The word ‘consensus’ cropped up in a news story the other day, inasmuch as Theresa May was rejecting the idea of a cross party Brexit consensus and wished merely to carry on with her only deal. In which case Jeremy Corbyn was perfectly right to reject the idea of entering talks with her. She might of course agree to a ‘consensus’ if it were entirely on her terms. The kind of consensus a prison warder may feel able to offer.
If it is correct that the public are fed up with the ongoing debates in Westminster it may be assumed that they would prefer it if consensus did break out – but I’m not so sure. As with the Brexit referendum itself, in which I suspect a great many people on both sides and the leaders thereof never even paused to consider the backstop or Norway plus plus plus, the idea of forming a consensus won’t have been given much thought either. But oddly enough, there was a de facto consensus during the referendum campaign – all the major parties, a good section of the media, the establishment, celebrities and others largely supported remain. That consensus was rejected and a motley opposition led by cranks, hard right pundits and yes – many xenophobes and some racists – won the day, albeit by a slim margin.
Perhaps we should now be asking ourselves whether the concept of consensus is actually useful in a democratic society. Does anything in history point to its value? In post war times, one might look at the notion of Butskellism, a combination of centrist Conservative and Labour forces in the 1950s which produced a watered down version of social progress – watered down that is from Attlee’s more evident socialism – but still, in the shadow of the war nevertheless committed to maintaining post-war recovery. That could be seen in say large scale council house building through to the post-imperial recognition of the need to decolonise.
Before that we had a National Government – all the way through from its formation in 1935 to the end of the war. Yet as hard as the Sun or Daily Mail may try to portray him, Jean Claude Juncker doesn’t quite equate to the threat of the little corporal with the toothbrush moustache. The E.U. is not an existential threat which demands a national government (which implies in the current context, right wing government). Who in their stupid minds thinks that a national government now, carrying on with all its associated austerity baggage has the slightest chance of flying?
When I chaired the All Party Parliamentary Group on Climate Change we commissioned a study on whether a cross party consensus on tackling climate change was desirable. At the time I thought that the scale of the challenge made it a necessity, but clearly in the hay day of a Labour government with a big majority it was never going to happen. Opposition parties would have resiled from joining hands with a government intent on putting forward unpopular climate change policies – and any policy effective enough to deal with climate change would have been unpopular. And even if the parties had got together to agree on such policies, how long would it be before they were all portrayed as part of some elite cabal up to some nefarious con? Climate change sceptics would have had a field day. But climate change is a crisis which makes Brexit look like a crossword puzzle.
In cases like this democracy is unable to resolve different views into anything like a solution. The greatest invention of civilisation is also its Achilles heel.