A Liberal Moment

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It is a little over two years since Nick Clegg referred to the Liberal Democrats as ‘very much a national party,’ the only opposition to Labour in the North, and the Conservatives in the South. Now, the Liberal Democrats are in power for the first time, and Clegg holds the office of Deputy Prime Minister, albeit in a state of affairs described by William Hague as the best of their ideas (and people), and the bulk of the Conservatives’. And yet, there is little disguising the extraordinary way in which the Lib Dems have been incorporated into Conservative plans. Although there have undoubtedly been compromises on both sides, the negotiations of these past four days have struck everyone by their seriousness and affability.

The Coalescing of the Parties

Only the most die-hard activist (on either side) would deny that the Liberal Democrats and Conservatives have had much more in common in recent years. In the early years of the now historical Labour government, the Conservatives went right under William Hague, Ian Duncan Smith and Michael Howard, focussing on immigration and cession of powers to Europe, while Charles Kennedy (after Paddy Ashdown had taken the Party closer than it wanted to be to the Labour Party), gave the impression that the Liberal Democrats were the party of the Left with his opposition to Iraq and to Top-Up Fees.

Since then modernisers have risen on both sides and moderators to both leaderships. The Liberal Democrats, intellectually driven by David Laws and the Orange Book Liberals, began the acceptance of the Blairite line on public services – reform led by markets. The Conservative intellectual revival was driven by the young Notting Hill set, but particularly by Michael Gove, the one-time biographer of Michael Portillo and proponent of Burkean Toryism.

The recession has also had a significant impact on both sides. For Cameron, it necessitated the return of Ken Clarke to the Shadow Cabinet and let loose George Osborne’s tax-cutting instincts. The Liberal Democrats had adopted a policy of tax cuts for low-earners and saw the logic of becoming more critical of Gordon Brown’s efforts to prop-up the economy through state-action. Nonetheless, the oracular Vince Cable’s tendency to criticise the Conservatives as much as Labour, their position on Trident and Chris Huhne’s previous advocacy of green taxes maintained the impression that they were a party of the centre left.

Cameron’s Clause IV

That all changed with the General Election of last Thursday. Clegg had said during the campaign that he felt that the winner of the ‘largest mandate’ deserved the first opportunity to form of government in the case of a hung Parliament and that he would find it difficult to work with Brown (who, by Andrew Rawnsley’s account had been particularly patronising to his opposites during the expenses crisis). Accordingly, and despite a disappointing net loss of seats in the aftermath of the election, Liberal Democrat negotiators (Clegg’s Chief of Staff, Danny Alexander, David Laws and Chris Huhne), met with Hague, Osborne and Oliver Letwin to discuss areas they could co-operate on.

It is hard to conclude other than that both leaders were immediately in favour of a coalition, surprising a result though that is. For the Liberal Democrats, it would offer the best chance of their policies being implemented and an opportunity to present themselves creditably to the electorate as a party of government. Cameron arguably had less to gain, and could have opted for a confidence agreement, whereby the Liberal Democrats would back the Conservatives on key votes. That would not, however, have offered the stability that Cameron craved to make a successful fist of reforming the economy and public services.

Even so, Cameron has given a lot of ground. The Liberal Democrats bring with them commitments to tax cuts for middle-earners, increased spending on schools and civil liberties. Admittedly, there are those in the Conservative Party who agree, but those belong largely to the modernising vanguard. Cameron has also sacrificed Chris Grayling for his recent inability to stand up for gay rights, but the most significant concessions involve political reform. Cameron has locked himself and his party into the deal for five years and has promised to deliver a referendum on the Alternate Vote System (although he will campaign for a ‘no’). There is even the suggestion that Proportional Representation will be introduced for the House of Lords.

This constitutional radicalism has earned Cameron comparisons to Disraeli, the Conservative statesman who trumped the Liberals by expanding the franchise further and faster than Gladstone. Cameron will certainly be thinking that the strong share of the vote that the Conservatives have traditionally had in the twentieth century can give them the edge in a more proportional system, and he must be calculating that an alliance between the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats is a more natural beast than between Labour and the Lib Dems.

It is difficult to say what kind of ideology motivates Cameron. Indeed, he has always given the impression of being a pragmatist – as The Economist approvingly noticed last week. Notably, it was for Clegg to speak at their joint press conference of ‘a radical, reforming government,’ but his affirmation of a common purpose was striking;

This is a government that will last because despite those differences, we are united by a common purpose for the job we want to do in the next five years.

Our ambition is simple and yet profound. Our ambition is to put real power and opportunity into the hands of people, families, and communities to change their lives and our country for the better.

For me, that is what liberalism is all about: ensuring that everyone has the chance, no matter who they are and where they are from, to be the person they want to be. To live the life they want to live.

You can call it fairness. You can call it responsibility. You can call it liberalism. Whatever words you use the change it will make to your life is the same.

(The Guardian bitterly suggested that you might call it wishful thinking).

For Cameron, the government was predictably more about business. His paean to strong government might have come from Hague’s biography of Pitt the Younger, but he also talked of a ‘historic new direction…of hope and unity, conviction and common purpose.’ Cameron has purported to be a One Nation Tory and his government will be measured as much against its social impact as its economic orthodoxy.

For this reason, another significant part of the agreement is ‘the radical devolution of power and greater financial autonomy to local government and community groups.’ This will need to be made accountable and to be properly funded. Margaret Thatcher’s total opposition to local government was at the root of her poll tax and therefore her downfall, but the rumours of a greatly enhanced Office of the Mayor of London and Scottish Parliament promise a more Chamberlainite future.

Will it Last?

Matthew Paris’ sunny dispositon (“I ought to be cynical, I ought to be saying it’s all going to end in tears, but I just sense something good and genuine in the air and it just might work. You almost have a sense of two men staging a coup against the British political system,”) seems typical of the mood at the moment. The two parties have not merged, however, and nor have we necessarily seen a permanent rupture in the British political system. This is a finely negotiated programme for government, as much as a statement of ideals.

Any one of a number of crises or changes in the weather could make this coalition unsustainable. Among the front-running contenders would be a movement for further integration in Europe, war in the Balkans or a breakpoint with Iran. More serious still, perhaps, would be a fall in the standard of living through some further recession or greater unemployment. As a general rule, governments tend to be more unified when they have money to spend, and this Parliament will see little of that. However, Cameron has been smart to ask a Liberal Democrat to be his executioner in the Comprehensive Spending Review.

Political factions will also have a role. Labour lost the election because the feel-good feeling had left them and their rearguard in favour of a ‘Future Fair For All’ seemed hopeless. A rejuvenated party could help to suppress dissent within the coalition, but it could also start to tempt Liberal Democrats away from their current partners. Indeed, the Liberal Democrats claimed that their negotiations collapsed on the basis of ‘deliverability,’ although it looks more like Clegg was forced to make overtures when his party expressed doubts about the Conservative offer on Monday evening. Then again, the Labour and Conservative reactions (David Blunkett likened them to ‘every harlot in history’ and Sir Malcolm Rifkind expressed a sense of betrayal occasioned by Brown’s game-changing resignation) will likely dissuade a precipitate withdrawal.

Then there are Cameron’s back-benchers, and indeed certain of the old-guard within his Cabinet. Ian Duncan Smith’s Work and Pensions brief will pander to Tory (lack of) sympathies to unemployment and William Hague is a noted Eurosceptic and realist in foreign affairs. Some activists have been critical of a lacklustre campaign, which they felt should have been won outright and would have been with good old Conservative values, and plenty of leadership rivals (David Davis and Liam Fox) lurk on the right wing of the party.

Ultimately, ideology is a luxury for any government and despite the fixed term, the fortunes of the coalition, the Prime Minister and his Deputy depend on the perceived likelihood of an electoral success for either party. If things are going badly, the Conservatives will want to shift right, and the Liberal Democrats will want to disinvest themselves of responsibility. This government’s ambition to devolve power will depend on whether people are willing to get involved, and whether public services will improve, but an age of prosperity will certainly not harm its chances.

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