During the welcome debate on the Party’s principles and identity that followed May 2015, I’ve been surprised by one or two ideas people felt were essential to Liberalism or at least to Liberal Democrat identity.

I was ready for people stressing how the state disempowers people while ignoring how it empowers them. I was ready for people claiming that equality of opportunity was a Liberal concept but aiming at equality of outcomes was anathema. I’ve heard very little of either. 

I was a bit taken by surprise by the claim that optimism and a positive view of human nature were essential to Liberalism. I could see that we believed in human potential, but wondered how the optimism about human nature could be squared with the holocaust, the slave trade or a human-induced mass extinction event. I might discuss that one soon.

What I want to discuss now is the idea that consensus is a key Liberal value. This too surprised me, but when I queried it, the hurt and shock on the fellow-Liberal’s face was obvious. 

No political system can operate without consensus. It’s needed even in a cabal of generals. Only a strict dictatorship more or less dispenses with consensus, and then it reappears at lower levels among people who decide what can be presented to the Leader and how his instructions can be implemented.  

But what is consensus? It’s an agreement about what’s best to do, achieved not by bargaining and giving way on some things so as to win on others, but by reaching a broad common view. Clearly the term is flexible. A consensus among middle managers may not reflect the views of senior managers, the workforce as a whole or people outside the agency affected by its actions. Because a consensus is a degree of commonality between the views of a number of people, it may be capable of expression only in rather general terms – that immigration rules need to be tightened, say, or that an agreement reached ten years ago on carbon footprints is too weak. Sometimes it can be fairly specific – for example, a consensus in a country that if a foreign leader doesn’t withdraw his forces from a third country, war should be declared. But the more specific the consensus is and the more people it covers, the more likely it is to be merely a majority view, rejected by some. When people talk about a consensus in such circumstances, they either mean “a very large majority” or they imply that the people outside the consensus don’t matter.  

In relatively small groups, consensus – or apparent consensus – is often reached. The picture of committee work found in Citrine is far from reality. Most working groups and committees, wherever they operate and including the executive committees of local Liberal Democrat parties, rarely take votes. Most questions are decided by a discussion which either reaches a conclusion that clearly commands general support (genuine consensus) or is obviously supported by a clear majority, in which case the minority is unlikely to press the matter. Once a vote is taken and the result is not unanimous, though, there is evidently an absence of consensus. 

The idea that consensus is good in itself, or characteristic of the Liberal Democrats, therefore posits that votes are a second best if that. 

When very important decisions are taken with long-term effects, it’s clearly better consensus is approached if not achieved (practically, major decisions affecting many people are hardly ever unanimous). There was something not far from consensus about the U.K.’s declaration of war in 1939 and about a military response to Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait (“the First Gulf War) in 1990-1. They were not unanimous, but people divided on many things united on them. By contrast, Suez in 1956 deeply divided the country down the middle and U.K. involvement in the Second Gulf War in 2003, though overwhelmingly supported in Parliament, enjoyed no consensus in the country.

To go to war without a national consensus will nearly always be irresponsible. But it’s of the essence of politics that there will be other issues, where to insist on consensus will be to insist on inaction. When the NHS was introduced there was consensus that something needed to be done to make health services fairer and more accessible to people on limited budgets, but there was no consensus about the creation of a state health service. When capital punishment was abolished, there had been a steady movement of opinion, especially among “opinion-formers”, but the act was still deeply controversial. To admit substantial numbers of Syrian refugees is controversial. There is no consensus against (or for) mass retention of records of private online activity and government access to trawl those records. There was a majority, but no consensus, for gay marriage (or for a rather similar issue in the early 19th century, Catholic emancipation). Neither in the USA nor in the British Caribbean or back in Britain was there a consensus for the abolition of slavery.

Some measures can be taken when they’re deeply divisive, and once taken they’re secure and the divisions soon seem dated. Extensions of the franchise are a classic example. I suspect gay marriage will be another. But others remain insecure if there is no consensus, for example nationalisation and then denationalisation of the steel industry. Clearly it’s better if a consensus can be found or built.

A consensus is always desirable, but never being prepared to act without one is craven.

More fundamentally, we should question whether when a consensus exists, it’s necessarily right. The consensus on slavery in South Carolina around 1850 would have been very clear indeed – and wrong. 

It seems to me a liking for consensus is natural among Liberals, but it can’t be a fundamental value.

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  • This is the best informative post and I am glad to see this kind of brilliant informative post.
  • Quite, Steve. Agreement on a common course of action involving compromise can be reached while maintaining distinctive views and the only consensus is that the compromise is worthwhile. Thus British politicians who were rightly highly suspicious of Stalin’s USSR made compromises to defeat Fascism: the UK-USSR consensus was that it was worth compromising and co-operating to this end, not that capitalism or parliamentary democracy or Communism or Stalinism was good.

    Where consensus can be really valuable is often at a local level – for instance in a local party executive committee or in talks between unions and management of a middling business where it can happen with a little more time and care, what could have been passed with resentments is accepted all round as the best way to proceed.
  • Firstly, values, as Isaiah Berlin was fond of reminding us are unique, highly valuable and often incommensurate. This means that consensus is never fully achievable without the possibility of some form of compromise or accommodation that may violate some of the values we hold. It might be that a ‘united front’ against the ‘opposition’ may be seen as a viable and valuable position so reaching a consensus is a useful exercise but ideally it should not be achieved at the cost of demanding people compromise their deepest values. A value pluralist based liberalism, therefore, has to value pluralism above consensus so consensus, while achieving it may be good cannot be a fundamental liberal value. Secondly, there is a need to be aware that what might appear to be consensus is not merely the tyranny of the majority or the pressure of public opinion bearing down upon us.
  • It would appear, Simon, that you and I have achieved a genuine consensus ;-)

    For me, the concept of “collective cabinet responsibility” – the false consensus that it requires – is an immoral practice at the heart of our “democracy”.
  • Absolutely, Peter. Actually, the South Carolina example shows just how disputable the concept of consensus is. In assuming a consensus in favour of slavery in 1850, I was assuming the slave population didn’t count.
  • Yes, I agree – it’s a pretence of consensus that is harmful here.

    But that’s part of the problem. When “consensus” (or rather, “there should be – we should create – a consensus”) is a value that people feel they ought to adopt and live by, there’s a risk that there will be a false consensus in which people pretend to agree to avoid conflict, to avoid challenging the consensus.

    It’s difficult being the person who disagrees. Just look at the fate of so many whistle-blowers whose careers have been destroyed because they spoke an uncomfortable truth; and at the way the government would rather gag professionals than have the deficiencies in policy exposed. And consensus is often about protecting the powerful “haves” from the “have nots”by not risking the ire of the powerful by challenging injustice. It’s much easier to go along with the consensus even when you know its wrong. (I like your example about the consensus about slavery).
  • Peter – I agree (though not about not supporting the party). But the key weakness you’re pointing out is not so much a consensus as a pretence of consensus (when people disagree but pretend they agree).
  • There are clearly occasions on which consensus is NOT appropriate.

    We recently had a libdem/tory coalition government. It was entirely appropriate for the lib/dems to negotiate with the tories to form a coalition.In the process there was a quid pro quo process. Both sides agreed to compromise with the other, in order to form a workable government. The lib dems gave up their pledge to abolish student loans – something that was unpopular, but considered worth it for the gains made.

    Fine so far. But then the “collective cabinet responsibility” idea overtook common sense. This is a form of consensus, whereby cabinet decisions are made, and then all cabinet members must pretend they agree with them, even when they don’t (which is fundamentally dishonest at the best of times). When you have a coalition, where two parties have explicitly agreed what they will support each other on, pretending you agree on matters not included in the coalition agreement is wrong.

    It went particularly badly wrong when the lib-dems failed to oppose things in public that they clearly should have opposed – the sticking point for me was when they failed to oppose the appalling Health and Social Care Act/Bill.

    The libdem failure to state when and what they were opposing while in coalition – and to acknowledge that this was a mistake – means I do not feel I can support the party.
  • Social Liberal Forum posted about Consensus is not Liberalism on Social Liberal Forum's Facebook page 2016-08-16 17:09:01 +0100
    Simon Banks writes of his surprise that some say consensus is a fundamental value for Liberalism
  • @soclibforum tweeted this page. 2016-08-16 17:08:58 +0100
    Simon Banks writes of his surprise that some say consensus is a fundamental value for Liberalism http://www.socialliberal.net/consensus_is_not_liberalism?recruiter_id=7837