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.

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