In Praise of Weak Government

The Cover Page to LeviathanI’ve experienced this election mostly through the medium of social networking; Twitter, Facebook and a variety of online news sources have provided an endless stream of fact, opinion, counter-fact and counter-opinion. At this point, three days out, it seems to have blended into a glutinous and incoherent mass of Arial Bold and Times New Roman. The latest furore is indicative: it concerns Philippa Stroud, the Tory candidate for Sutton & Cheam, who believes that gay people can be “cured” through prayer; some have difficulty understanding why the media isn’t covering this in more detail. With respect, a story about a homophobic Conservative candidate has the same shock value as one which describes bears defecating in the woods; it would have been much more newsworthy if she was a militant atheist who had married her girlfriend in a civil ceremony while out on the hustings. However, the larger picture has been lost in the process of expressing (righteous) outrage: Sutton and Cheam is more likely to stay Liberal Democrat now, which surely is a relief to those who live there.

Overall, no one knows what’s going to happen: this is both exciting and terrifying. A week from now, we may have a new government, the same government, or no government at all. We may be choking on nonsense about the “Big Society”, or chortling at guff about “tough, long term decisions” or watching MPs of all political stripes pile in and out of a lengthy negotiation, the Civil Service doing its best to keep the wheels turning in the interim as bond traders compulsively bite their fingernails.

All this is possible, and attempts to predict the outcome can seem futile. On Sunday, Andrew Marr asked David Cameron, “You’re on a roll, aren’t you?” The instant reaction among the Twitterati was incredulous anger; this appeared to be the manifestation of inexcusable bias. But perhaps Marr’s query was less a question (or statement) about the present state of the Conservative campaign. Rather, it may have been an expression of a plaintive hope: is there not going to be clarity, are you not going to win, if not, what will happen? Yes, it is more likely that Marr would like to know who he should be buttering up; but he may have also unconsciously stated a human desire which runs in contra to human nature: we desire stability and to be able to plot out a secure future, yet we are unpredictable beings. Here we are, staring “irreducible uncertainty” in the face: what will happen all depends on individual decisions in individual constituencies, based upon the relative value or worthlessness of individual candidates. The sum at the end of these calculations is unknown: some would say it’s now time to panic.

However, there is a glimmer amidst the descending gloom: our present ambiguity means the most probable outcome is a far weaker Government than we’ve had for the past thirteen years. Wishing for an enfeebled state may seem go against the grain, given our (altogether human) aversion to chaos; furthermore, we face some very unpleasant choices in terms of taxation and spending, which intuition suggests can only be imposed by a strong central authority. Let’s “get real”: while much of the present deficit is due to the economic slowdown and the massive bailout of the banks, there is a substantial chunk which is structural. In order to fix it, there will need to be either tax rises, spending cuts or a combination of both. It’s not something that simply can be brushed under the carpet either: sorry, but romantic Trotskyists and their ilk need to realise that even the Soviet Union had a credit rating. Voters know this, but don’t want to accept it; the politicians’ fudging of the issue is a reflection of popular unwillingness to grasp this particular nettle.

But Leviathan may not be the answer. It has already proven itself incapable of sorting out our deeper problems: the accrual of vast powers of surveillance and the crimping of civil liberties by the present government have not stopped crime nor ended terrorism. Centrally-imposed targets have not in and of themselves made education or the health service better; in many instances, the “target culture” has had to be abandoned. Worse, the stronger the government, the more likely it is to stumble into mistakes without hindrance, conditions or constraint: Britain’s disastrous participation in the Iraq war is perhaps the most powerful recent example. Practical experience thus suggests that what is counter-intuitive is what is required in this instance.

A weak government, or rather, one that is reliant on achieving a political consensus which reflects the opinion of the majority, will have to discuss issues in depth, not only with the factions which comprise it, but also with the wider population. Additionally, given the public’s now heightened suspicion of politicians, the government will have to work much harder to convince and persuade. This represents far more of a “Big Society” than anything proposed by the Conservatives, as it implies a system in which citizens are healthily involved in choosing the direction the country will take. Unfortunately for the Conservatives, it also implies the nation is unlikely to go their way; as Johann Hari has suggested, the combined percentages of Labour, Liberal Democrat and Green support highlight that Britain is a “liberal-left” country.

If indeed “weak government” proves a success in solving our present problems, it may well be that its triumph provides further impetus for substantial electoral reform. From then on in, governments which cannot persuade will fall. Yes, in this scenario, elections may become more frequent. There is also the potential that the kind of tussle that could take place after May 6th will become a permanent feature of the political landscape. The human desire for stability groans in pain at this point; our boredom detectors sound the alarm. But exhale a moment, and grasp the possibility: what may emerge from the mess is a new politics, a more considered politics, a more participatory politics and for all its rough edges, a better politics.

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