Listen to Margaret Thatcher on the Perils of Consensus

Charlie Arlinghaus

March 14, 2012

As originally publish in the New Hampshire Union Leader


Increasingly on both ends of the political spectrum, the belief in principles and ideas is ridiculed in favor of a supposedly noble brand of gelatin called consensus. We need to heed Margaret Thatcher’s advice and realize that too often consensus is the opposite of conviction. Politicians need to be clear about where they stand, not make a virtue out of having no fixed beliefs.


When Margaret Thatcher was elected Prime Minister of the United Kingdom in 1979, major political parties were used to disagreeing on very little. The differences tended to be in tone and speed. The notion of consensus snuffed out any major disagreements.


But Thatcher was different. On her arrival, she said “I’m not a consensus politician. I’m a conviction politician.” At the time, convictions and principles were seen as getting in the way of government.


Thatcher’s denunciation of the supposed virtue of consensus rings true for us today: “To me consensus seems to be the process of abandoning all beliefs, principles, values and policies in search of something in which no one believes, but to which no one objects—the process of avoiding the very issues that have to be solved, merely because you cannot get agreement on the way ahead.”


Thatcher understood that sometimes we’re going to disagree. That’s perfectly acceptable in a free society. If we disagree about a solution, the right solution isn’t for you to agree to do half of what you think is a bad idea and me to do half of what I think is a bad idea.


But among much of the chattering classes, convictions and principles are annoying and get in the way of everyone just agreeing with them.


A friend sent me an article from the New Yorker in which political scientists fret that party nominations are no longer controlled by deliberative party conventions and the candidate who has the most endorsements from party elite.


Instead, one political scientist refers to activists “who care a great deal about policy and ideology.” He’s annoyed by these “intense policy demanders” and suggests “their mission is to find the most extreme candidate who can win.”


The prophets of consensus don’t like what Thatcher calls conviction. They call it “ideology” which they regard as the intense demand of an extremist. For them, to believe in something is an obstacle to the glorious consensus.

In this respect they agree with Thatcher’s characterization of consensus. Instead of disagreeing they would respond to her quote by retorting “you say that like it’s a negative thing.”


As we approach elections for both president and governor, it’s hard for me to be upset about people “who care a great deal about policy.” That people who vote on who represents us in determining public policy should care about policy seems not just natural but healthy.


Elections have consequences and the people we elect are going to do things. I’d like to know ahead of time what they plan on doing. In that sense, I am an intense policy demander and you should be too. In electing the chief policy officer of the country or the state, they have an obligation to tell us more than “I’m going to roll up my sleeves and get to work.”


At the state level, both parties have primaries. This is all to the good. Because they have to debate, engage in conversation, and talk to people “who care a great deal about policy and ideology,” we’ll learn more about their beliefs, principles, values, and policies. That will keep them from avoiding the issues that have to be solved.

If the election is a conversation that involves everyone, it will help persuade and educate the populace so the policies and proposals of the next administration aren’t a surprise.


No one would suggest that compromise and practicality shouldn’t be part of politics. The perfect should never be the enemy of the good. But what we honestly believe are good ideas should not be abandoned simply because there isn’t consensus.


The president pursued his health care plan without consensus because he thought it was a good idea. The Republican plan to balance the budget wasn’t a consensus plan but they thought it was a good idea. To wait for consensus would prevent any action and lead to the tyranny of the status quo.


The pursuit of “something in which no believes but to which no one objects” is not a virtue. This election, we need conviction politicians not consensus politicians.


Charles Arlinghaus is president of the Josiah Bartlett Center for Public Policy, a free market think tank based in Concord. He can be reached at [email protected]