Lunching with a friend I notice that the adjoining table is occupied by an elderly gentleman with a vaguely familiar face and three younger companions. He smiles and nods. As lunch proceeds, recognition dawns. It’s the brutish one-time hard-core Stalinist stalwart of the CPGB, later authoritarian and ever-loyal Blairite home secretary, John Reid. An hour later, as I’m leaving, the following conversation takes place:
Me: Glad you jumped ship in time?
Reid: I left after Blair resigned. Last three years and Broon a total disaster.
Me: I agree. But you think Blair would have won? Crazy.
Reid: Still as subversive as ever, I see.
Me: I always had a visceral hatred of New Labour.
Reid: If we’d listened to people like you the Tories would have been in power for another 13 years.
Me: They were. Just called themselves New Labour.
Within a year or two we will remember the engagement interviews featuring Messrs Cameron and Clegg with the same fond disbelief that we now remember the wedding interviews with Charles and Diana. Or so my husband predicts. The real difference between then and now is that, in the present case, both the parties have old flames they won’t be able to disentangle themselves from: Cameron will never quite ditch the far right, just as Clegg will have to keep the quaint, dope-smoking radicals in the bed. There are four not three in the marriage.
In fact the short life expectancy is probably the best thing about the coalition. I started off with some predictable irritation along the lines of ‘I didn’t vote Liberal Democrat in order to bring a Tory government to power.’ (Nor a Labour one, for that matter; the turning point for me came when David Miliband claimed that they’d been ‘punished enough’ for the Iraq War: ‘Well, you haven’t actually been voted out of office,’ I growled.) The gloom quickly gave way to a sense of the advantages.
For a start the voters might have fallen a little out of love with the idea of electoral reform. Proportional representation is a quick fix to whatever is wrong with the British democratic process. And the unseemly negotiations to fix up this coalition, where party manifestos become pick-and-mix bargaining counters, were a timely warning of what PR might bring. Then, in the first year or so, they will probably undo some of the worst excesses of New Labour’s control legislation: ID cards will go, even hunting might be un-banned (boredom or ridicule would be a better way to end it). Finally, there will be the Great Quarrel, followed (the optimistic version) by the return of a revivified Labour government, minus the patronising smugness. At that point they really will have paid the price for Blair’s war.
In the States, the coalition has already attracted far more media attention than is usually bestowed on matters British. This is partly because the very idea of a coalition government appears extraordinary here, given the scale and anger of partisan divisions in current US politics. But the coalition has also won generous newspaper, TV and online space because it plays so well to American preconceptions about the peculiarities of the ‘unwritten’ British constitution. That Britons have ended up with a type and ordering of government none of them specifically voted for, and that Cameron and Clegg are already seeking to change some of the rules of the Westminster game without having to secure prior electoral approval, seems both comic and mildly outrageous here. Much space has been given to Jon Stewart’s quip on the Daily Show: ‘Your country’s been around, what, a couple thousand years and you never got around to writing down your constitution?’ That the British executive is able to claim such an extraordinary degree of improvisatory leeway should indeed be controversial – and is entirely in line with historical precedent. Yet one could make a case that the flexibility afforded by Britain’s lack of a codified constitution has the potential to pay some dividends at a time of dire economic crisis: that a blending of talents and policies from two parties may – just – offer possibilities that one-party rule would not. The more immediately alarming matter is what this coalition suggests about the homogeneity of the British political elite. Not just Clegg and Cameron, but even the likeliest Labour contender, Ed Miliband, seem cut from similar and predictable cloth. All were born within a few years of each other. All are suitably telegenic. All are male and white and Oxbridge. If all three formed a coalition together, one would not at present be too surprised. Where are the new sorts of political actor? Where, crucially, are the really new political ideas?
For the first time in my voting life, I couldn’t see that it would be better for the Labour Party to be elected rather than the Tories. A Labour Party that felt intensely relaxed about the filthy rich while presiding over a widening chasm between rich and poor can call itself what it likes, but I have no wish for it to govern. And though a hung parliament was a pleasing prospect, in that it disappointed all the politicians, I knew that a small Tory majority would inevitably result in a large Tory majority within months and that whatever happened the Lib Dems would be screwed by proximity to power, even supposing they had been liberal enough to start with. Right now, the Lib Dems look to me quite like Tony Blair nuzzling up to George Bush. But if I can’t really come up with any government I would have preferred among the options, why am I so appalled? Because, I suppose, pitifully minimal as it was, now there isn’t even a protest vote left.
If it succeeds, the Conservative-Liberal coalition risks dismantling the British wing of the alliance that brought about most of the great progressive achievements of the last century. Universal suffrage, the New Deal, the postwar European welfare state and the Civil Rights movement were all the product of an alliance between an intelligentsia that wanted an expansion of individual and social freedoms, and a working class that needed a more equal and just society. This alliance was undermined by Communist Parties who turned on the intelligentsia and spurned the libertarian causes they fought for. More recently, former left-wing intellectuals have abandoned their commitment to the poor on supposed libertarian grounds, while the socially liberal intelligentsia has formed a pact with the neoliberal right across Eastern Europe.
Potentially, the blue-yellow coalition has redrawn our political faultline, making it more like the orange-blue fissure that divides Ukraine. The last government had a pretty good record on issues like gay rights, but all that is largely a done deal now. New Labour’s terrible record on surveillance, jurisprudence, policing and censorship has allowed the Liberal Democrats to deliver civil liberties to the Conservatives (who had already triangulated Labour on issues like ID cards). As a result, the organisers of last year’s Convention on Modern Liberty are able to hail the programme of this Conservative-dominated government as a triumph.
On the other side, Labour appears all too willing to return to a sullen, socially conservative, proletarian populism. All of the ex-cabinet candidates for the leadership cited immigration as the identifying issue on which Labour didn’t listen to its base. Andy Burnham added being ‘tough on crime’, the second half of Tony Blair’s formulation having apparently evaporated. Diane Abbott points out that you can talk about the housing and employment crisis of East London without using it as a stick to beat Somalis and Poles. Sadly,the politician to have thought most persuasively and cogently about these issues – Jon Cruddas – isn’t in the leadership race.
How can you not be cynical when you see the peaceful protesters on Parliament Square removed by the police on the very day this new government – with its supposed commitment to restore the right to non-violent protest – launches itself on the British public? Or when the loudly proclaimed Liberal Democratic commitment to the Human Rights Act crumbles (at the very first hint of controversy) into acceptance of a commission to review the act: if the Tories fix this properly and one or two new stories come along it could mean the end of the act. Not for the British, who will probably have some kind of beefed-up Bill of Rights for Clegg to boast about, but for the immigrants, asylum seekers and suspected terrorists whose humanity the act at least notices and occasionally protects. The ridiculously entitled Freedom Bill has already put to one side the more embarrassing national security stuff – it’ll be about CCTV cameras and DNA, not control orders and anti-terrorism laws. And even here it won’t actually do very much. ‘Necessity’, ‘proper accountability’ and ‘effective safeguards’ against state power (the big ideas in this new freedom charter) mean whatever you want them to mean, and if this loophole-ridden document is the best statement of Lib Dem principle then it will not be long before the ministers now in power will seem to have merged with their predecessors.
Every new government begins by launching constitutional attacks on itself. The Blair administration spent its first year giving power away, to the Bank of England, the judges, the Scots and the Welsh. There were a couple of weeks in the summer of 2007 when Gordon Brown posed as a modern Leveller. Even Margaret Thatcher had her Norman St John-Stevas, with his ideas about select committees and revitalising Parliament. The Tory-Lib Dem partnership has been noisy enough about civil liberties, constitutional reform and the restoration of freedom but talk in this field is easy – and cheap. It took Labour about two years to drift into the kind of populist authoritarianism that our culture and constitution too easily allow; it seems to have taken the Lib Dems about three days.
It was never on the cards that Cameron would achieve a working majority. What was unexpected was the deal with the Liberal Democrats that has secured him against his enemies. As a consequence, the risk of the right expanding its influence in the party, which would otherwise have been high, is now remote.
Tribal loyalists in all three parties object that the coalition lacks guiding principles. It would be more accurate to say that it embodies a nuanced version of the market liberalism to which all three parties defer. In ideological terms there has not been any great change, but by marginalising the Tory right and consigning New Labour to oblivion the coalition has already transformed the landscape of politics. The process whereby this has been achieved was strictly Namierite: negotiation among a handful of people in the two parties. Nothing in politics is guaranteed to last, but the result could be an enduring political settlement.
The coalition’s most obvious weakness is its ideology. Market liberalism has failed globally, and the financial crisis has morphed into a sovereign debt and currency crisis. The euro is at risk of coming apart: a prospect that is triggering an ill-fated attempt at greater integration. How the coalition responds looks like being its first big test, but events are not obviously working against it. With the European project in a process of disintegration, one of the most important points of division between the two parties is melting away.
No doubt the coalition will be under attack as spending cuts begin to be felt, and some Liberal Democrats may cross over to Labour. The aim of these defectors will be to renew social democracy; but that is gone for good, and adopting a style of politics inspired by nostalgia for an irretrievable past will leave Labour stranded on the margins along with the Tory right. With none of the parties having anticipated the intractable difficulties Britain faces, the advantage may lie with the unfamiliar hybrid that is now in power. If, five years on, the Lib-Con administration stands for re-election (perhaps having changed the voting system to something like AV) will the electorate want to go back to the old party system? In a time of continuous upheaval, coalition rule may seem like a kind of safety.
Its customary hyperbole notwithstanding, the media chorus has correctly identified the novelty of the Conservative-Liberal coalition government at Westminster. What the media have not done, alas, is to address the largely invisible fact that in representative democracies – even in our own – coalitions of one sort or another are a natural part of the political environment. This blindspot is understandable: in politics conventional labels can all too often obscure underlying realities. A coalition ceases to be recognised as such when it is partially concealed under the name of a single political party. Indeed, despite what the enemies of electoral reform would have us believe, the first past the post electoral system tends to give rise to coalitions: coalitions in the form of broad-based political competitors, Republicans and Democrats in the United States, Labour and Conservatives on the British mainland. This is because first past the post generally squeezes out third parties and forces politically ambitious individuals to join one or other major party as the necessary vehicle for the furtherance of their careers, regardless of ideological nuance. Consider Reg Prentice (Labour to Tory), Shaun Woodward (Tory to Labour) and Robert Jackson (Tory to Labour), all of whom defected directly from one of the two main parties to the other, when a more gentle transition to the Liberal middle ground might have carried more ideological plausibility. In any case the gulfs within parties can sometimes be wider than the differences between moderates of different parties. Has any political party in recent decades enjoyed more public confidence than the cross-party ‘Britain in Europe’ campaign which contested the referendum of 1975 on membership of the European Common Market? The campaign was launched in April 1975 at a press conference chaired by Roy Jenkins (then Labour), sitting on a platform together with Cledwyn Hughes (Labour), Jo Grimond (Liberal), Willie Whitelaw and Reginald Maudling (both Conservatives) and the diplomat Con O’Neill. Harold Wilson supported Britain’s continued membership of the Common Market, but did so from the sidelines, and – in a break from the norms of collective responsibility – allowed members of his cabinet to dissent from his own recommendation. The pro-Common Market campaign won more than 67 per cent of the vote, and the public seemed able to cope with politicians of different parties working together towards common goals.
The story of the 1980s was less happy, as the latent coalitions known as the Conservative Party (under Margaret Thatcher) and the Labour Party (under Michael Foot) became fixated with ideological purity. Nor was there any electorally credible alternative, with the first past the post system thwarting the aspirations of the Liberal-SDP Alliance. Already, ideological purists of various stripes have denounced the Cameron-Clegg coalition. However, while ideological purity might bring clarity to the objectives of government, it subverts the representative function of Westminster. At a time when the people are disenchanted with politicians as a caste, it might be worth compromising on policy for the sake of a broader-bottomed legitimacy.
Nick Clegg – clever, cultured, flexible – is an ambitious beneficiary of David Cameron’s hospitality, one who presumably hopes to get as much out of it as he can before he is asked to leave, like Nick Guest during his long stay with the Fedden household in Alan Hollinghurst’s The Line of Beauty. Yet so delicate is the morphology of the new regime that poetics can affect our perception of it. That ‘Cleggeron’ is more euphonious than ‘Cameregg’ is enough by itself to encourage the illusion that the Liberal Democrat leader has real power.
Like the Bush administration in 2001, the new government came into office after an extended post-electoral bout of politicking so extraordinary that it was easy to confuse with actual governance. In striking his deal with Clegg, Cameron showed a pleasing sense of the virtue of compromise, shocking to Thatcherites and their foes alike; but it doesn’t tell us how it will work in practice. Nor does it help with unpleasant questions that the global economic crisis has brought to the fore. Can any government govern in the way that we, and they, pretend they can? I wish Clegg well – and cross-party support – in his political reform efforts. But his tinkering doesn’t address the unspoken conspiracy that prevails in modern Western democracies between voters and the governments they elect: we, the voters, will get to blame you for problems that are actually ours, and in return we will allow you, the government, to pretend that you are steering the country, like a helmsman steering a ship, when you can’t.
Now it turns out that the entire planet – like a couple in which a hedonistic spendthrift is married to an indulgent stakhanovite – has maxed out its credit cards and got a bigger mortgage than it can afford. We are deluding ourselves that we can have a health and welfare system whose capacity to allow us to live longer outstrips its capacity to allow us to work and be healthy for longer, and the conspiracy is no longer sustainable. Democracy needs reinvention at a level deeper than the Cleggeron has spoken of.