Crises Are No Time for Political Unity

The leader of Britain’s Labour Party is showing what you can do when you don’t have a leader’s bully pulpit.

Getty / The Atlantic

No healthy democracy exists without a vigorous opposition. In The Devil’s Dictionary, the journalist Ambrose Bierce defined the O-word as “the party that prevents the government from running amuck by hamstringing it.” The Pulitzer-winning historian Richard Hofstadter argued that “modern democracy was created by the competition between political parties and is unthinkable without them.”

Yet a crisis always prompts suggestions that opposition is either nitpicking, destabilizing, or outright traitorous. In early April, nearly two-thirds of Britons said they would support a government of national unity to tackle the coronavirus. The implication was that taking party politics out of the equation would improve the country’s response. History is often conscripted into this pro-unity argument. The former Conservative Party treasurer Michael Ashcroft this month satirically claimed that if the Second World War happened today, common questions would include “Does the siren apply to everyone?” “Why can’t I have almond milk on my ration card?” and “Why didn’t we have stockpiles of Spitfires [fighter planes] at the start of this conflict?”

However, he was invoking an aspect of the past that didn’t exist. The government of the time did face questions about the clarity of its messages, vegetarians were entitled to special ration books, and equipment shortages were a subject of parliamentary debate. Eight months into the war, Neville Chamberlain—the architect of the appeasement policy toward Hitler—was forced to resign as prime minister. Later, even though Britain had a wartime “national government,” there was still an unofficial leader of the opposition. The importance of scrutiny in a democratic country, even one at war, was understood.

In the face of an immediate threat to the nation, “there’s a legitimate desire to pull together,” Robert Saunders, an expert in British history at Queen Mary University of London, told me. “But when has this produced good decision making?” He pointed to the example of the First World War’s early days, when the press consistently raised questions over artillery-shell shortages. By contrast, in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq, the Labour government in London had a large parliamentary majority, meaning it could ignore protests that its actions were rushed or ill-considered. For an opposition to exist is not enough; it also needs to be heard.

During the coronavirus crisis, the British government has dismissed criticism as opportunistic, and better saved for a future (and as yet theoretical) public inquiry. Ministers have been quick to seize upon the idea that the media, in particular, have gone too far. “Frankly, the way questions are being asked by journalists irritates a lot of the public at the moment,” Health Secretary Matt Hancock told the broadcaster ITV last month.

Why are those in charge throwing their weight around like this? Because they can. A government has the power to offer bailouts, to throw lifelines to threatened industries, to tell citizens where they can go and what they can do. Many incumbents around the world have benefited from a coronavirus poll bounce, a phenomenon that political scientists call the “rally-around-the-flag effect.” The pandemic has also pushed leaders forward. Donald Trump regularly preens about the ratings success of his press conferences; here in Britain, daily briefings by the prime minister or his chosen lieutenants lead the news coverage overnight and into the next day. In France, Emmanuel Macron’s prime-time broadcast on April 13 was watched by an estimated 86 percent of the country. The unshowy Angela Merkel had high ratings for a similar address, telling Germans that “since World War II, there has been no greater challenge to our country that depends so much on us acting together in solidarity.”

These leaders can make full use of their bully pulpit, but their opponents struggle to be heard at all. “Where is Joe Biden?” asked a BuzzFeed article at the start of April. “Online, being drowned out by the coronavirus and Trump.” In Britain, the new leader of the opposition, Labour’s Keir Starmer, is trying to break through. His positive approval ratings suggest that he is having some success.

Starmer has one advantage that many other opposition leaders around the world do not: The British parliamentary system was designed with adversarialism in mind, right down to its architecture. Politicians sit on two sets of benches facing each other in the House of Commons, and every Wednesday, the leader of the opposition gets to ask the prime minister six questions, live and face-to-face.

As a former lawyer, Starmer has used these sessions to prosecute a sharply defined case against the government. The first time he faced Boris Johnson, his initial question was open-ended and unanswerable. The prime minister had hailed the “apparent success” of the government’s approach, even as Britain recorded the highest death toll in Europe, Starmer said. “That is not success, or apparent success, so can the Prime Minister tell us: How on earth did it come to this?” The next week, Starmer flustered Johnson again with a question about elderly care, leading to a beautifully childish rebuttal from an unnamed Downing Street source, quoted in the Financial Times: “Keir Starmer is the one who was rattled.” The FT also reported that the prime minister’s team wanted an end to social distancing in the Commons sessions in order to get more cheering supporters behind him during such encounters.

Starmer is an interesting test case for how to oppose during a crisis, because he became the Labour leader in early April, after Britain was already under lockdown. He has only been a crisis leader. He entered the job carrying little political baggage; commentators have found identifying his precise political beliefs difficult. In his very first speech, accepting the leadership, Starmer promised to “engage constructively with the government, not opposition for opposition’s sake.” His precise jabs at Prime Minister’s Questions allow him to maintain that line. He also secured a prime-time slot on the BBC to respond to Johnson’s plan to ease the lockdown, during which he voiced statesmanlike praise of key workers, rather than overtly partisan attacks on the prime minister.

His approach has been calibrated to deal with the government’s current popularity—while betting that it will not last. “There isn’t a mood for slashing political attacks,” Saunders said. “There is a mood for careful questions on [personal protective equipment] not being delivered.” Starmer’s bet is that social distancing, and the economic disruption it brings, will last for many months, and that the government’s poll lead will start to wither. At that point, he will have a track record of established criticisms to point to, rather than seeming opportunistic.

The judgment call for any opposition leader during a national crisis is how to move between acknowledging the size of the government’s task, contributing to a sense of solidarity, and criticizing specific policy failings. Michael Howard, who was the Conservative leader when terrorists killed 52 people in London in July 2005, told me that it was important for an opposition not to undermine “a sense of national cohesion.” In the first Prime Minister’s Questions after those bombings, he did not go on the attack, but instead offered sympathy to the families of those killed, and made a nonpartisan point about the importance of not blaming British Muslims for Islamist terror. “Where you pitch the balance will vary from crisis to crisis,” he said. “I think [Starmer] probably just kept inside the line—just—of not overstepping the mark.”

Howard pointed out another pressure that opposition leaders face—from lawmakers within their own party, who might relish tough talk. Starmer beat the former Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn’s preferred candidate to the party leadership, and some of his colleagues, as well as left-wing activists, would like to see him challenge the government more strongly.

British voters should be glad that Starmer is providing effective opposition—whether they support his party or not. As my colleague Anne Applebaum has pointed out, the pandemic has given leaders in countries such as Israel and Hungary an excuse to award themselves greater powers, many with broad popular support. Even the most liberal and rule-abiding politician feels the pull of “running amuck,” as Bierce put it, by preventing the opposition from “hamstringing” their decisions.

Expect calls for unity to increase if and when the national mood shifts and support for the government dwindles. Emerging from lockdown presents a new and difficult challenge for the Conservatives, the traditional party of the wealthy: As knowledge workers can stay at home while the lower-paid return, and as unions question whether the government is endangering lives to allow businesses to reopen, this is a perilous time for the government. Although everyone has had their life disrupted by the coronavirus, the pain is not being felt equally. That leaves huge scope for unhappiness and resentment.

Saunders predicts a period of bitter political polarization ahead. “It’s in the nature of a crisis like this,” he said. “You get an economy of sacrifice, in which people weigh their own sacrifice against others’. People who’ve been working through this, they feel very jealous of people who have been furloughed and have got time on their hands. People who have lost jobs will feel that others got their salaries paid all the way through.”

Voters currently say they want unity from their politicians, but voters are fickle. Keir Starmer has shown one successful way to oppose a government during a crisis. Might he need a completely different approach to oppose a government in the aftermath of one?