Friday, July 30, 2010

They are the masters now

It was Herbert Morrison who declared after Labour’s landslide election victory in 1945 that “We are the masters now”. The “We” in that case went beyond Party and referred to a whole class – the working classes of Britain had their men in power for the first time in history. It is hard not to draw parallels with 2010 for it is now the more privileged part of the British (mainly English) middle-classes who hold the levers of power – slightly more precariously than their proletarian predecessors of 65 years year ago perhaps but there is a firm grip nevertheless. And the novelty is that this power is exercised by a coalition of political parties and by men (and a few women) whose alliance is based both on a common class affiliation and, more surprisingly, on a discovered common ideology. At the love-in which announced the formation of the Conservative/Liberal Democrat coalition many commentators remarked on the extraordinary similarities between David Cameron and Nick Clegg. Both educated at elite private schools, both from Oxbridge, both very wealthy and both young and bursting with health and energy. Their voices are also scarily similar – so much so that many have heard one speaking on the radio and thought that it was his twin!

Politics is about power and it would be naïve to think otherwise. A chance event – a hung parliament – gave Nick Clegg and his LibDems the first chance of power for their Party in living memory. They jumped at the chance with alacrity. Similarly David Cameron was not going to be denied the power he thought he had earned by the minor irritation that his Party did not command a majority in Parliament after the election. The deal with the LibDems was a no-brainer – especially when he realised that there wasn’t much that divided him personally from the LibDems leader. Indeed he must have quickly realised that he had more in common with Clegg than he had with much of his own Party. Cameron had had to jettison the Conservatives right wing in order to present a credible case to the electorate and the deal with Clegg meant that he wasn’t going to be in hock to them in Government either. The old-fashioned Tories like David Davis and John Redwood are still around – and at times they snipe from the fringes.

Whilst the very fact of the coalition suggests that there must need to be concessions to the partner – Cameron said as much recently in a letter to his MPs “… there have been compromises as a result of this coalition” – in reality there are few if any signs of this so far. Another parallel with 1945 is that this is a very ideologically driven Government indeed – more so even than that of Margaret Thatcher. Both Thatcher and her Tory predecessor Edward Heath had come to power promising to roll back the State but that did not really happen. Even Thatcher, her bombast aside, did not significantly change the socio-economic balance of British society that much. She inherited a mixed economy and she handed one over to her successor. It was smaller but ironically it was manufacturing which declined most during her watch not the public sector. Cameron is determined to do the opposite and he has persuaded himself that the huge job losses that will come from the slashing of public expenditure will be compensated for by increases in private sector employment. This seems optimistic if nor completely delusionary and it is fiercely ideological – the “Big Society”, which is the brand slogan of the coalition, is predicated on smaller government and more local decision making. That the idea has failed to grab the public imagination so far is hardly surprising - it hardly resonates like the revolutionary changes in the other direction that Attlee’s post war government introduced.

There is a great deal of goodwill around for the Cameron/Clegg coalition – partly because they have attractive personalities and partly because those of us who voted Conservative or LibDem (59% of the votes together) voted for change. We didn’t vote for the change we got – but we certainly didn’t vote for more of the same. Cameron is getting plaudits from the most unlikely sources – Martin Kettle, a liberal commentator in Britain’s foremost left of centre publication The Guardian, recently wrote an admiring and completely uncritical paean to Cameron in that newspaper. And it does seem churlish to criticise the Government too fiercely so early in its life. Nevertheless the coalition is an experiment and one that is far from guaranteed success. The marginalised Tory right are, as always, waiting gleefully to pounce if they see a weakness and the LibDem man and woman in the street may increasingly be uncomfortable as the public sector cuts bite.

Life is often about unintended consequences and I have a feeling that there could be a paradoxical unintended consequence of Britain’s coalition Government. One of the holy grails for anti Conservatives in Britain has been the much chattered about “realignment of the left”. This meant, or so we thought, some sort of pact, alliance or even merger between the Labour Party and the Liberals. The assumption was that there was a common ideological connection between us - and as a keen left-leaning political observer I went along with this, as recently as May this year in fact. However there is now an argument that the realignment may now be solely driven by the Labour Party as the LibDems either implode completely (perfectly possible) or become formally a wing of the Conservative Party. The Labour Party under this scenario would become the only credible home for all who oppose the Conservatives (in England at any rate). As this is almost certainly a majority of the electorate and providing the Labour Party elects a leader and shadow cabinet that is credible and competent, the prospects of their regaining power sooner rather than later cannot be denied!