Can Britain Learn to Love Compromise?

Opposites attract.

Photographer: Chris Jackson/WPA Pool/Getty Images

A clear result is the last thing voters expect from Thursday's election in the U.K. Polls say that neither of the two main parties will win a majority in the House of Commons. Days and maybe weeks of talks could follow, to see what kind of governing partnership can be cobbled together. Another election in short order is possible.

Confusing as all this may be, one point is already worth noting, regardless of the result: Britain needs to get more comfortable with the idea of compromise.

QuickTake Britain's Multiparty Politics

Britain's traditional two-party system has a lot in common with the U.S.'s. It presents voters with a stark choice between beguilingly simple alternatives -- or purports to, at any rate. Conservatives have stood for market forces and low taxes, Labour for economic planning and public services.

In practical terms, when ideology met the hard realities of governing, the differences narrowed. Lately, in fact, they've often been hard to detect. Prime Minister David Cameron and his "Big Society" Tories stand well to the left of the hard line advocated by Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s; Ed Miliband and Labour are, by the standards of "Old Labour," tepid social democrats.

Both sides continue to make much of their disagreements and do what they can to convince voters (and themselves) that the choice is momentous -- but not everybody is convinced. Indeed, the growing support for Britain's smaller parties reflects disenchantment with a conventional politics that seems to make no difference.

The convergence of the two main parties in the pragmatic, business-friendly and fiscally responsible center is in many ways a good thing. But it will take some getting used to. Britain's political culture continues to lust after lively conflict -- and insurgents such as the U.K. Independence Party and the Scottish National Party are feeding that appetite.

It's striking that the Liberal Democrats, who entered into a principled coalition with the Tories and have helped to govern the country quite well since 2010, have seen the biggest drop in support of all the contenders in this election. Their compromises involved a notorious broken promise on university tuition fees, widely condemned by their supporters as treasonous.

If Britain's new normal is coalition government, that kind of thinking will have to go. Multiparty government requires flexibility and accommodation. If you represent less than half the country, there's nothing dishonorable about cutting deals and meeting the other side halfway. Refusing to bend under such circumstances is anti-democratic.

The truth is, the Manichean simplicities of old-fashioned British politics never made much sense. Now they've outlived their usefulness altogether. As it sorts out the possibly complicated results of Thursday's election, the U.K. can make a success of its splintered politics -- but only if it accepts compromise as a virtue, not a kind of betrayal.

To contact the senior editor responsible for Bloomberg View’s editorials: David Shipley at davidshipley@bloomberg.net.