Immediately following the 2019 Conservative general election victory the Prime Minister repeatedly used the phrase ‘one nation conservatism’. Referring to the breaches his campaign had made in the ‘red wall’ he said: “I’m proud to say that members of our new one nation government, a people’s government, will set out from constituencies that have never returned a Conservative MP for 100 years.” Fast forward to last Thursday and we have evidence of a possible breach in the ‘blue wall’. Much of the analysis of the Conservative loss of the Chesham and Amersham constituency to the LibDems centred on voters feeling ignored or marginalised; that they were not being listened to on the issues that affected them most – issues like the proposed planning reforms and the HS2 rail link. Assuming that this is more than a one-off, and that Conservative voters in the normally safe southern constituencies are starting to get twitchy, were does this leave the notion of ‘one nation conservatism’ – or even ‘one nation’?
It leaves it were it has always been – in the store room of fantasy ideas. Why should, how could, the whole population of the UK unite behind one collective idea? The only way such a proposal could be justified was if a definitively right or correct answer for the various problems we face not only existed, but could be articulated in such a way that everyone could see it. But there is no definitive position or answer to any issue or problem. Other than in the abstract world of mathematics it is impossible for such a position to exist. The world, and especially the social world, is just too complex. The best we can hope for is a degree of agreement as to what we want to achieve, followed by a degree of agreement in how we plan to achieve it. But even here it is quite often the dissenting voice, the view from a different or original perspective, that supplies the creative input that leads to the resolution of a problem.
No, we need and should nurture a variety of views. We need to view our problems from a multiplicity of perspectives. We then need to discuss and debate the pros and cons of these perspectives before finding a consensus. The bottom line here is that we need to start doing politics in a different way. We need to start opening up debate, not trying to close it down by creating a mirage of unity. In local government the main villain here is the cabinet system. Rather than have committees of councillors made up (proportionally) from all the political parties, decisions in the cabinet system are made by one committee composed of members of the dominant party. This nicely avoids any radically different perspective, makes decision making easier, and gives the false impression of unity. It is often accompanied by statements from members of the cabinet suggesting that such and such an issue is non-political – a blatant attempt to create a (false) definitive position.
Another aspect of opening up debate sounds at first to be a contradiction. We need to move on from the adversarial nature of politics – from having a position put forward by the government which is then opposed by the opposition. Such a system does not promote debate – it only promotes the attempt to win arguments. In good, genuine and creative debate, the type of debate that finds solutions to problems, all parties need to accept that there is no definitive position. Each person taking part in the debate needs to accept that the position they start with may not be the best, and may not be the position they end with. Each person needs to actively listen to other perspectives not just find ways to disagree.
We need, desperately need, some system of proportional representation. We need to encourage both a diversity of views in the electorate, and we need to have those views represented in government. If this means we have coalition governments – then good; it will force politicians to listen to opposing ideas and make compromises. This, to my mind, seems only fair and just. But more than this, more than a formal system of PR, we all need to learn to engage in creative debate and discussion. We need to learn to listen and consider other perspectives than our own. We need move away from the belief that not only definitive answers to our problems exist, but that we have found them. And who knows, but in a supreme twist of irony we may all become united in a collective, open and creative debate about our future.