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You can’t have a consensus of one party

“I believe that [we] need a new type of politics which embraces everyone in this nation, not just a select few. A politics built on consensus, not division. A politics built on engaging with people, not excluding them. A politics that draws on the widest range of talents and expertise, not the narrow circles of power.”

Fine words, but who said them? No, it wasn’t Alex Salmond, though he has used almost identical language to describe the virtues of minority government. It was the Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, announcing his plans for citizens’ juries to a sceptical Westminster last week.

And here is Alex Salmond announcing his risk-averse legislative programme in Holyrood last week and promising government which will: ‘propose and lead but cannot compel or dictate… one which persuades rather than one which asserts the domination of one party or coalition or one world view”. How strange that these two great political rivals are talking about abolishing political rivalry – talking same language of political renewal, of engaging the public, abandoning tribalism, using all the talents.

Mind you, many will say that talk is all it is. Cynics claim Salmond and Brown are just pursuing the old political game by new and subtler means. My own view is that they are both in their own ways sincere, but strangely naive about the nature and limits of consensus and consultation in an adversarial political system like ours. You can’t lead on your own – you need followers, and the rival parties are not about to fall behind Alex Salmond or Gordon Brown just because they’ve called for a new organic, whole-grain politics or put forward non-controversial bills. It takes at least two to consent.

Brown’s high-flown rhetoric came crashing down earth last week as the opposition parties trashed his citizen’s juries as glorified focus groups, and asked why, if the defects in our system of government are so serious, he hadn’t tried to do something about them over the last ten years. Labour has been talking about citizens’ juries almost as long as it has been in office, and Tony Blair actually set up a “Peoples Panel” in 1998 to involve the public in decision making. It died quietly some years later, only to be resurrected now, as a means – critics say – of lending legitimacy to policies that have already been decided, like nuclear energy. The juries will have no legislative role, and are for consultation only.

Similarly, Brown’s proposal for a Speaker’s conference on constitutional reform was rubbished, in much the same terms as Alex Salmond’s “national conversation” has been, as partisan – a cod consultation designed to furnish support for the government’s own settled views. Brown’s constitutional convention will exclude issues like Europe, the West Lothian Question and electoral reform from its agenda, let alone independence. The irony, of course, is that the Westminster opposition are attacking Brown in the same terms as the Labour opposition in Holyrood are attacking Salmond.

The First Minister received a pretty sharp lesson on the limits of the new politics last week at First Minister’s Question Time. He was mocked by Labour’s Cathy Jamieson for his failure to deliver manifesto promises on housing grants, more police and PFI which don’t actually require legislation. Not a lot of consensus there. When Salmond said that these matters had been put out for “consultation”, in line with the new politics of public engagement, the house jeered to the rafters.

Yet, Labour is clearly in the consultation game too – all the parties are. Consultation, consultation, consultation has become the great political cliché of the age now that politicians have given up on education cubed. For Gordon Brown it means citizen’s juries and a national debate on a written constitution; for the Liberal Democrats, as Ming Campbell will tell his conference this month, it means electoral reform and reversing the relationship between government and the people through a UK constitutional convention; and for the SNP it means a national debate on parliament’s powers and a new style of minority government based on co-operation rather than competition.

And for the rest of us it means a lot of long words which don’t mean a very great deal, because we see very well how the parties behave themselves in practice. Competition is written into the DNA of our system because winning elections is the first responsibility of any political party, and that means making promises to the electorate – promises which are rarely fulfilled. Oppositions see it, rightly, as their job to hold governments to account if they fail to deliver, and that is what the voters expect them to do. This immediately poses real limits to cross-party consensus and co-operative politics.

When he was challenged over his shelved promises, Alex Salmond responded to the effect that Rome wasn’t built in a day and neither can the new Scotland be built in 112; it is ludicrous for the parties to demand that all manifesto pledges are implemented immediately a new government takes office. Nevertheless, what politicians say to get elected matters. At a time when public spending is being reined in, there are real questions about whether the SNP can afford to deliver on the expectations it has generated on cutting class sizes, axing council tax, abolishing student debt.

Mind you, Labour can hardly claim that it has never made election promises which fall by the wayside. Remember Gordon Brown in 1997 saying that “I will not allow house prices to get out of control’; John Prescott saying that.”I will have failed if, in five year’s time, there are not fewer journeys by car” , Tony Blair promising to be “purer than pure”. Politicians are mocked by time and chance.

The other dimension to Brown’s new consensus politics which resonates with developments in Holyrood, involves co-opting members of the other parties into his administration. Labour’s Scottish leader-in-waiting, Wendy Alexander, is likely to follow this example in Holyrood, by inviting Liberal Democrats into her fold. Brown says he wants a government of “all the talents”, and has attracted big names, like the disaffected former Tory deputy treasurer, Johan Eliasch, who will advise on the environment.

But the opposition parties say the PM is just playing politics yet again. Political parties in the Commons have long sought to undermine their rivals by inducing disaffected MPs to ‘cross the floor’. Like Lenin’s “useful idiots” they are lured by vanity into the arms of the party opposite to be used as political hostages to misfortune. If Brown had been serious about his cross-party philosophy, Tories say, why didn’t he consult David Cameron and get his permission first? Why go behind his back? Does anyone seriously believe that Gordon Brown, one of the godfathers of Labour spin, is not seeking party advantage on the eve of a possible early election?

But I don’t want to succumb to knee jerk cynicism here. I think something serious is going on and that Brown and Salmond are trying to come to terms with the collapse of respect and trust in politicians. Both leaders are political enthusiasts who love their work and want everyone to see politics as clean and wholesome again, as they do. I believe they are genuine, up to a point – but that point is winning elections. They are members of political parties which must win power, and that means that, all too often, their actions will belie their fine words.

About @iainmacwhirter

I'm a columnist for the Herald. Author of "Road to Referendum" and "Disunited Kingdom". Was a BBC TV and radio presenter for 25 years - "Westminster Live" and "Holyrood Live" mainly. Spent time as columnist for The Observer, Guardian, New Statesman. Former Rector of Edinburgh University. Live in Edinburgh and spend a lot of time in the French Pyrenees. Will that do?


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