Parliament Square last night as the defeat of the EU Exit Withdrawal Agreement was announced (photo: James Kemp)

In the UK we’re living in divided times, so is it time we had a government of national unity? After last night’s defeat of the government’s proposed withdrawal agreement it may be time for something different. Labour have tabled a no confidence motion in the government. While it looks likely to fail. However, all it takes is a couple of Conservative or DUP MPs to abstain or rebel and our government will fall. We’ll find out later today.

Government of National Unity

We last had a government of national unity from the early thirties until the end of the second world war. The government was formed of all parties, as was the loyal opposition. The original reason for forming the coalition was because the original (Labour majority) government was split on how to deal with the depression. The Cabinet voted 11-9 and some of the heavyweights resigned rather than follow the majority.

It was easier to form a cross-party coalition on the issues of the day than to form a government from a single party. So a government of national unity was formed. This lasted through a general election (in 1935). Then the second world war came along, making the 1935 Parliament the longest in British history.

Our Current Problem

This will sound familiar if you watch British politics. We’ve got two major parties split by the main issue of the day. Neither party leader can create a workable government without involving minority parties and extremist points of view.

The current government relies on the DUP and also some hard Brexit extremists within the Conservative Party. Events have shown that neither group is reasonable nor reliable. It’s clear from the other voices in the government that there are many that are holding their noses. Some are barely tolerating the extreme positions being forced on the government. It got to the point where the government was expected to deliver an impossible solution, because of mutually exclusive conditions being placed on it.

The opposition are no better off. If Theresa May were to tell Jeremy Corbyn to have a go it’s highly doubtful he could get a minority government together. Like the Conservative Party, the Labour Party has a broad spectrum of views on Brexit, from extreme Remain to Hard Brexit. He’d be hard pushed to fill a Cabinet that agreed on the best interests of the UK.

Is there National Unity?

It’s hard to see from the news media how we can come to middle ground. Everything is presented as polar opposites. From one perspective it looks like they’ve already dug ditches they’re ready to die in. However this is just the noise, and the need to show different sides. I don’t believe that we’re as polar as it appears.

Most people weren’t voting on the extreme positions (many did, but not a majority in either camp). A majority aren’t that passionate about it, and are capable of seeing both sides. They’re aware of the benefits, and also the costs. They’d be happy to get to a deal that minimises loss, yet meets both the spirit and intent of our democracy.

How does a Government of National Unity Help?

The big risk is being held to ransom by the extremists. At either end. Which is where we are today. The extremists are probably less than a hundred of the six hundred plus MPs. This is enough for them to have leverage if only one party forms a government. A government of national unity would draw on the pragmatists and moderates.

A government of national unity could be formed from MPs willing to put the national interest ahead of party politics. It would need just under four hundred supporters. At a minimum both Labour and Conservative MPs. Scottish National Party and Liberal Democrat MPs would be useful additions, as would some of the non-DUP NI parties and Plaid Cymru.

It would need to be formed soon, no later than the end of January. A government of national unity could take a sensible negotiating position based on the middle ground of a soft brexit. It might properly debate a confirmatory vote (by Parliament, with each MP voting freely) to restore faith in democracy.

Who would lead?

It’s unlikely that such a government of national unity could coalesce around either of the main party leaders. Theresa May doesn’t appear to want to do this, even though she’s now safe from being ousted by her party MPs if she tried. Jeremy Corbyn has been attacked too much as well. So it’s hard to see who could lead it if the idea grew legs.