Normally, I don’t pay a huge amount of attention to the politics of my adopted country, usually because I happen to disagree with some aspect of policy pretty much most of the time.
My indifference also stems from the fact that I can’t do anything about the state of affairs here, since, as an American alien resident in Britain, I can’t vote and so don’t have any say about who is in office.
But ever since the extraordinary outcome of the recent election, which resulted in a hung Parliament, and the new coalition created between the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats, I have been riveted by the course of events and by all the lessons we can learn from this turn of events in living life according to a new set of rules.
How it all works
For those of you who don’t understand the British system, here’s a short course in how it works over here. When British citizens vote, they don’t vote for a prime minister or party to rule, but only for their local Member of Parliament (MP), who represents their constituency, or local district (much as a member of the House of Representatives does in the States).
The system, like the American electoral college, is winner-take-all; whoever gets the most votes in each constituency (no matter whether they are a minority of the total) wins the seat. There are currently some 650 seats in the House of Commons; the party with a clear majority (or 326 seats or more) is then the governing party. The leader of that party then becomes the prime minister.
Virtually all the time, either the Labour or Conservative Party gets a majority. This gives them a clear mandate to shove through pretty much any law they like for their term in office without opposition. In fact, it’s the only way Britain can govern, under the current system.
With very little check and balance, after a time, as I’ve seen with both the Thatcher and Blair governments, the reigning party initially pushes forward enthusiastically with its agenda, but before long, flushed with unopposed power, it turns fat, sleazy, irresponsible and corrupt.
The new deal
This time it was different. The British people did not vote in a clear majority, which resulted in a ‘hung’ Parliament. Although the Conservatives won the most seats, about 50 more than Labour, they didn’t reach the magic number. The Liberal Democrats, the center-left third party, held the election in the balance. If they joined the Conservatives, they’d have a clear majority. With a Labour party, they’d still have to round up all the other parties in order to produce a ‘rainbow’ majority
David Cameron, the Tory leader, made Nick Clegg, the Lib Dem leader, a big, open offer. For several days representatives of both parties eventually hammered out a deal, giving a little here, taking a little there, until a centrist compromise they could both live with was struck, signed and planned for the next five years.
Since that time, many members of the public and the press from either side of the fence have spoken bitterly of their party’s ‘betrayal’ and abandonment of its conservative or liberal principles, and the fact that Clegg and Cameron, formerly so combative during the election, are now, thick as thieves.
To blame this all on politics as usual is to miss the bigger picture here and the lesson for all of us. Of course the inexorable drive for power played a role in the deal; no one enters politics without that basic instinct.
Nevertheless, the point is both parties were able to put aside their differences, have a respectful, grown-up negotiation and find a good deal of common ground. Some of the worse ideas in either party got thrown off the bargaining table. In a situation that hasn’t occurred in British politics for nearly a 100 years, members of both parties are sitting in the inner cabinet and making policy together; five members of the Lib Dems were appointed in the cabinet, including Nick Clegg as deputy prime minister. A seasoned Lib Dem financier is sitting beside the Tory Chancellor of the Exchequer to decide on bank-reform policy.
Call me naïve, but what I think is happening with this government only tends to happen during war. The incoming government knows that Britain is not only literally engaged in two wars, but also at war financially. Our ‘external debt’ – that is, what we owe the rest of the world — is estimated at 400 per cent of gross domestic product. We are in the worst financial state of all countries in the G8 - four times worse than the US.
Psychologists call putting aside differences and working for the common good a ‘superordinate’ goal – a goal only achieved by large cooperative teamwork. The native American Cherokees call working together in this manner ‘gadugi’. Engaging in sharing and teamwork tends to transcend differences, because it emphasizes the very heart of humanity — that we are all in this together. And if we are all in this together, we are no longer competing and scrapping with each other.
Discrimination doesn’t require conflict or indeed much besides the flimsiest designation of otherness. As American psychologist Henri Taifel demonstrated in a study, when a batch of adolescent boys were simply told that certain others had scored the same score as them at a computer task, they began to band together and discriminate against those who hadn’t achieved the same score.
Difference of any sort that gets emphasized is enough to create a ‘minimal group’ and, consequently, an outgroup. All it takes is any kind of a wall, no matter how flimsy.
A social scientist called Doise observed the very human tendency to place ourselves into categories and suggested that one way that we can come together is in ‘cross cutting categories’ — attaching ourselves to more than one group. That not only reduces the prejudice against out groups but tends to stop people from comparing themselves to other groups.
It also reduces our need to relate to just a single factor — religion, or gender, socio-economic background or, in this instance, politics — in order to feel that we belong.
Let’s for God’s sake, join hands and give them a chance — and perhaps even learn from the British experience. At this decisive moment in history, everywhere around the world, we are indeed all in this together.