BBC Radio 4:Catherine Pepinster - 10/06/17


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The general election result has left Britain and especially its politicians reeling. There’s talk of deals between parties, debate about the future of party leaders, and scratching of heads about a hung parliament.

But as commentators have pointed out, we’ve been here before. During the 1970s Labour clung on to power with first a hung parliament and then a slender majority. The whips of both the Government and the Conservative Opposition were continually trying to do deals with smaller parties, as well as chase their own sick MPs to get them into the Commons to vote, even if it meant bringing them in by ambulance.

These machinations, involving all kinds of political fixes, seem a far cry from high ideals, and people often think that compromise is a dirty word. Yet human beings compromise all the time.

The Jewish philosopher Avishai Margalit wrote in his 2010 account of compromise that “Ideals may tell us something important about what we would like to be, but compromises tell us who we are.”

Margalit desCRIbed the idea of political compromise as caught between two images: politics as economics and politics as religion; and these illuminate two different sets of motivations that drive political life. The economic view sees what can be substituted or exchanged, and leaves room for negotiation; and where there is negotiation, there is room for compromise, which is praised. In the religious picture, however, there are things over which we must never compromise. Politics, according to the religious image, Margalit said, is meant to give meaning to human life, but a key mistake lies in disregarding the workings of the two pictures in the belief that only one of the pictures feeds politics.

Margalit, being a realist, wants room for compromise in politics but he says there must be taboos, things that can never be done to make a deal. It’s possible to see this in the life of Christ, who compromises on religious laws about who he is supposed to eat with, who he should talk to, what he should do or not do on the Sabbath. But when it came to the final trade-off, compromising on saying who he is to the authorities, Jesus will not do it, even if it means he will be crucified.

Politicians will face tough decisions in the next few months. But as much as making deals will become a way of political life, it will be up to MPs to decide when they face a compromise too far. In that way, they can ensure that the way Britain is governed will maintain its integrity, even if makes for much more difficult politics in the short term.

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