The uses of civilised disagreement

In the Telegraph, Peter Oborne puts his finger on the big difference between the Brown/Blair government and the new one:

Let's try a thought experiment and suppose that Vince Cable's off-message blast against City "spivs" had come from a minister during the Blair years – just imagine the panic, the vicious briefing, the character assassination, the bad language, the screaming telephone calls, the blackmail and threats, the eyeball-to-eyeball confrontations.

It's true. Ironically, the fact of coalition, which could have produced even-tighter control of "message" - the media, after all, are more alive than ever to the possiblity of "splits" - has led to the opposite, a huge relaxation. A member of the government speaks his mind, or appears to, and Number 10 just shrugs. And the media, taking their cue from the top (this, I think, is the really important point) shrug themselves. How civilised and normal it all seems. How grown-up.

Politically, this relaxed atmosphere may have consequences far profounder than merely a temporary end to Westminster yah-booism. If ministers are given carte blanche to disagree, the implication must be that disagreements don't matter - they are free to say what they want because it doesn't make any difference. The government will not be blown off course; its policies will be implemented regardless, in a climate of merely apparent debate. Oddly, the latitude given to individual ministers underlines, rather than undermines, the inevitability of the complete package which (it is strongly suggested) is dictated by the demands of the international markets rather than the philosophical views of politicians.

If There Is No Alternative, after all, there's no harm in tolerating, even encouraging, dissent. Rather, such dissent underpins the legitimacy of the policies that are ultimately to be enacted. Its very existence is an anaesthetic necessary to prepare the body politic for major surgery. The public meanwhile, impressed by the unexpectedly rational and adult behaviour of their political leaders, may feel somewhat less inclined to question the basis of their decisions.

Oborne suggests that the coalition is playing the role of both Opposition and Government, leaving little role for Labour. To an extent. But much the same was said of the Labour government for at least its first decade - that the real debates were between Blair and Brown, not between Blair and whoever happened to be occupying the Conservative Party's rotating leadership. The difference, I think, is that while Labour struggled to maintain a united front everyone knew that it was riven at its heart, whereas the coalition's facade of pluralism and debate covers a paradoxical but (as yet) unassailable unity of purpose. That, too, fools no-one - though it surprises many, not least many on the Tory and Lib Dem benches. There is, and certainly soon will be, a role for Labour. The real question is whether the new leader, Mr Miliband I presume, will have the credibility to fulfil it, or whether he will be too tainted by still-fresh memories of Labour's record in office.


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