When the main political parties agree about a policy or approach to a problem, taxpayers should start counting their spoons. Far from representing some new higher level of democracy, it stifles choice, prevents intellectual challenge to the policy and often ends in expensive tears. Consensus can be a conspiracy against the public or a stitch up by a professional vested interest.
On Monday I have been asked to give a Speaker’s lecture in the Speaker’s Dining Room at the Commons. One of the issues I want to tackle is the enthusiasm for consensus and the wish to find more and more areas of policy and administration that can be given to experts to decide in place of Parliament and elected Ministers.
The public does sometimes say when polled they wish the main political parties could get on better together, and work in the public interest. The idea of a finding a common wisdom is attractive. Yet the public speaks with forked tongue on this. When wanting to see Parliament in action, people usually want to see the most party and conflict riven part of the week, Prime Minister’s Questions. There is usually little enthusiasm to sit through a debate on a subject where the main parties all agree.
The same polls that say we want more consensus also can say the public want their MPs to stand up more for them against the government, the very opposite of building consensus around what the government is doing. One of the privileges of being a democratic politician is you can choose which of the many and sometimes conflicting views the public holds to advance yourself. Your judgement will then in turn be judged. There is rarely a single overwhelmingly held monolithic public view which you cannot gainsay.
I will explore in the lecture a couple of crucial ideas that have been consensus ones that have gone horribly wrong. The first was the Exchange Rate Mechanism. The second is the idea of an independent Central Bank. which helped give us the massive Boom and Bust of the last decade.
So spare us consensus. Give us choice. Spare us a rush to rely uncritically on external experts. Give us forensic analysis and loads of commonsense. That is what Ministers and MPs are meant to do – to use, criticise and judge external advice, not to give in to one strand of it.