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Coalition Government: A Possible Model for Cohesion

Mal Fletcher
Posted 13 May 2010
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In many ways the value of Britain's new governing coalition may not be found so much in the policies it adopts as in the symbolism it provides.

There is much talk these days about the importance of social cohesion and social inclusion, yet until now few in government have seemed to exemplify the types of attitudes and practices that are needed to produce it.

We are living in the age of mass collaboration, which has been triggered and made possible by relatively recent developments in mass communications technologies.

This is the age of the architecture of participation, to quote the online gamers. Ours is the generation of 'we-think', where collaboration is beginning to be esteemed as highly as competition, even in sections of the business community.

During the recession, more than one study into consumer habits revealed that people no longer want to see themselves primarily as consumers, but as activists. They want to form relationships of mutuality, with companies and organizations which they trust to recycle some of what they spend into civic good works.

As a result, ethical buying - Fair trade and the like -- is on the rise, as is volunteerism.

With the formation of this Tory/Lib Dem coalition, we see a case of politics catching up with technology and community attitudes.

In initiating talks about a full coalition, David Cameron was responding to the zeitgeist; specifically the public's desire to move beyond inward-looking, ideologically-driven politics, toward something more collaborative - though at the time nobody could foresee the exact shape this might take.

For a long while now, I think, people have consciously or unconsciously wondered why major competitors in the worlds of business and technology can form alliances around specific tasks, why can't politicians.

In the often obscure world of Internet technologies, major competitors like Amazon and Google are forming alliances to provide so-called cloud computing. Meanwhile, fuel companies and airlines are also under pressure to pool at least some of their resources to devise new carbon-neutral technologies.

The global community increasingly sees the need for collaboration and alliance-building on many fronts. Yet all too often, we have seen the opposite with politics.

There's been no shortage of big words about the challenges ahead and promises to work together, but little action that suggests politicos are driven more by national than party interest.

For all the hype and hoopla surrounding the Copenhagen climate summit last year, very little of lasting worth was achieved - in part because of ideological differences.

Rightly or wrongly the general public perception is that politicians, who are raised in the incubator of party ideology, find it difficult to put party lines aside.

There is much speculation as to whether or not this coalition can hold together for the promised five year fixed term. Yet this coalition government must work for a number of reasons.

The first is the most obvious: the enormity of the problems facing the nation. We have the largest deficit of any European country and one which is set to outstrip that of Greece within a year.

We face the added economic challenge of helping to prop up the struggling Euro zone. And, of course, we are in the midst of an ongoing foreign war, which involves 10,000 of our dedicated troops. These brave men and women, perhaps more than any other group, will have wondered why, in the face of the perils they face on a daily basis, governments haven't been able to work closely together on the really big projects that impact entire generations.

This coalition must work also because of the powerful signal it can send to the wider society about how cohesion works in the age of diversity.

Cohesion does not mean uniformity, or agreement on every issue. Far from it; the power of cohesion is only really seen when differences are at their greatest.

Cohesion means respectful diversity, which is about much more than the weak-kneed tolerance politicians are always talking about.

Tolerance often assumes a downward looking posture: "I see the fault in your thinking, yet I'm so tolerant of you - and proud of it." Respect, however, assumes at least an even posture and often an upward looking one. "I see great differences between us," it says, "yet I also recognize that I can learn from you, without necessarily abandoning my core beliefs."

If this coalition government can model true cohesion in the face of adversity, while at the same time taking us through the huge practical challenges ahead, it will have done British society a very great service.

For any alliance to work, three things must be in place and must be continually maintained.

At root, alliances are built on common goals. Core convictions may vary between alliance partners, but the focus will be on shared goals for pragmatic change.

Churchill and Stalin were strange bedfellows yet each saw the importance of their partnership of purpose. Forming an alliance was the only way they could, along with Roosevelt, hope to end Hitler's megalomaniacal pretensions.

In the Tory/Lib Dem coalition there will at times be areas of strain, as ministers try to represent not just their departments but also their parties around the cabinet table.

It may be wise for the PM to set up an observation group, made up of grandees from both parties who will be charged with keeping a careful eye on areas of possible friction. More importantly, they might look to the future, to identify likely emerging projects on which both parties could find common ground. The focus must stay on solving specific problems; otherwise political entropy will set in and politicos will find themselves focussing again on their ideological or historical differences.

Secondly, alliances are built upon symbiotic benefit. Each partner in the alliance must feel that they are being given equal opportunities to fulfil the potential of their members and to grow their effectiveness and influence as a group.

After the mess of the MPs expenses scandal in the last Parliament, nothing would be less attractive to the public taste than politicians who act in a self-serving way. But there is a natural desire in all of us to develop our abilities and to reach our potential. A political coalition must offer opportunities for this, but in the context of facing down societal problems.

Thirdly, alliances must be based on a culture of honour. Honour is an outward, practical expression of inner respect. To honour someone is to give them preference in the allocation of credit and to share benefits in a practical way.

This may well prove difficult in the world of politics, especially with two parties who have not found common ground in the past.

Yet cohesion relies on a culture of respect which is expressed in practical ways. President Mandela demonstrated this in the early days of his presidency, by choosing to support South Africa's rugby team in their World Cup quest.

When pressed by his fellow ANC members as to why he would lend support to what had been a key symbol of Afrikaner superiority, Mandela consistently pointed to lessons he'd learned in prison, about the power of respecting one's foes.

If one can find out enough about an opponent and show respect for their traditions, one can often turn an enemy into an ally and even a friend.

Part of a culture of honour is an open regard for the dominant milieu within the alliance. Political correctness will always fail as a means of bringing cohesion, simply because it fails to pay due deference to a society's dominant historical cultural tradition.

We are none of us children of nothing; we all spring from somewhere. We are the product of past influences, no matter how much we may seek to hide these away. Engaging the future is about recognizing the strengths of the past and building on them a platform for new things.

In any practical partnership, there will be a senior partner, a person or group who comes to the alliance with a larger share of the resources needed, or who has invested more than others in making the alliance work. Their relative size or influence cannot be hidden under the carpet - it must be recognized and acknowledged, without being used as a pretext for domination.

To sustain this coalition, Mr Clegg will need to remember that his party has one sixth the number of members in Parliament as do his Tory partners.

He will at times need to defer to the larger party on some issues, but must do so without abandoning his core convictions. In other words, he must choose his battle ground carefully.

This can be a difficult enough task in a business coalition - it will doubtless prove very tricky in a political one.

For his part, Mr Cameron will need to avoid any tendency to ride roughshod over the younger sibling in the family. Though it may be against all natural political instincts, he and his key lieutenants will need to watch out for any signs of resentment or bellicosity from their side of the table.

In the end, the coalition will only survive - and thrive - if both parties can keep their eyes on the practical goals they've set out to achieve together. They must continue to focus on the common ground between them, not in terms of ideology, but in practical policies for change on specific issues.


Copyright, Mal Fletcher 2010

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Keywords: coalition government | uk election | david cameron | nick clegg | tory/lib dem

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