Back in 1974, when political consciousness and opinions began to form in my teenage brain, the great question was whether Britain was becoming “ungovernable”. As Ted Heath called the first of two elections that year, trade unions wanted to be outside the law, inflation was taking off and unemployment rising. The country had fallen behind in the world and seemed, until the advent of Margaret Thatcher, unwilling to be rescued.
Then, the political system worked, but the willingness of the nation to be governed was in doubt. Now, Britain appears to be heading for the opposite. The country is entirely willing to be led, governed and law-abiding. Although it has many problems, Britain is doing well by historical standards, with no social unrest and very little unemployment. Visit companies around the country and you feel a sense of enterprise. Go to universities and you become infused with the optimism of many brilliant young people. This is a wholly governable country where the political system is only one or two steps away from being unable to govern.
Why should this be, when there are plenty of talented and clever people involved in politics? Take the Labour Party first: Most of its members of parliament are perfectly sensible people, from a centre-Left point of view. They would get rid of Jeremy Corbyn if they could, are excruciatingly embarrassed by the anti-Semitism that has infected them, and know the departure of Frank Field from their ranks is very bad news. To make Labour function properly as an opposition and potential government, they would compromise with Corbyn and his ilk — yes, nationalise a few industries and raise some taxes but drop the rest of the extremism, the hatred of the West, the hostility to business and the wild spending plans.
But unfortunately for them and for the country, the hard Left does not go in for compromise to anything like that extent. They see Labour as an organisation to be purged rather than a family to be united. For some of them, this is a winner-takes-all struggle in which only a complete victory counts. For others, in the age of social media, opinions count for more than outcomes — politics as a noticeboard rather than a chessboard.
Clement Attlee, Harold Wilson and even Tony Blair all compromised in order to unite their party and offer the country a Labour government. Now, in the absence of that, Labour is not functioning as a coherent political party. That makes it harder for it to win a majority in the future — leading to more hung parliaments — and would make it much harder for it to govern effectively or with long-term public support if it did.
The Conservatives have a different version of the same problem. As I have often argued in these pages, the only way for a minority government to negotiate and deliver something as momentous and complex as Brexit is to make many compromises and stick together. Most Tory MPs agree with that and, whichever side they were on in the referendum, are being pragmatic so that the will of the people is respected and the country still has a centre-Right government rather than a hard-Left Labour one. With that in mind, they have stuck with Prime Minister Theresa May despite last year’s election losses, and they would settle for the Chequers plan, if only Brussels would agree to it. We would leave the EU and the show would stay on the road.
But the Tories, too, have other MPs who say they must have their way. Some say May’s plan is too much of a compromise; a small number argue that it isn’t enough of one; and still others now advocate a different compromise altogether. The likely result is so obvious it hardly needs stating, which is that the entire idea is put at risk, and all of them will lose out in the end — while in the meantime the people of the country wonder what on earth is happening.
Such disunity opens up the potential for a terrible chain of events over the next seven months to the March 29 date for leaving the European Union (EU). This is that no agreement can be reached that can be passed by the House of Commons and the new year opens with a choice between leaving without a deal or asking to defer the exit date and holding another referendum.
Either of those outcomes could variously involve more serious economic consequences than anything seen so far, the fall of the Conservative Government, a general election, and either the election of the dysfunctional Labour Party or another hung parliament. It is thus quite possible that a year from now, we could be contemplating why we are still in the EU after all, or why we left it with maximum damage all round with minimum notice, or how we came to have an even weaker minority government, or how a Marxist despised by his own MPs ended up as prime minister. Any of those situations would mean this long-established democracy had suffered a massive failure of its political system.
That failure would have happened because the art of compromise within great political parties had been fatally eroded. Somehow, the combined effect of social media, instant reactions, strident responses to globalisation and the demand for “authentic” leaders who speak their mind is destroying the ability of parties to be clearing houses for many opinions which are formed into a workable plan to put before voters.
Compromising when necessary is a fundamental attribute of leadership. Thatcher was highly skilled at giving ground or biding her time so that she got most of what she wanted in the end. The tributes last week to John McCain focused on his ability to work with senators of different views and still find common cause. Churchill in the war made daily, unpalatable choices to enable an alliance with Roosevelt and Stalin to work. History does not belong to leaders who say they must have their way whatever the consequences, at least not in the democratic world.
For British parties to work effectively, Labour’s leader would have to recognise the value of all the traditions and views in his party and become a bridge between them; and Conservative rebels against May would have to back her making the best deal she can before they judge it. Neither now seems remotely likely. It is a bleak thought: That a wonderful and entirely governable country is not far from being unable to enjoy effective government.
— The Telegraph Group Limited, London, 2018
William Hague is the former UK foreign secretary and a former leader of the Conservative Party.