on the other, is probably wider and more rife with personal animosity than the gap between socially liberal Labour and Tory supporters.

3. We have a short space of time in which to prevent catastrophic climate change which would severely degrade the lifestyles of our grandchildren when they grow up and possibly lead to mass death being inflicted on their grandchildren a few decades later. We either take steps now or it’ll all be over within two terms of office.

And those steps are political dynamite.

The carbon emission cuts required mean that we will need to succeed in the biggest transformation in our economy and lifestyles since the industrial revolution, all in a matter of ten years- two terms. Government will have to persuade or compel voters to spend thousands a year on things they don’t want (such as insulation) and which may seem to offer them no gratification in their lifetime, as well as to change the way they shop and holiday. Where is this kind of measure written about in the books that have always informed Labour and Conservative ideology? And how exactly are parties going to resist the temptation to make political capital out of this, thereby endangering the entire process?

4. The free movement of populations the world over, combined with sometimes valid post colonial resentment and unprecedented free access to technology, mean that we have a tiny number of religious fanatics living here legally who are intent on, and potentially capable of, causing catastrophic damage to our cities. A larger number are able to move freely to plot and support these attacks either in failed states or-in countries such as Pakistan- in provinces where functioning states do not have control. There is no precedent in the UK for this kind of threat to be dealt with because it simply wasn’t a threat until very recently. No one really knows what to do about it.

5. Finally, a vast trading bloc taking in most of our export markets has developed on our door step, and the countries within it- including us-are being driven to ever closer political union. It wasn’t the brainchild of either of our main parties and in truth, we still don’t know what to do about it and we will never be able to control it. Only, a small minority on either side want either to pull out of the EU or to see it expand its powers further.

These five problems are an order of magnitude greater than those faced in normal times in traditional policy areas such as health, education, crime and economic policy- where elections are generally fought on the basis of opposing ideologies.

To tackle them, we need a government that is able to operate with cross-part support and thereby avoid the destructive propensity for opposition parties to score cheap points by questioning a government’s competence. Only a government of national unity with collective responsibility for these key areas can do this.

I’ve always been a supporter of PR but this seems to be a more viable short term proposal at this point in time. Why?

It’s the party conference season and I have been spending too long reading the political commentariat-both professionals and amateurs. What stands out more than ever is the blanket low esteem in which we hold all our politicians and the lack of belief that any one party have the answers. This seems to be genuinely pervasive, more than I can ever remember in the past.

The idea that all our politicians are not up to the job of governing, as many seem to suggest, is plainly nonsense. There are probably well over a hundred good MPs and many more hundreds of potentially good MPs who’ll be elected in the next election. However, the idea that those people are disproportionately banded together in one of three organisations –the main parties- who will receive a mandate for their ideas from the electorate accordingly, does not seem credible. Yet that is the implication of our system of government. It’s this belief that drives my preference for PR, as well as the obvious argument that it is more just.

But will PR be any better in the short term in addressing these five problems? I don’t think so- it will take too long to bed down. The main parties might fragment, new parties will form. Who is to say that a coalition might not get held to ransom by a smaller party who deny climate change or unduly influence policy on any one of the other crucial challenges above? PR does not automatically equate with consensus and that is what we need more of now.

Here’s an alternative. Commit to forming a government of national unity for the next ten years-with a Cabinet formed by the winner of the first past the post system but with cross-party cabinet level teams to deal with the five themes of Globalisation, Social Change, Climate Change, Defence and the EU.

Once we understand these problems better and have taken the potentially unpopular actions which might be necessary to address them, then let’s go for PR.

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