First of all – ignore all the pundits. They are still in shock and really haven’t a clue about what will happen. True they will generate their 900 word pieces because that is what they are paid to do. But in essence they are in the same position as a stagecoach owner in 1825 when he heard about the opening of the world’s first passenger railway between Stockton and Darlington. He didn’t know how it would develop but in his bones he knew it would be a game changer.
The coalition between Conservatives and Liberal Democrats announced by David Cameron is a totally unknown quantity because, like Einstein’s Theory of Relativity, it has shattered the conventional wisdom of political physics. Politics in the UK has always been based on competing political parties whose members have a tribal loyalty to their own circle and a visceral loathing of rival groups.
But note that I speak of party “members” – voters are a different kettle of fish. Annoyingly they do not always share the fetishistic totems of party loyalists. They pay little attention to those “how many angels can dance on a pinhead” disputes and debates that fascinate political junkies. What is even more frustrating for the junkies (and I confess to being one myself) is that it is those voters who actually make the final choice at election time!
Let’s get one myth out of the way. Nobody went to the polls and voted for a “Hung Parliament” – we each of us went in and marked our cross against the candidate of a particular party. The outcome was a parliament where the Conservatives had the biggest share of seats and votes (and the biggest swing) but did not attain an overall majority. The Lib Dems had a slight improvement on 2005 but not anything of any significance. Labour underperformed quite badly but were not wiped out. The outcome was the coalition.
Americans who are used to the concept of an elected executive completely separate from an elected legislature do not find our system easy to grasp. In the UK the executive power lies with a group of the members of the elected legislature. We also do not have a two party system – we have a two and a half party system plus a scattering of minor (mainly regional) parties. Clearly in the US you could not have coalition government – but you can have administrations where the President is not from the party that controls Congress. It is to that kind of situation you should look when trying to work out the mechanics of coalition.
Of course all parties are essentially coalitions often encompassing a wide range of different viewpoints so even Prime Ministers with strong majorities like Thatcher and Blair had to be aware of the potential strains that could be placed on party loyalty if certain groups were antagonised. For David Cameron these possible strains and stresses simply loom larger.
There is another myth which needs to be deconstructed – that the Lib Dems are a soft left version of the Labour Party.
The formation of a Conservative-Liberal coalition government finally blows apart the lazy assumption that the Lib Dems are natural bedfellows of the Labour Party. Or that the party is a subset of some entirely fictitious centre-left “progressive alliance”. It has always suited the Labour party and left-leaning Lib Dems to perpetuate the myth that there was some sort of philosophically coherent anti-Tory block that always secures more than 50 per cent of the popular vote. This week’s historic events leave that assertion in tatters.
Clegg and most of the other Lib Dems currently in the Cabinet have, over the last few years, moved their party away from the old high tax, big spend mantras of previous leaders like Kennedy and Ashdown and shifted back to traditional market oriented liberal virtues. Even before the election if one looked at the two parties without the blinkers of tribal loyalties there was a common theme shared by both Clegg and Cameron.
that expensive, big government, state-run projects don’t just tend to fail, but actually crowd out more benign, more efficient and more rewarding private, individual efforts. Both Clegg and Cameron instinctively seek to find policy solutions that remove the dead hand of the state from the shoulders of the citizenry.
Of course, without the mischievous genie of electoral mathematics, Cameron and Clegg would now still be political rivals sniping at each other from the benches of the House of Commons. The coalition is still the stepchild of Expediency and Chance. But, as the Duke of Wellington once said
A good general knows when to retreat – and when he does it he does it damn well…
A good leader has to be sure footed and able, at times, to act with low cunning. Cameron, faced with difficult and unexpected circumstances appears to have deftly sidestepped a deep pothole and maintained his progress along the road.
Concessions have had to be made and there is no lack of sniper fire from the disenchanted in both parties. But the Tories have probably got the best of the deal
the deficit reduction plan, scrapping Labour’s planned NI increase on employers, an emergency Budget followed by a comprehensive spending review, a strategic defence review, the creation of a National Security Council, the retention of the Trident nuclear deterrent, a cap on immigration, no more power ceded to Brussels – all have survived the negotiations.
Reducing inheritance tax and lowering the tax burden on married couples are key Tory policies that have had to be put on the back burner and, of course, Lib Dem demands for Proportional Representation in Parliamentary elections have had to be assuaged with the promise of a referendum. But Cameron’s ambitious plans for reducing the number of MPs and equalising the sizes of constituencies will go ahead (much to the chagrin of Labour) as will Schools reform and some form of elected agency to control local policing.
Above all the Coalition is agreed that the main priority will be the reduction of the massive deficit inherited from Gordon Brown – a stance welcomed by the usually neutral governor of the Bank of England
Mervyn King has today stepped aside from regular tradition in the UK and gave his backing to the Conservative party and the Liberal Democrats party plans for a £6 billion reduction in public sector spending this year. Historically the Bank of England, via the Gov of the Bank of England, has been very reluctant to become involved in political matters although today saw something very different.
There will have to be some very tough spending and taxing decisions made over the next few months. By sharing this burden with the Liberal Democrats Cameron has appeared to be placing the national interest above party considerations. It might, of course, all end in tears and confusion. But if it succeeds it might well produce a sea change in UK politics that could marginalise the Labour Party and the left leaning cultural elite for a very long time.