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.