This ‘brave’ coalition is more like a cowardly cabal
‘People power’? Pull the other one. The UK government’s reforms signal the desperation of the new elites to insulate themselves from us.
Right, now that the Cameron-Clegg ‘honeymoon’ is surely over, the new Liberal-Conservative coalition having been in power for a whole week, perhaps it is time to cut through the hyperbole on all sides of the argument and ask what it really represents. If we do, it becomes possible to see something quite different from the imaginary government now being discussed.
Contrary to the claims of its overexcited media supporters, the coalition between Conservatives and Liberal Democrats is not a bold leap forward into a ‘brave new world’ for politics. It represents a cowardly retreat from political engagement and debate by isolated elitist cliques desperate to cling together for security. They are effectively suspending democracy to insulate themselves from the public they fear and loathe while they get on with trying to impose austerity to placate the financial markets.
However, most critics of the coalition are also on the wrong track. Contrary to claims from the Labour left, it is not a Thatcherite Tory regime hiding behind a Liberal mask. And contrary to the claims from right-wing Tory critics, the deal does not mean the government has been hijacked by leftie Lib Dems. Instead, this unprecedented coalition confirms the end of British party politics as we have known it, the final abandonment of any pretence that the old ideas of left and right still have any meaning in parliament or beyond. It can be seen, not so much as a ‘betrayal’ on either side, as a barefaced admission that so far as the political elites are concerned there is no principle left to betray.
In that sense, however long the coalition lasts, it has already done us the service of revealing the true state of British public life under the emergent political elite, while advertising as never before the need for some genuine ‘new politics’.
Conservative prime minister David Cameron and his Liberal Democrat deputy Nick Clegg claim that they have a joint mandate to rule in harmony, since their two parties together secured some 55 per cent of the votes cast in the General Election. It would surely be truer to say that nobody at all voted for this coalition.
The Tories must think we really are stupid if they imagine that we have forgotten already how their election campaign consistently warned against the dangers of a hung parliament, giving the unambiguous impression that the last thing they wanted was a ‘dithering’ coalition government involving Lib Dems. As for the Liberal Democrats, they campaigned for election by emphasising the mortal danger of Tory proposals to cut public spending this year; in many places the Lib Dems appealed for a tactical vote to keep the Tories out.
The fact that some opinion polls suggest many people have been caught up in the first wave of media enthusiasm for the new coalition does not alter the fact that it is fundamentally undemocratic. The only thing that would have been more of an insult to the electorate would perhaps have been a losers’ pact between the Labour Party and the Lib Dems.
Just over a week ago, while the three party leaderships were still haggling to see which of those political whores would get into bed with whom and for what price, I noted on spiked that ‘an election campaign that was hailed as the rise of “people power” has ended with the people rendered powerless. An indecisive election result has become the excuse for an attempted coup by cross-party cabals of faceless officials.’ Hours later, the announcement of the new coalition government signalled just such a coup by the Lib-Con leadership clique. It is more of a cabal, a secretive group of unaccountable elitists, than a coalition of political movements – both leadership camps have distanced themselves further from what remains of their own traditional party memberships.
In the past week we have seen that cowardly cabal retreat further from political debate and engagement, pulling up the Whitehall drawbridge in order to try to protect itself from any future signs of public wrath, real or imagined. Hence, among the first proposals to be endorsed by Cameron and Clegg were plans for a five-year fixed-term parliament, and a new rule requiring 55 per cent of MPs to vote against the government to trigger an election. They have sought to justify all of this, of course, as being necessary to defend The National Interest, as if this really were 1940 – the last time elections were suspended and a coalition government formed – and the Nazis were at the gates.
There has understandably been criticism, including from within Tory ranks, of the anti-democratic plan to allow the government to survive even if 54 per cent of MPs vote against it. The broader proposal for a five-year fixed term parliament, however, has been widely welcomed by campaigners for reform who see it as a way to stop prime ministers ‘playing politics’ with General Election dates.
Yet in the current context, it ought to be clear that the fixed-term rule is just another scheme to keep these cliques fixed in power and away from public pressure. Why else has the proposed term suddenly been lengthened from four years (as in the US) to five? If we are to have fixed-term parliaments in the name of democratic reform, why not make the term one year, with annual elections, as the Chartists demanded more than 150 years ago? No chance. Such an annual obligation to make themselves accountable to the demos – the people – would appear even more terrifying to the new political elite than it would be unappealing to much of the electorate today.
Now there is also talk of the coalition creating 100 or so new, unelected and unaccountable peers to help get their unpopular plans through the House of Lords, with the alleged reformers of the Lib Dems demanding their piece of the autocratic carve-up. So much for people power and democratic reform. Campaigners for constitutional change have protested that the creation of such an ermined army of new lords would be ‘anathema’ to the spirit of the coalition’s vaunted ‘new politics’. But they are wrong. This plot of the hundred peers captures the Lib-Con cabal’s elitist notion of new politics in a nutshell.
The conventional wisdom is that such an unlikely-looking coalition of Conservatives and Liberal Democrats cannot last long, and the tensions are obvious. But such is the desperation of the new (non-)political elites to cling together for survival and keep clear of any further electoral entanglements with the world outside, who knows?
No, it is nonsense to talk about political betrayals or left- or right-wing takeovers and secret political agendas on one side or another. It is more the case that this cowardly coalition has been formed to fill the space where politics of any description ought to be. As Brendan O’Neill argues elsewhere on spiked, their declared ‘new politics’ is simply a formal announcement of the death of the old, without there being anything of substance to put in its place (see Their politics and ours). All we have seen in the wheeler-dealing to form the coalition is that policies that have been made up on the hoof and represent nobody can be torn up just as easily and meaninglessly overnight in order to gain some power. All we are left with are interchangeable eco-accountants seeking to manage the status quo and keep the books for UK finance capitalism. The government’s announcement of a new Office for Budget Responsibility to oversee what the Treasury does is another move to keep the economy out of political debate.
Some people may well like the idea of such a coalition, which has already been loudly praised as an attractive alternative to ‘tribalism’. But the truth is that we need far more politics, not less. There is a crying need for a proper political debate about the future, an open-minded clash of competing visions and ideas and interests to bring some clarity, instead of the small-minded austerity politics of our old enemy TINA (There Is No Alternative) that is all that is on offer today. Managerial mannequins, however well brought up, cannot deal with social crises. That requires political leaders.
To this old Marxist, it is a mark of how low the cowardly Lib-Con coalition has sunk that they can even make an old Labour schemer such as Harold Wilson appear principled by comparison. When Wilson’s Labour Party emerged from the February 1974 General Election as the largest party, but without an overall majority of MPs, he stuck to his guns and took office as prime minister of a minority government. When the Tories threatened to thwart his policies, Wilson assured them that if they voted against Labour’s Queen’s Speech and Budget he would immediately call another General Election and go to the country. The Tories backed off and abstained on the big votes. Wilson carried on as far as was possible, but called another election in October 1974, winning a very small majority. The fact that the Labour government proved disastrous for the working class and paved the way for Margaret Thatcher’s victory in 1979 is not the point here. In 1974, Wilson sought to implement his policies and when he could not, went back to the voters. If Cameron had any nerve or spine or politics to fight for, he might do the same.
However, one thing the cliques and cabals are all determined to avoid today and for the next five years is any more encounters with the ‘bigots’ and other unsavoury electors. If they want a mandate for their ‘new politics’, let them formulate their plans and then put them before us again to debate and decide – and let them understand that, whatever the outcome of the last election, many people are not going to sit quietly for five years while they do their worst from within the Whitehall castle walls.
A cowardly coalition is the last thing we need in a time when the crisis requires boldness and radicalism and a real choice in politics. And no, gawd help us, I don’t mean the choice between the Miliband brothers…
Mick Hume is spiked’s editor-at-large.
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