The formation of a Conservative-Liberal coalition government finally blows apart the lazy assumption that the Lib Dems are natural bedfellows of the Labour Party. Or that the party is a subset of some entirely fictitious centre-left “progressive alliance”. It has always suited the Labour party and left-leaning LibDems to perpetuate the myth that there was some sort of philosophically coherent anti-Tory block that always secures more than 50 per cent of the popular vote. This week’s historic events leave that assertion in tatters.
Although the Parliamentary arithmetic was such that a stable government could only really be forged by a coming together of Liberal Democrat and Conservative MPs, the truth is that Nick Clegg would always have preferred to work with Cameron’s Tories anyway. This may, in part, be down to personal chemistry, but more significantly it reflects the fact that the Prime Minister and Deputy Prime Minister share a similar political narrative and outlook. Namely that expensive, big government, state-run projects don’t just tend to fail, but actually crowd out more benign, more efficient and more rewarding private, individual efforts. Both Clegg and Cameron instinctively seek to find policy solutions that remove the dead hand of the state from the shoulders of the citizenry.
From the Liberal Democrat perspective, achieving coalition with the Tories is a triumph for the party’s so-called Orange Book tendency of classical, market-orientated liberals. David Laws, who played a central role in the negotiations with the Conservatives, personifies this wing of the party.Over the last forty years, the Liberal party has largely been sustained by guerilla campaigning at the grassroots and securing influence in local government level through a series of populist, parochial and often rather policy-light campaigns. It sometimes seems as if local Liberal Democrat activists can’t set eyes on a post office, maternity ward or a public swimming pool without wanting to save it.
Those now sitting as Liberal Democrats around the Cabinet table are, however, cut from a different cloth. They are interested in the finer details of policy and are often willing to advocate positions which they know to be electorally unpalatable. They find the permanent politics of protest trivial and irksome and are hungry for power, even if it involves substantial compromise. Their rise to high office has profound implications for the future of the Liberal Democrats and, indeed, for the entire British party political system.
At election after election, the Liberal Democrats have often placed a tactical plea at the heart of their approach – namely, “in this constituency vote for us as the best way of keeping the Tories out”. The events of the last 24 hours renders decades of such campaigning techniques redundant at a single stroke. Similarly, the quaint – but shambolic – LibDem policy-making processes become effectively sidelined. If government policy is now going to be steered by Liberal Democrats in Whitehall on a daily basis, then it’s hard to see what the point is of Liberal delegates crafting party policy twice a year in a conference centre by the seaside. They can continue to do so if they want, but their deliberations risk having about as much impact as the musings of a sixth form debating society. Robust internal party democracy becomes nearly impossible in a political party that’s actually part of the government. It’s an opportunity for mischief-making, but not much else.
There are no guarantees that the Conservative-Liberal coalition will succeed, of course. The dire state of the British economy means this government will have to conduct extensive and painful surgery in the public sector – and such surgery will have to go far beyond the very modest savings outlined in the LibDem and Tory manifestos. When things get tough in coalition, there’s an obvious tendency for one coalition partner to blame the other. The warm words between the two parties may be hard to maintain in the choppy waters ahead. But at least Britain has a stable government with a substantial majority. At least the Liberal and Conservative parties seemed determined to work constructively together in the national interest. Dragging Britain’s economy off the floor is going to a very difficult task. But it no longer looks like an insurmountable one.