The Coalition – One Year On
A year ago today, the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats embarked upon the first coalition government in the UK since 1945; the almost-inevitable outcome of an indecisive general election; a partnership forged ‘in the national interest’. Not since Adolf Hitler had the country faced a peril so profound: the intolerable deficit and unsustainable level of debt bequeathed (again) by Labour demanded remedial and exceptional political intervention. David Cameron audaciously stepped up to the mark, and Nick Clegg was man enough to join him. The resulting coalition ‘manifesto’ made over 400 pledges as it set out their governing priorities. The leaders of both parties promised a new era: one in which a politician’s word would mean what it said; and promises would be fulfilled.
Wading through the vagaries, sophistry and waffle, His Grace identified three policies which would justify the coalition’s existence and establish whether or not David Cameron went down in history as ‘a great reforming prime minister’. And it really has nothing to do with the extent to which they have ‘supported marriage’ or resisted further EU integration.
Good grief. The Conservative Party DID NOT WIN the 2010 General Election. To criticise them for compromising in some policy areas in order to make progress in others is churlish and small-minded. The three principal policies by which the success (or otherwise) of the coalition might be measured are (according to His Grace) quite simply and straightforwardly i) the economy; ii) education reform; and iii) welfare reform. Anything else is a bonus.
Yes, of course the inexorable progress to an EU superstate is intolerable; and yes, of course support for marriage and the family are paramount; and yes, it goes without saying that the liberties which Labour surrendered are sorely missed and the vacuum is a harbinger of illiberal horrors to come; and without doubt, the Equality Act 2010 is among the most odious pieces of legislation ever enacted. But when you are temporarily conjugally ‘made one’ with a europhile, equality-obsessed bunch of liberals who don’t know their Mill from their Monnet (not the artist – one ‘n’ – but the statesman and financier), or their Schuman (not the composer – two ‘n’s – but the almost-beatified politician), what do you do?
We must count our blessings (diligently) and thank God (quite literally) that Nick Clegg did not seek to prop up a zombified Gordon Brown in a precarious minority government (or ‘rainbow coalition’, with brooding storm clouds) for a further period of deficit-denying recession: another installment of Balls and Brown complemented by Clegg and Co might have persuaded His Grace to return to ashes and dust. At least now we are en route to fiscal credibility. At least no we are on the cusp of irreversible revolutions in both state education and welfare reform.
What Conservative could possibly be discontented with these coalition objectives and achievements?
Of course, there will be no birthday cake today, just as there was no champagne when AV was defeated last Thursday. Mr Cameron is not insensibly demonstrative: many people are suffering hardship, and many more about to hurt even more. He is hyper-sensitive to Tory insensitivity. But he is getting things done – albeit with some stalling and a few U-turns – and who can deny that he both looks and sounds better on the world stage than Gordon Brown ever did? Really, honestly, wouldn’t you rather have him visiting Ireland next week with the Queen, and greeting President Obama the week after on his state visit here? David Cameron’s charismatic statesmanship led the USA on the war in Libya: the tail was wagging the dog. He exudes confidence and optimism, and shows no signs of slowing down. In the present economic morass with its perils of high unemployment, low growth and the constant threat of stagflation, isn’t Mr Cameron the least worst option to have as Prime Minister at this moment? And if he is the least worst, doesn’t that make him the best?
Whatever you think of the Conservatives, the LibDems or the Coalition, it looks as though we’re stuck with it for another four year. Judging by the LibDem demolition that took place last week, 2015 might just see a return to two-party politics. In reality, people like Vince Cable have no ‘nuclear option’, and fractious Tory big beasts are neutered by the effects of being in coalition: any resignation can and will be absorbed: the relationship that matters is that between Nick Clegg and David Cameron.
And they have rather more in common than they would care to admit. They may not be best buddies at this precise moment, but what marriage does not have its downs and downs in its early years? This is not ‘till death do us part’, but it is certainly ‘for better, for worse, for richer, (and) for poorer’. There will be no snap election (or, at least the LibDems will not precipitate one, for even they have the political antennae to sense electoral annihilation). They are bound upon a wheel a fire for the long haul. And as long as Edward Miliband leads Labour, there really is nothing to fear but ‘events’ (...dear boy).
The next year will be an awful lot more about individuality and identity, lest the blue and orange be irrevocably merged into a rather unattractive shade of green. Mr Clegg must be seen to emerge from the shadows of petulance, and (in the wake of the AV defeat) be seen to win a significant and lasting reform. It would have made sense to have permitted the LibDems to take credit for the ‘Freedom Bill’ or take a higher profile in ‘Social Justice’ reforms, but the fear now is that the Prime Minister will leave them to hack away at the House of Lords. That would be a pity, for constitutional reform should never be executed for reasons of short-term political expediency.
On this first anniversary we should be grateful for small mercies: Labour are no longer in government. And we should also appreciate the large mercies: we are on a journey of radical public sector reform in education and welfare, and intent on ‘localising’ that which can more effectively be done nearer the people. The ‘progressive majority’ is not left of centre: it is centre-right. This government, as Disraeli once said, exists ‘to preserve all that is good in our constitution, and radical to remove all that is bad’. It is both Tory-conserving and Whig-reforming, and so the big themes are in the true Conservative mould.