The dying art of compromise

28th June, 2019

I don’t often find myself agreeing with Esther McVey, but I wondered this week whether the candidate for leader of the UK Conservative party might accidentally have spoken the truth: “People saying we need a Brexit policy to bring people together are misreading the situation. That is clearly not possible.”

The British do indeed seem in no mood to compromise. The results of elections to the European Parliament produced a thunderous endorsement of parties that proudly reject an attempt to find common ground on Brexit. The Conservatives and Labour, each caught in an awkward straddle, were slaughtered. Labour offered the slogan “let’s bring our country together”. Ha! Voters preferred the Liberal Democrats (“Bollocks to Brexit”) and the Brexit party (“they’re absolutely terrified of us”).

Sometimes an extreme position is the correct one. When King Solomon proposed cutting the baby in half, it wasn’t because he was looking for the middle ground.

Yet a capacity to find compromises is a good thing to have. Positions may differ, but whether we live in the same home or on the opposite side of the planet, we benefit when we can find a way to get along.

If this new distaste for compromise is a problem, it is not the UK’s alone. Positions seem to be hardening everywhere, the sclerotic arteries that may lead to a heart attack for western democracies. Perhaps this is driven by personalities. For a man whose name adorns a book titled The Art of The Deal, Donald Trump is curiously uninterested in negotiating lasting agreements with anyone. Or maybe it is a function of an information ecosystem in which outrage sells.

Perhaps the problems themselves are more intractable. Some issues do not lend themselves to compromise. Brexit is one. Splitting the difference between Remainers and hard Brexiters is less like cutting a cake and more like splattering its ingredients everywhere. Egg on my face, flour on yours, and nobody even partially satisfied.

Abortion is another. There is a principled case to be made for a woman’s absolute right to control her body. There is also a principled case to be made for the absolute right to life of a foetus. But like the unstoppable cannonball and the immovable post, both rights cannot be absolute simultaneously.

In contrast, other complex and emotive problems may still allow for compromise. On climate change, we can shrug and do nothing, or we can turn our economic system upside down, but there is plenty of middle ground between those options. In a trade negotiation, a mutually advantageous outcome is almost always there to be discovered.

Roger Fisher and William Ury’s classic negotiation handbook Getting to Yes advises: focus on the problem rather than the personalities; explore underlying interests rather than explicit positions; and consider options that may open up scope for mutual benefit. We may find a much better way to split the cake if we discover that you scrape the icing into the bin, while I would happily eat it with a spoon. It is sometimes astonishing how far a principled negotiation can go towards giving both sides what they want.

It is clear that we British have failed to follow this advice. Our debate is driven by a bitter focus on personalities, from Theresa May to Nigel Farage to Jeremy Corbyn to the generic “Remoaner elite”. Each side knows what the other wants but has shown very little interest in why they want it. Without sincerely exploring the underlying aims and values of warring tribes there is no chance of finding an outcome everyone can accept.

The US debate also seems the antithesis of Fisher and Ury’s advice. Too many politically active people seek the humiliation of the other tribe. Dismissing compromise as craven appeasement seems to be a winning tactic, particularly in the primary elections that set the tone of US politics.

Compromise, however, is often possible even in unpromising situations. On abortion, for example, it emerges with a focus not on absolute rights but on practicalities. Many people can get behind policies to minimise unwanted pregnancies, and to make abortions safe and regulated rather than dangerous and illicit. It is a middle ground that many countries manage to find.

One can see politics as a competitive sport or a search for solutions. There’s truth in both views. However, a democratic election is far closer to a competition than to a principled negotiation. Do we not wish to see the opposite team soundly thrashed? Do we not boo their villainous antics and laugh at their mishaps? Who wants to play out a nil-nil draw?

I would not want to venerate compromise as the supreme good in politics. Sometimes it really is true that you and I, dear reader, are absolutely right and they are absolutely wrong. (It may even be true that we are absolutely wrong and they are absolutely right.) Either way, the merits of the case must be weighed against the merits of trying to respect everyone. It feels good to win, but this isn’t a fairytale: the losers won’t stamp their feet and vanish through the floor. They — or we — aren’t going anywhere.


Written for and first published in the Financial Times on 31 May 2019.

My book “Fifty Things That Made the Modern Economy” (UK) / “Fifty Inventions That Shaped The Modern Economy” (US) is out now in paperback – feel free to order online or through your local bookshop.

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