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Giles Fraser: Teasing out the morality of coalition

19 May 2010

Why are the newspapers being so stupid about the nature of coalition government? They are running all those shock-horror stories exposing the differences and tensions between the parties. No: “Coalition partners disagree” is not a headline — it’s a tautology. Of course coalition part­ners disagree: that’s why it’s called a coalition.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer has a brilliant passage in his Letters and Papers from Prison, where he attacks the idea that truth is always linked to exposé: as if the only way you could understand the truth about people is to see them in their underpants or in the bath. No, insists Bonhoeffer, some­times the truth is best revealed by the surface, by what is said, and, more impor­tantly, what is done. That is how I am going to judge this new Government. By their fruits . . .

Even so, coalitions raise fascin­ating questions about morality. Those who come together for some greater good — such as the national interest — are asked to swallow many of their principles in order to achieve that good. This is a real problem for those who think of morality as the having of strong and clear principles and sticking to them through thick and thin.

The Church of England is the original coalition, a spiritual coming-together for the national interest. If our new Prime Minister wants to see something of the brickbats that are hurled at the leaders of coalitions, he should look at the way Archbishops of Canter­bury always get it in the neck for not sticking to their principles.

The question is: when is weakness — i.e. compromising — actually strength? Conversely, when is the appeal to some higher interest actu­ally a fig-leaf covering a pre­paredness to give up any moral principle in order to stay in power?

The truth is that there are no obvious criteria by which these two positions can be distinguished easily. This is why, in coalitions, judgements of morality inevitably fall back upon an estimation of the character of those concerned. And this again can feed the bathroom-exposé view of morality.

I suspect that what really bugs me about the exposé model of truth is that it runs on the working assump­tion that human beings are all self-interested horrors who try to hide their inherent nastiness behind a false front. Conversely, I think that we are much more complicated than that: our good side and our bad side continually battle it out in mini campaigns throughout every nook and cranny of our psyche. This is why, morally, it is much better to play the ball and not the man. Translated for non-football fans: it is what they do that matters.

The Revd Dr Giles Fraser is Canon Chancellor of St Paul’s Cathedral and Director of the St Paul’s Institute.

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