UK election outcome: lessons for peacebuilding

Inclusive democracy is a key constituent of positive peace. Does the surprise coalition government in Britain have lessons for the peace movement?

Diana Francis
25 May 2010

Here in the UK we are beginning to digest the outcome of our recent electoral process, which brought us a new coalition government for which no single person voted, so demonstrating the complexity of the relationship between individual actions and their combined consequences. More often than not our current system produces a clear ‘winner’, one of the two largest parties having a minority of votes but an absolute parliamentary majority and so being able to form a single-party government. Smaller parties are excluded from power and as a consequence remain small, since not all their adherents are happy to ‘waste’ their vote.  Such a system is therefore unsatisfactory in terms of both representation and pluralism.

In line with this win-lose, binary power system, and fed by it, the British style of politics is of the adversarial ‘eat or be eaten’ variety, often characterised in the House of Commons by sneering and point scoring from speakers, shouts and jeers from their audience. This is surely one of the reasons for the near invisibility of women in the election and post-election processes (paralleled by the exclusion of women journalists from key moments in the election campaign, as being inadequately pugilistic.  The inbuilt misogyny of British politics was epitomised by one male commentator – delightedly quoted by others – who likened a male politician’s behaviour to that of ‘every harlot in history’.

This macho culture has its effect. In our new parliament the number of women remains disgracefully small and only four have been appointed to the ministerial cabinet, out of 23 members, and only one of them to a key position. Lib Dem MP Lynne Featherstone, appointed to a junior ministerial role in the Home Office, told the Guardian, ‘Looking at parliament and the way it behaves, any sane woman would … say do I want to be part of this bullying, finger-pointing mob who don’t talk like human beings and are disengaged from real life?’

Just as an electoral system that is unfair to parties is undemocratic, so is a politics from whose structures, processes and power women are largely excluded. Inclusive democracy is a key constituent of positive peace. It is the true alternative to violence.  In order to work for peace it needs not only the intelligence, experience, abilities and insights of women, but also the behavioural norms and cooperative style which they are able to adopt when they work together (as against those they may use when they are trying to succeed in a men’s world).

The macho, eat or be eaten approach so evident in UK domestic politics plays out also in international affairs. It underlay the response to 9.11 and the invasion of Afghanistan, which has left so many thousands of Afghans dead, and a tragic number of occupying soldiers too. It also underlies the UK’s insistence on retaining the nuclear weapons that it denies to others. None of the three main parties here opposed the war in Afghanistan or is willing to admit their folly or promised any radically new approach to its tragic continuation. The visit to Afghanistan made in the last few days by the Coalition’s Ministers for defence, foreign affairs and international development seems to have signalled no change in policy – only an insulting, heartless and unconvincing reiteration of the primacy of UK national security interests.   Similarly, none of the three main parties took a stand against nuclear weapons. The Conservative and Labour parties both advocated the replacement of our current Trident system, whose capital cost is estimated by Greenpeace to be £34 billion. The Liberal  Democrats, claiming that the full capital and running costs would amount to £100 billion were applauded by some, derided by others, for wanting to find a cheaper alternative and pursue multilateral nuclear disarmament.  It seems this somewhat different approach has not had much impact on the essentially Tory policy adopted by the coalition government, whose defence spending looks set to remain extremely high.

The tragedy is that there was so little pre-election debate on this issue and that international affairs continue to come so low in our electoral priorities.  Despite recent shifts in public opinion on UK wars and weapons policy, established norms (reflected by the BBC and most of our newspapers) remain unchanged. The marginalisation of radical politics that is perpetuated by our electoral system contributes to this pathological conservatism. That must change. A major cultural shift is required, so that the world is seen through different lenses and the eat or be eaten approach, with its endless struggle for dominance, is replaced by cooperation, on the basis of interdependence.  We must work to make it clearer to the electorate and to our politicians that interdependence is now global.

The results of our elections have, for now at least, altered our politicians’ approach to each other, and the tone of their public utterances, which are currently civil, open and constructive. Yet there has been indignation at the formation of this new alliance, as well as approval, with understandable accusations of sell-out. There are indeed grounds for concern. For those of us whose focus is peace, none of their original policies matched our aspirations in any case and, in the words of our new Prime Minister, ‘Some policies have been lost on both sides, some have been changed and yes, we have had to find ways to deal with the issues where we profoundly disagree’.

Yet if we allow our disappointment to recede for a moment, I think this is not time for despair; indeed, some hope can be found. These are human beings who, as such, will have impure motives and ambitions. They are also, I suspect, people with a real desire to live up to the ideals embodied in their own rhetoric. We may consider that their policies are at odds with those ideals and this is ground for serious debate, but the ideals themselves - such as the ‘freedom, fairness and responsibility’ named by Nick Clegg, give a useful reference point, providing an opportunity for those who wish to hold their politicians to account. Confronting differences is necessary. But assuming some good in others increases the chance of influencing them. Having passionately held values and beliefs need not mean insulting those who disagree or refusing to take the small steps that are possible and that go in the right direction.

How can principle be married with cooperation? Can respect for people be maintained in spite of profound disagreements over analysis and policy?  This is a challenge not only for politicians but for peace activists too, who also need to work in coalition across ethical and ideological divides. Learning from this process must be one item on the peacebuilding agenda in the coming years, as we support serious attempts by politicians to deal with the difficulties honestly and constructively. Unless we stop treating our political system as a battle ground it will never be a place of gender equality and without progress towards that we shall not succeed in turning the system we currently have into a vehicle for real, constructive democracy. I hope we will see a movement here for more civilised and inclusive politics, in which the common good is the common goal. It will not be easy but it could be infinitely worthwhile.

In the meantime we must act on one of the key assumptions of nonviolence: that political responsibility does not rest only with elected politicians but also with vocal and active electorates. We must form a stronger ‘peace constituency’, both locally and nationally, keeping up the pressure for nuclear disarmament, not only for its own sake but as a crucial step in furthering the aim of global nuclear disarmament that is implicit in the NPT. Commitment to this would give our government the moral right to be heard on efforts to halt and reverse the spread of nuclear weapons. We must resist any idea that war can be justified or can bring about a safer world. And we must call for a negotiated political settlement in Afghanistan, accompanied by support of every kind for Afghans who are working for peace and justice in their country. Peace cannot be imposed from outside, only built from within.

Scilla Elworthy’s arresting article points to the power and efficacy of local actors in building peace, with examples from around the world that inspire and convince. As she points out, the current funding available to support them is derisory, especially given the astronomic levels of military spending. Her proposal for a Versailles Convention in 2018, the 100th anniversary of the disastrous Versailles Treaty, is brilliant: a shining example of the power of imagination in making change possible. I hope this idea, to end ‘humanity’s bloodiest 100 years’ with a convention to prevent them, will receive the support it deserves. The preparatory work needs to begin now. I believe that the funding for it, and for the Convention itself, should be taken out of current military budgets. This expectation should be included at the launch of the campaign.

Meanwhile, for the sake of justice and inclusion, of constructive politics at home and the advancement of global peace, we must give serious and concerted attention to ending the domination of ‘macho masculinity’ in our politics and mobilising a movement of women to claim their right to equality, not only in participation, but in defining and shaping the political ethos and process that will build inclusive democracy and a more peaceful world.


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