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George and the British election

Politics is the art of compromise, but rarely has compromise been so necessary a political virtue in Britain as it is today.

Very soon we’ll know who’s done a deal with whom. The Liberal Democrats are the king-makers: ultimately they’ll decide whether to prop up a Tory or a Labour-led government. Let us be exceptionally generous and take the politicians at their word: let’s assume that what’s currently weighing on their minds is not personal interest, or party interest, but national interest. They may disagree about what constitutes the national interest, and how it is best achieved, but they agree that it’s what really matters.

Political and moral theory has a lot to say about compromise. And one character it’s worth remembering is George. 

George was invented by the great Bernard Williams. George was passionately and ideologically opposed to the development of biological and chemical weapons. A job came up in a company developing such weapons. George knew that if he didn’t take it then somebody else would – and this person would push forward the industry’s agenda much more zealously than George would. So what should George do?

Williams clearly believed it would be quite wrong of George to take the job, even if taking the job were the best means of achieving his aims. It would be anathema to George to be implicated in an industry that he so deeply abhors. Williams was making a point about integrity: that it’s not merely the consequences of one’s actions that matter: one cares too about the nature of one’s link to these consequences.

The party negotiators harp on about the national interest, but they ought to keep George in mind. All negotiators recognize that they will have to make compromises: they have to shuffle priorities, drop some manifesto commitments, sign up to some policies that they’ve previously campaigned against. They will make these compromises because they believe that, on balance, and given the political realities, Britain is better off with that particular bundle of policies than no bundle, or than with any alternative bundle.

But they’ll also be implicated in every part of the deal they strike – they’ll be connected with the entire bargain, the whole shabang, the bits they agree with and the bits they don’t.

In the next few hours we’ll see which parties can justifiably maintain that their integrity is intact.

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