Wednesday, 26 May 2010

A Victorian coalition?

George Osborne's address to the CBI last week, while fairly predictable in most respects, was notable for one brief point he made. Gideon, no doubt bigging up the merits of coalition government and the parties' common ground, appeared to suggest both parties had spent the 2005/10 parliament rediscovering their nineteenth century roots.

For the Conservatives, the middle-class brashness of Thatcherism had given way to the far more aristocratic and Etonian niceties of Disraeli's 'One Nation' Conservatism, he said. As for the Liberal Democrats, Clegg's 'Orange Bookers' had jettisoned the party's 'woolly' liberalism and social democracy, embracing that great colossus of Victorian political history, Gladstonian Liberalism.

Just imagine what that could mean, for a moment. The nineteenth century consensus consisted of free trade, balanced budgets, low public spending, low taxes, small government, responsibility and self-reliance. Where Gladstone and Disraeli differed in actual policy, these were not so highly irreconcilable (asthey were) that they could not be ironed out. We could, for example, be in store for a glorious yet moral foreign policy, with a Liberal laissez-faire tempered by a Tory paternalism - though these may, admittedly, end up being the other way round.

Whether this is the case remains to be seen, but it does pose some striking questions about why the Liberal Democrats exist at all. If the above description sounds familiar, for example, it is because we have seen it before - it is essentially Thatcherism without the circumstantial things Thatcher had to do to reverse the post-war Socialist consensus (privatisation, trade union reform etc.) Indeed, in John Ranelagh's Thatcher's People (1991), Thatcherism was described as "essentially common ground between Conservatives and Liberals in the nineteenth century."

If Clegg & co. have no issue with this then, it does bring one to question why they haven't simply joined the Conservatives. Their europhilia need not be an issue - they do, after all, have Ken Clarke in the cabinet. Lord Heseltine (another europhile and former National Liberal) was on TV only the other day describing how he used to tell Liberal voters the only difference between them was that Tories win.

There are those Liberal Democrats, too, who have shown themselves to be far more at home with Labour and therefore completely undeserving of the word 'liberal.' It is perhaps not as well known as it ought to be that the Lib Dems are essentially a coalition between Liberals and Social Democrats (indeed, when the party was formed in 1988, its first guise was as the Social & Liberal Democrats). These are political traditions from entirely opposing philosophical foundations.

So where are we heading? Will British politics be 'coming home', with Liberals and Conservatives as the two major parties and Labour a distant third? I for one would be very supportive of such an outcome, where politics - as in the US - becomes less a struggle over ends (socialism and capitalism) as means.

Things could go either way, though. We may well see the disappearance of the Liberal Democrats, with the Liberals in the party flocking to the Conservatives and Social Democrats to Labour. The latter in particular would not be all that surprising (not least because Paddy Ashdown has long entertained the thought) - the Social Democratic Party was founded in 1981 because of Labour's then-leftward lurch. But Tony Blair reversed this, realising everything the SDP had set out to achieve with New Labour. It's aims have become redundant.

The historic outcome of this year's election has reminded us that British politics is forever in a state of flux. The relative stability and predictability of the last sixty (and especially thirty) years is by no means the norm of our political tradition, as anyone familiar with nineteenth and early twentieth century politics will know. It's very possible that 2015 may be an even more exciting election year than 2010 and, given the political turmoil of that century, the coalition may leave a very Victorian legacy indeed.

Monday, 17 May 2010

Why support the Liberal Conservative coalition?

May 7 was an awful day for me. Having stayed up all night for the election results, my early hopes were dashed in the afternoon as word got out to our claustrophobic computer room at Norton College, Sheffield that the Lib Dems were in talks with Labour.

The unreal possibility of Gordon Brown somehow clinging to power, hanging precipitously by his badly bitten fingernails for another five years in Mugabe-esque fashion was enough to make me consider moving to New Zealand.

I moped for the rest of the day in deep despair, mulling over and over in my head how this could possibly have happened in a democratic country. Suddenly I felt a thunderbolt of sympathy in my breast with all those multi-coloured revolutionaries who fought back against the betrayal of a stolen election.

So imagine my joy that evening as events so quickly unravelled, like dominoes tripped by a chance gust of righteous wind; Brown resigned and a formal Liberal Conservative coalition was announced within the hour.

Rejoice! Rejoice! Rejoice! (to quote Edward Heath) - for the first time since I was 11 years old there was a Tory at Number 10. Those two years of campaigning, of slogging from one end of Yorkshire to the other were not in vain.

And in the aftermath, it seems we really have entered a brave new world. Not only is this just the third two-party coalition in this country since 1837, but it seems our politicians' promises of a 'new politics' were actually in good faith. Sacre bleu!

The Liberal Conservative coalition (can we set the Peelite/Whig government of 1837 is a precedent?) currently enjoys a 75-seat majority in the House of Commons and, after the Clegg-Cameron love-in, seems to be working well. There is a strong personal chemistry between the Prime Minister and his Deputy and the parties seem genuinly united on issues surrounding deficit reduction and civil liberties.

Yet there are those, inevitably, who oppose the coalition. They do so stupidly and irresponsibly. The Tory right wail of watered-down policies while the Lib Dem left hiss at a misplaced sense of betrayal. The press - already bored of such a historic event - cannot wait to sink their teeth into a 'cabinet splits' story.

But what will they achieve with such whinging? The collapse of the coalition? And then what? Chaos. The pound would collapse, Britain's credit rating would evaporate and we may very well find ourselves in such a pitiful state as Greece. Or with a Labour government . Not that the eventual outcome would be any different.

The Liberal Democrat-aligned think tank Liberal Vision did a good job of rubbishing the persistant delusion of a Lib/Lab 'progressive alliance' three days ago and in so doing drew attention to the many attitudes and policies the Liberals have in common with the Conservatives.

Both parties campaigned on the issue of decentralisation and slashing bureaucracy, giving power back to the people to manage their own lives - anathema to Labour ideology.

They were the only two parties who campaigned during the election to rapidly reduce the deficit by making savage cuts and both criticised the careless, runaway public spending of Labour over their last two terms. I had honestly expected us to be campaigning on this point alone, so was pleasantly surprised.

It's often forgotten, though, that the Liberals have seen eye-to-eye with Conservatives on economic matters a number of occasions in the past. As far back as 1955, they opposed rising trade union power, as this video and this document demonstrate. I have in the past also made the point that the Liberals proposed a 50% top rate of income tax in 1979 when it was still 83%. It would not fall below 60% under Tory rule until 1988.

Significantly, the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats are absolutely committed to civil liberties where Labour has carelessly ridden roughshod. This is illustrated no more clearly than in the presence of a 'Great Repeal Bill' in both the parties' manifestoes.

And on Europe? Much has been made of the Liberal Democrats' almost fanatical europhilia next to the Conservatives' suspicious euroscepticism, but many seem to have overlooked Nick Clegg campaigning for a referendum on Britain's membership of the EU during the election. Can't see many Tories arguing with that!

So, why support the coalition? Support it because it is a coalition for freedom, for independence, for democracy, for stability, for localism, for streamlined government and - by making the Liberals a party of government again - for annihilating Labour.