'The Possible as the art of politics': understanding consensus politics

Heffernan, Richard (2002). 'The Possible as the art of politics': understanding consensus politics. Political Studies, 50(4) pp. 742–760.

DOI: https://doi.org/10.1111/1467-9248.00005

Abstract

Drawing on the Kuhnian model of scientific paradigms, this article suggests consensus politics should be conceptualised not as an agreement or a settlement but as a political framework that derives from an ideationally informed policy paradigm. Such a consensus constrains the auto-nomy of governing elites, encouraging them to conform to an established policy agenda that defines the 'mainstream' wherein 'the possible is the art of politics'. In Britain, as demonstrated by the replacement of a post-war social democratic paradigm by a contemporary neo-liberal successor, periods of policy continuity and incremental reform have been matched by occasions of dramatic political change. Any appreciation of consensus politics has therefore to explain change as well as account for stability, something considerably under emphasised in the existing literature. Consensus politics are therefore best defined as a constrained space within which politics is conducted and political actors differ, a paradigmatic framework from which political outcomes emerge, and never as an agreement freely entered into. Looking at consensus politics beyond the much commented upon post-war example, this article uses British politics since 1945 as an exemplar of consensus politics and an illustration of how a consensus can be forged, how it can endure and how it may change.

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