Stop these Cameron-Clegg fantasies, please!
Contrary to the imaginings of both critics and fans, the hundred-day-old Lib-Con coalition is neither falling apart nor leading a revolution.
It might be hard to imagine many right-minded people entertaining serious fantasies about David Cameron and Nick Clegg, least of all in public. Yet two different fantasy visions of the Lib-Con coalition have been publicly exciting many political commentators in the three months since they took office.
The first fantasy version of the coalition appeared in the media as soon as the ‘historic’ deal had been done. It asserted that the government was doomed to split and collapse almost immediately, because of profound, longstanding political and ideological differences between the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats. After all, hadn’t the Lib Dems stood in the General Election warning about the dire dangers of the Tories’ proposed spending cuts, while the Conservatives had campaigned for election against the threat of hung parliaments and coalitions involving the untrustworthy Lib Dems?
Despite the coalition government having survived without signs of serious splits for slightly more than three months, some are still indulging themselves with the fantasy of imminent break-up. Just this week, headlines appeared reporting the shock news ‘Lib Dem defects to Labour’. The turncoat turned out to be, not former Lib-Dem leader Charles Kennedy, but a Liverpool city councillor.
Like many with wrongheaded assumptions about politics today, these fantasists are living too much in the past. Theirs is a retro-fantasy that imagines the Tories and Liberal Democrats, not to mention Labour, are proper political parties which exist to fight for coherent and distinctive ideologies. They are not.
Some old-timers on both sides might object to the brazen abandonment of the policies on which they fought the election. But their leaders have far more in common than divides them: not political principles, which are alien to both Cameron and Clegg, but their shared membership of the new managerial elite now dominating British political life.
This is something distinct from the old political class. What unites Cameron and Clegg is not just that they are both posh public school boys – British political leaders from all parties have often been that. It is that they have advanced to power, not through the rough and tumble of political struggle in the real world, but via the smooth channels of their separate world: a planet populated by media and PR people, business consultants, lobbyists and bureaucrats.
Prime minister Cameron made his bones as a PR executive for a television company, while his deputy Clegg operated as an unelected, democracy-subverting lobbyist in Westminster as recently as 2005 – only five years before standing in as prime minister during Cameron’s holiday. Neither of them made any impression on public life prior to their sudden elevation to their respective party leaderships, nor has any record of ever having stood for anything much beyond their own advancement. And they are only the most prominent members of this new (non-)political elite. It seems no time at all since young Danny Alexander, Lib Dem treasury minister, was the press officer for an obscure tourist board. Now, despite still looking like the office junior, he is supposedly in charge of cutting billions off the public spending bill.
These unaccountable elitists have no real connections with any party or public constituency. They were often parachuted into their parliamentary seats over the heads of local activists, rather like the Norman lords who displaced the Saxons a thousand years ago. (This also goes for many inside-track New Labour MPs such as Tristram Hunt.) They are united by their contempt for the masses and their wish to cling to power as an end in itself – and without elections more than once every five years. That is why the Tory and the Lib-Dem leaderships have each found it so easy to dump policies they did not care about anyway, pull up the drawbridge, and huddle together in their fixed-term Westminster bubble.
As I argued on spiked at the time of the coalition’s formation, it represented ‘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.’ So why should they have split? Their collusion represents not a ‘betrayal’ of principles, but more an admission that they have nothing of principle left to betray.
Now a second fantasy has grown up around the coalition, the flipside of the first. Acknowledging the government’s apparent strength, this one depicts the coalition as the dynamic harbinger of a New Politics that has changed Britain, if not the world, forever in 100 days. The government’s growing band of media groupies fantasises about its bold policies breaking the New Labour mould. The liberal critics, meanwhile, warn of a new wave of radical neo-Thatcherite Tory ideology being sneaked into government behind the Lib-Cons’ benign image.
Yet take off the blinkers, and what has this radical coalition really done in its first hundred days? We have heard about plans for yet another reorganisation of the deckchairs on the titanic-sized decks of the NHS and the education systems, continuing the cycle of bureaucratic ‘change’ that was an all-too-familiar feature of the New Labour years. For every encouraging sign of something new, there are others indicating that the Lib-Cons are part of the same elitist clique as the Milibands. Thus, for example, some of us were encouraged to hear health secretary Andrew Lansley distance the government from New Labour’s worship of St Jamie Oliver. Might this mark a decisive break with the ‘politics of behaviour’? Not to judge by Lansley’s recent landmark speech asserting that ‘behaviour change is the key’ to the coalition’s health policies. (He even seems to think that the ‘Mary Poppins’ approach is an alternative to the ‘nanny state’…) As for Cameron’s keynote Big Society, that seems to rest partly on plans to send in ‘expert organisers and dedicated civil servants’ to encourage people’s grassroots activities, which should have much the same effect as weedkiller.
Beyond the fantasies, all we are really left with as a sign of the coalition’s radicalism are the paper plans for far-reaching cuts in public spending. In their own anti-Thatcher fantasies, some critics now imagine that this is hardline Tory policy being sneaked through in the guise of ‘sensible’ and ‘inevitable’ measures. In fact it looks more like the opposite. These cuts are all that the coalition really has to believe in and stand for, almost as an end in themselves. Austerity has effectively become a substitute for the absence of ideology or big ideas. They have united behind it as a pseudo sense of purpose. But austerity alone is not really a proper economic policy, never mind a ‘revolution’. We are left with a collective of interchangeable little eco-accountants without an inspiring idea between them, trying to look big and tough.
The one significant change that the coalition clique has cemented is the end of meaningful political debate about the crisis. And in that they have been ably assisted by the corpse of the Labour Party. David Cameron may just have become a father again, and congratulations on that. But he is no more the father of a radical new politics than he is engaged in the mother of all intra-governmental battles.
Mick Hume is editor-at-large of spiked.
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