The Conservative-Lib Dem coalition and its legacy: Book essay

24.04.15 Publication:


he Coalition Effect 2010-2015, edited by Anthony Seldon and Mike Finn,Cambridge University Press, RRP£18.99, 642 pages

Mr Osborne’s Economic Experiment: Austerity 1945-51 and 2010-, by William Keegan, Searching Finance, RRP£9.99, 166 pages

Who Governs Britain?, by Anthony King, Pelican, RRP£7.99, 352 pages

Five years ago, in the run-up to Britain’s 2010 general election, most political commentators agreed that although the country might be about to end up with its first coalition government since 1945, it would not be one between the Conservative party and the Liberal Democrats. Most also agreed that no coalition would survive for long. And a third assumption was that the main danger facing Britain was national bankruptcy.

Beyond confirming that you shouldn’t believe what you read in the papers, what does this tell us? Essentially, that in 2010 Britain was entering new territory, both in politics and economics, and that at such times it pays to keep an open mind. The question now, however, as we stroll towards another general election on May 7, is whether we are any closer to understanding, or agreeing, how much things have changed.

The signs during what has been, in effect, the longest election campaign in British history — thanks to the coalition’s only successful constitutional initiative, the Fixed Term Parliaments Act of 2011 — are that full adjustment will take quite a while yet. Or, to put it another way, plenty of pundits, politicians and even the public do not yet seem to believe that the change
is permanent.

For, although in 2015 a coalition again looks likely, most political behaviour remains geared to the old world of absolute parliamentary majorities: manifestos, speeches and promises still bear the assumptions of single-party government. And most economic debate remains geared to a world of inflation, in which government debts and deficits are a touchstone of recklessness, rather than the current reality of zero inflation and the lowest interest rates on government borrowing in centuries.

Does this make the Tory-Lib Dem coalition a failure? Not as such, but it may not offer much of a blueprint for the future. Anthony Seldon, a contemporary historian who in his day-job is Master of Wellington College, and Mike Finn of Liverpool Hope University, who once worked for the Liberal Democrats, have made a brave attempt to assess what their book title calls “The Coalition Effect” even before the 2010-15 coalition has formally come to an end.

Seldon and Finn are editors of what is a hefty volume of 23 essays by a distinguished range of experts on many aspects of the past five years of coalition government. But as the editors themselves have contributed the opening and closing essays, they have set its tone. Which is that — although the coalition lasted much longer than expected, and among its policies and initiatives are plenty that show both parties’ influence — it is not at all clear that the coalition has changed much in British political life.

The biggest surprise about the past five years lies in the lack of electoral reform, or of any wider constitutional reform. This had for years seemed to be the Liberal Democrats’ main raison d’être and had long been expected to be the party’s chief and undroppable goal in any coalition agreement. 

Yet it failed utterly to achieve it. Nick Clegg, the party’s leader, made political reform his own main task, and came out with nothing: a humiliating defeat in a referendum on a new voting system (“Alternative Vote”) that he himself had previously dismissed contemptuously, no progress on reforming the House of Lords, and just the Fixed Term Parliaments Act, whose real effect may have been to trap the Lib Dems in the coalition for longer than was good for them.

Indeed, out of this messy set of failures came the one decisive and rather bolshie act by Clegg and the Lib Dems in the whole term of government: their decision in 2013 to veto a review of constituency boundaries, which stood to benefit the Conservatives. Had that review occurred, the Tories might have had a fighting chance of winning
an absolute parliamentary majority next month. 

That veto underlined the fact that, despite the long-term fragmentation of the British party system, general elections still remain on the cusp of producing single-party government thanks to the country’s first-past-the-post voting system. If the Scottish National party had not risen so strongly in the polls since last September’s independence referendum, Labour, too, would now be seriously envisaging an absolute majority — and the SNP’s rise surely has more to do with Labour’s pre-2010 failures than with coalition politics. 

Far from political reform emanating from the dynamics of coalition-forming, as might have been expected, it has come dramatically from elsewhere. In 2014, the UK was close to break-up in Scotland’s referendum, and still might be. And if a Tory victory on May 7 leads to a referendum on membership of the European Union by 2017, as the Conservative leader David Cameron has promised, Britain would be teetering on the brink of both a constitutional earthquake and a strategic one.

Related to that prospect, another surprise from 2010-15 is that, under a Conservative-led government, Britain’s defence forces have become weaker than at any time since the second world war, and the country’s reputation in
foreign affairs lower than anyone can remember. Yet this bears no imprint
of sandal-wearing Lib Dem peaceniks, and nor does the government’s decision to keep expanding its budget for overseas aid.

It is all the result of other factors: recession, the Tories’ determination to ringfence spending on the National Health Service so as to cover what they see as their main electoral weakness, the Tories’ internal squabbles about Europe. Cameron’s obsession with hitting the UN’s guideline of 0.7 per cent of gross national income on overseas aid regardless of the effect on other public spending is hard to explain, which may be why Seldon and Finn pretty much ignore it.

Where the coalition’s policies do promise to have a sustained impact, which includes education, welfare and perhaps the overall economic stance, they reflect the very point that much of the pre-election commentary missed, namely that leading Tories and Lib Dems actually agreed on a lot of things. The idea that the Lib Dems were closer to Labour arose, as the former Guardian editor Peter Preston writes in an essay on the media, from lobby correspondents’ long-standing disregard of the Lib Dems as being too marginal to bother with in a two-party system.

Parliamentary arithmetic alone might have dictated a Tory-Lib Dem coalition, but the affinity between Cameron’s closest circle and the so-called “Orange Book liberals” around Clegg made one a lot more natural than had been supposed. Even after the high-profile Tory Michael Gove had been shunted aside in 2014 as secretary of state for education, his reforms continued to be pushed more quietly by the minister for schools, the Lib Dem David Laws — who had in 2004 been one of the editors of the economically liberal “Orange Book” to which Clegg contributed, along with Vince Cable and Chris Huhne among others.

The area in which the notion that the Lib Dems stood to the left of Labour has been most exposed as myth has been in economic policy. Admittedly, the atmosphere of financial crisis that surrounded the 2010 election would have restricted the potential for any serious disagreements over taxes, spending and borrowing anyway, but the reality is that the parties’ leaders were broadly in agreement on the need to cut the deficit.

Which is a huge pity, argues William Keegan, the seasoned economic columnist of The Observer, in his short, spirited book, Mr Osborne’s Economic Experiment. There has never been much of a debate, within government or within parliament, about the appropriate pace of fiscal contraction. The chancellor of the exchequer may or may not have deliberately moderated his “plan A” of budgetary tightening when Britain’s economy started slipping backwards in 2012 but he has certainly not accepted that there was any alternative to what is now known as “austerity”.

This is also the dominant assumption of the 2015 election campaign, and of much of the media commentary surrounding it, an assumption challenged only by the SNP’s Nicola Sturgeon — whose challenge is undermined by the flakiness of her party’s own fiscal plans. Whoever gets into government, it is assumed, must work out a way to balance the budget by the time of the next general election.

But must they? That is Keegan’s question, and it is a valid one, probably shared by many voters who have not noticed any “feelgood factor” despite Britain’s recently rapid economic growth. When government borrowing costs so little, does it really make sense to borrow less? The belief that it does explains why — despite much talk of grand infrastructure projects such as the High Speed Two railway line, and new airport runways — capital spending by the government has actually been squeezed.

Keegan cites one, possibly apocryphal, remark by a British civil servant. “All governments do foolish things,” the mandarin said. “Our job is to make sure they do foolish things properly.” Anthony King, professor of British government at Essex University, would place that quote as coming from the good old days. Now, he argues in Who Governs Britain?, they don’t even manage that.

As King was the co-author in 2013 with Ivor Crewe of The Blunders of Our Governments, you might not be surprised that he takes such a bleak view. What is striking, nonetheless, is that he clearly doesn’t think the past five years’ experiment with coalition government has made any difference.

His answer to the question in his book title is that no one governs Britain very well, for everyone is even more constrained by other forces than they used to be. His main lament, though, is that ministers are more frantic than ever to make radical and rapid reforms, while often knowing little of their brief and being advised by civil servants who are themselves less well informed than they used to be. And then parliament compounds matters by being flawed in its basic function, that of making laws.

Who Governs Britain? is a comprehensive and compelling guide to how government works in Britain and the sources of its many failings. What the book lacks is what much British political and even economic commentary lacks, namely sufficiently detailed international comparisons and context. This is especially a pity because coalitions are so new to Britain and so normal in Scandinavia, the Netherlands and Germany. King makes it plain that he hankers after a more “Nordic” approach to government and ends his book with a brief outline of what this might mean. Essentially, he says it would involve a more deliberative approach to public policy, with radical changes of direction coming less often, and with “wicked issues” being dealt with more easily.

Is this true? It is certainly one of the things that British viewers have been charmed by in Borgen, the Danish TV series. Whether it represents the ultimate destination of Britain’s fragmenting politics, however, we will probably have to wait several more elections to find out.