måndag 1 september 2008

The Shape of British politics

House of Commons interior (parliamentary copyright)

Members of the British House of Commons sit opposite each other in facing rows. The layout was inherited from the middle ages, when the first meetings were held in a chapel with a similar layout. There is a government and an opposition, and the confrontational approach is reinforced by the first-past-the-post electoral system.

In an interview a few weeks ago, one MP praised the system as ensuring that everything gets properly discussed and both sides of every question are aired and thrashed out. He referred to its origin in the arts of debate developed in classical Greece and Rome.

Confrontation is not a good principle and in a fast-changing world it is not serving the country well. There are usually more than two sides to an issue. Confrontation leaves no room for a third point of view. Worse still, such a system absolutely prevents a shifting of the fundamental terms of any argument, since both parties to the debate are sharing the underlying assumptions. It also serves as a bad model for conducting discussion both in the public realm and privately. Institutionalised confrontation is not something to be proud of.

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