From awwwww to awe

I regularly come across pieces in the UK media that quite literally make me go “awwwww” and feel all warm and tingly inside, a completely ridiculous reaction on the face of it, but one that I can explain only this way: this would never happen in Canada.

I believe I’ve at least alluded to the fact that Canadian politics – at the federal level, is in a depressing state of affairs. So much so that I can barely bring myself to follow federal politics anymore. My alienation from federal Canadian politics isn’t due solely to the fact that a party I dislike intensely is in power – I’ve managed to endure other periods of governance by parties I dislike without losing interest in politics – but more due to the fact that the entire process seems stuck in some infernal loop, like a very bad version of “Groundhog Day”. All the parties repeating the same old tired lines, rehashing the same old tired arguments and somehow expecting different results. The system is, in many ways, very broken, yet no one is advocating for real change, nor coming forward with any real vision.

Consequently, political news programs that I used to watch regularly I now avoid, I’ve replaced reading Canadian newspapers with reading British papers online, and certain blog sites that I used to visit regularly, such as Progressive Bloggers, I can barely stomach anymore. That so many people are still so incredibly partisan and convinced that things will change baffles me – everyone should be as depressed and tuned out as I am. And I know of a few others who are, but there are still too many Canadian partisan bloggers writing away as if things are somehow still functional.

This is in large part why I’ve become so enamored with the UK coalition. I don’t know if they’re doing coalition right (if there is a right way to do coalitions). I’m certain that some of you follow politics in countries where coalitions are the norm, and you probably shake your heads in despair at what has transpired in the UK. Fair enough – as I said, I’m not in a position to judge. My only point of comparison is with the stalemate that exists here in Canada, and because of that, I am envious of what is transpiring in the UK.

My most recent “awwwwww”-inducing story is this column from the Guardian’s Allegra Stratton – namely the first part, about covert and overt coalitions. Reading about how some of the Tories and their Lib Dem colleagues have apparently bonded so closely just makes me stupidly happy. I simply cannot for the life of me imagine anything similar between any of Canada’s main political parties at the moment. In some instances, I doubt any such level of closeness and camaraderie exists within the parties themselves.

To move away from the pure sentimentality of the article, the discussion of overt and covert coalitions is one that I’d never heard before. The concept is attributed to Roy Jenkins, a former Labour MP who was one of the Gang of Four Labour moderates who left the party to form the Social Democratic Party (SDP), which later merged with the Liberal Party to form today’s Liberal Democratic Party.

Jenkins discussed overt and covert coalitions in the 1979 Richard Dimbleby lecture, available here, in which he addresses the issue of “the state of British politics today, not primarily the parties or individual politicians, but the system itself, and whether and how it ought to be changed and improved.” Part of that talk deals with the need for proportional representation. His comments were in reply to the usual anti-PR argument that it results in coalition government:

The avoidance of incompatible coalitions? Do we really believe that the last Labour Government was not a coalition, in fact if not in name, and a pretty incompatible one at that? I served in it for half its life, and you could not convince me of anything else.

Coalitions got a bad name in England partly because of a superficial aphorism by Disraeli, and partly because the word became associated with the worst phase of Lloyd George’s career and with the ‘hard-faced men’ who then supported him. But some form of coalition is essential for democratic leadership. Roosevelt established a broad coalition of interest which underpinned the American Democratic Party for fifty years. The old Labour Party of Attlee and Gaitskell was a coalition of liberal social democrats and industrially responsible trade unionists. Willy Brandt and Helmut Schmidt have governed the Federal Republic of Germany with a coalition of Social Democrats and Liberals for the past decade.

Sometimes the coalitions are overt, sometimes they are covert. I do not think the distinction greatly matters. The test is whether those within the coalition are closer to each other, and to the mood of the nation they seek to govern, than they are to those outside their ranks.

I am therefore unfrightened by the argument against proportional representation that it would probably mean frequent coalition – although not across the whole board of politics. I would much rather that it meant overt and compatible coalition than that it locked incompatible people, and still more important, incompatible philosophies, into a loveless, constantly bickering and debilitating marriage, even if consecrated in a common tabernacle.

I would strongly encourage people to read the entire text. While dated in some respects, many – if not most (sadly) – of the points Jenkins makes are still very relevant today, not only in the UK, but for countries like Canada as well. I will conclude with his conclusion:

You also make sure that the state knows its place, not only in relation to the economy, but in relation to the citizen. You are in favour of the right of dissent and the liberty of private conduct. You are against unnecessary centralisation and bureaucracy. You want to devolve decision-making wherever you sensibly can. You want parents in the school system, patients in the health service, residents in the neighbourhood, customers in both nationalised and private industry, to have as much say as possible. You want the nation to be self-confident and outward-looking, rather than insular, xenophobic and suspicious. You want the class system to fade without being replaced either by an aggressive and intolerant proletarianism or by the dominance of the brash and selfish values of a ‘get rich quick’ society. You want the nation, without eschewing necessary controversy, to achieve a renewed sense of cohesion and common purpose.

These are some of the objectives which I believe could be assisted by a strengthening of the radical centre. I believe that such a development could bring into political commitment the energies of many people of talent and goodwill who, although perhaps active in many other voluntary ways, are at present alienated from the business of government, whether national or local, by the sterility and formalism of much of the political game. I am sure this would improve our politics. I think the results might also help to improve our national performance. But of that I cannot be certain. I am against too much dogmatism here. We have had more than enough of it. But at least we could escape from the pessimism of Yeats’s ‘Second Coming’, where

The best lack all conviction, while the worst

Are full of passionate intensity


Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold.

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