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.