Right, have we settled down? Have we got over the initial reaction to the Cleggeron civil partnership? I think we have, so it’s time to have a look at just what the ConDem government promises. From glancing at the text of the Pact of Blood, there are a number of themes that leap out. I suggest that the Lib Dems played a rather weak hand on their key policies – they haven’t got PR and probably won’t even get AV, which means they’d better hope to God this is a successful and popular coalition if they don’t want to be wiped out – but that both leaders have reason to be happy.
Firstly, let’s backpedal a bit. I always thought Clegg’s personal preference was for a deal with Cameron, but it was never entirely certain that he wouldn’t deal with Labour (especially if Brown vacated the stage) or that his party wouldn’t push him to. In TV interviews during the coalition talks, elder statesmen like Lords Steel and Pantsdown, not to mention ex-MPs Lembit Öpik and Evan Harris (the latter two getting some media gigs while between jobs, of course, although I did wonder where Julia Goldsworthy had got to) conspicuously left that option open. Now, the Lib Dem party line is that Labour wasn’t negotiating seriously, and that the whole thing was scuppered by cranky media appearances from the likes of John Reid and David Blunkett; but I don’t entirely buy that.
Here’s a really good analysis from Julie Hyland of the media shitstorm that followed Brown’s resignation as Labour leader – the key to making a Lib-Lab coalition a possibility. We had a concentrated 24-hour period of absolute fury, not only from the Murdoch and Rothermere media – Adam Boulton’s performance being particularly memorable – with the press banging on about how this was totally illegitimate, and even on the BBC dire warnings about how “the markets” – which is to say the spivs who created the economic crisis – wouldn’t tolerate Cameron not being put into Number 10. It’s clear that the Lib Dems buckled; also that Labour buckled in two different ways.
One way was the Labour leadership giving up the ghost in the negotiations; the other was the hostile response from various Scottish and northern Labour panjandrums on Newsnight. There were a lot of bad reasons for this: they don’t like PR (which would work against Labour in Scotland); they really hated the idea of working with the SNP; they didn’t like Gordon Brown. But the main reason as far as I could see – and remember, this was coming from the über-Blairite faction – was that the ConDem option would be much more efficient at imposing austerity and hammering the working class. Which kind of begs the question as to what exactly Reid and Blunkett are doing in the Labour Party.
But that’s in the past now. What are we looking at for the future?
Firstly, I’d like to repeat my wish that Britain had a genuine party system with a proper socialist party, a proper conservative party and a proper liberal party fighting it out on distinct manifestos, as opposed to a situation where the neocon scum – Blairites, Cameroons, Orange Bookers – control all three big parties. Let the neocons run on their own programme and see how well it fares against real alternatives, say I. But that, unfortunately, is not where we are.
Where we are is a situation where the Tories, in the most propitious of circumstances, still couldn’t get a majority government let alone the landslide they thought they could sleepwalk into not long ago, and where the Lib Dems, having just won support from the electorate on the basis of an essentially anti-Tory campaign, have allowed themselves to be joined at the hip to the Tories for the next five years. This suits both leaders down to the ground. It allows Cameron to nobble the Tory right, who’ve never liked him anyway, and it allows Clegg to nobble the Lib Dem left. Cameron has had to throw a few cabinet jobs the way of the right, but nothing much in the way of policy.
Neither leader dissents from the Friedmanite economic consensus that’s dominated British politics since Thatcher. There are some technical disagreements about how to deal with the crisis, but there’s no disagreement about bailing out piratical spivs and screwing the working class to make it happen. That is, from the left’s point of view, the most important point.
What’s equally important is that in terms of culture war politics, both leaders are basically liberal. This is why cultural conservatives like Tebbit, Heffer and Hitchens minor have never liked Cameron, a Macmillanite Whig by inclination, and why those on the left who have convinced themselves that the Tories are gagging to ban abortion and reintroduce Section 28 have got completely the wrong end of the stick. To anyone who’s actually followed the progress of Cameron and his inner circle of louche West London swells, the articles to that effect in the Grauniad op-ed pages or on Liberal Conspiracy have something of the air of surrealism.
The other point to be made is that this ties in nicely with the way the Lib Dems have been moving under Clegg. I referred in the last post to folks not paying attention – the prime example of that would be the coups against first Charlie Kennedy and then Menzies Campbell, and what these signified ideologically. The whole point of the Orange Book project was to dispense with the Kennedy project of left-of-centre liberalism and refashion the Lib Dems into something very much akin to Guido Westerwelle’s FDP in Germany. Clegg, in a very real way, is Westerwelle redux; and the egregious coalitionist bullshitting from the party’s leftist conscience Simon Hughes is an indication of how deep the collapse goes. One might expect no better of Clegg, a former lobbyist, but Hughes’ whole political shtick is based on him being Mr Liberal Principle.
So anyway, the Pact of Blood. What does it say?
- There’s going to be an emergency budget aimed at reducing the deficit by crucifying the public sector.
- There will be a comprehensive spending review, with an attack on public sector pensions flagged up, but the enormous white elephant that is Trident is sacrosanct. Suck on that, Liberal CNDers.
- Personal allowances will go up, which looks like a fiscal loosening directed to the benefit of low earners, but with VAT also going up the net effect will probably still be regressive.
- There’s some fairly vague talk about banking reform, but don’t bet on anything that would spook the red-braced spivs. The Bank of England will get back powers over banking regulation, and there won’t be any entry into the euro.
- The Tories have got their cap on non-EU immigration, and the Lib Dems haven’t got their earned amnesty. At least, there is a pledge to end detention of children for immigration purposes, which shows how low the system had sunk.
- Fixed-term parliaments, a referendum on AV – which may well be lost, especially if the Tories campaign against it – and a very dodgy proposal to make it harder for Parliament to vote a government out of office. There’s also the Cameron proposal for fewer constituencies of a standard size, which could very easily turn out to be another gerrymander. A committee on Lords reform, and some consideration of the devolved settlements. Also the right of citizens to recall MPs, which sounds great in theory, but just wait until Murdoch decides to target some particular MP for recall.
- Raising the retirement age and imposing tougher conditions on workfare.
- Gove’s “free schools” boondoggle is still in there. There is no mention of the Lib Dems’ crackpot policy of banning faith schools from selecting on grounds of, er, faith, so we may at least have seen that kicked into the long grass. Higher education funding is deferred to the publication of the Browne report, with the proviso that the Tories will get their way and if the Lib Dems disagree with the Tory response they’ll abstain.
- On the EU, the standard Tory position of working the EU system while making “sceptical” noises is retained.
- The civil liberties bit is what’s got libertarians excited, such is Labour’s atrocious record in this area. At the very least, the scrapping of ID cards and the National Identity Register are a good thing. Extending FOI provisions, restricting DNA databases and the spread of CCTV, libel reform, protection of trial by jury, defending the right to protest all sound pretty good, and this stuff was all in both the Tory and Lib Dem manifestos – it’s instructive that on this, Labour will be attacking the new government from the right. Note, however, that there are caveats there along the lines of “without good reason” – a government can always find a reason, like terrorists or paedophiles, to justify an authoritarian measure.
- Most of the environmental section is unexceptional, except to note that on the new construction of nuclear power plants, provision is made for the Lib Dems to speak against any such proposals and then abstain on any vote. This would seem to be a standard mechanism allowing Cameron to get his way, and Clegg to throw a bone to his activists without actually voting against things that his party opposes.
And, er, sin é. Cameron has his way on anything that’s important to him, it doesn’t look as if Clegg has got any of his party’s trademark policies, and the two parties are close enough anyway at leadership level to make it a comfortable mesh. Whether there are strains put on the deal by bolshy MPs or peers or activists we shall see – I’d be surprised if there weren’t – but this gerrymander that says you need a 55% negative vote for the government to lose the confidence of Parliament is presumably aimed at guarding against that.
And so we move on to a brief consideration of who’s going to be implementing all this. Apart from Cameron in the top job and Clegg as his fag, what does the cabinet look like?
Of course, the Tories get all the top jobs. The boy Gideon gets to be Chancellor, which should make us all jittery, and William Jefferson Hague gets the Foreign Office. Given Dave’s track record on foreign policy, this raises the appalling vista of Hague having to be the voice of reason. Meanwhile, Crocodile Shoes has gone to the politicians’ graveyard that is the Home Office. She should at least provide entertainment value. As Cristina Odone points out, neither the left nor the right like Theresa – the PC left despise her for having voted for retaining Section 28 a hundred years ago, notwithstanding her mea culpas since, and for being unsound on abortion, while the unreconstructed right deride her as the Tories’ answer to Harriet Harman. Whatever about that, since her recent predecessors at the Home Office include Mr Brightside and Wacky Jacqui, it’s not like the designer shoes she’ll have to step into are intimidatingly big.
That strange wee man Gove takes education, and will be introducing compulsory Dungeons & Dragons for the kids. At justice we have Fat Ken, presumably to add a bit of gravitas, where I’d really have liked to see the civil libertarian David Davis. For the leftist trainspotters out there, ex-Trotskyist Eric Pickles takes charge of local government. Eric pledges to empower local authorities, which would be a neat reversal of the Thatcherite power grab that did him so well in Bradford. Sayeeda Warsi, the living embodiment of Tracy Flick, is in there as Tory chairman. And Columbo Letwin, who Cameron esteems but doesn’t let out in public very often because of his disturbing propensity to tell the truth, is given a discreet job at the Cabinet Office.
The Lib Dems at cabinet level are very much of a piece, Orange Book neocons to a man. Nice, cuddly Uncle Vince gets the business portfolio, though he’ll have to recuse himself from any discussions of the oil industry. David Laws, former vice-president of JP Morgan, gets the number two slot at the Treasury – that’s right, an investment banker put into the Treasury. Chris Huhne at energy will be in charge of constructing those new nuclear power stations he’s opposed to. And Danny Alexander is the new proconsul for Scotland. Interesting that the job didn’t go to the Lib Dems’ Scottish leader, Alistair Carmichael, but then Carmichael has often made public his disagreements with Orange Book nostrums, so he doesn’t really fit in with the new orthodoxy.
There are a couple of appointments that have me worried. The extremely belligerent Doctor Fox taking defence, and promising to be the second coming of Al Haig, is one. Owen Paterson being made Norn Iron proconsul is to be expected, although his role in trying to broker a revived UUUC prior to the election surely puts a question mark over both his judgement and Dave’s. And I’m not sure about putting Cheryl Gillan in charge of Wales – she does have the advantage of actually being Welsh, so we’re not talking about a return to the John Redwood period, but appointing a Welsh Secretary whose constituency lies outside Wales looks suspiciously like a reversion to an old Thatcher/Major practice. The Tories and Lib Dems between them hold eleven seats in Wales – were none of those MPs considered up to the job?
And then there’s Iain Duncan Donuts, architect-in-chief of Cameron’s Dickensian “Big Society”, running the DWP where his task will be to out-evil James Purnell. This worries me, and it even worries me that Cameron has been talking a lot about “the common good”. Clifford Longley is very excited about this, tracing the roots of the phrase in Catholic social thought, but I seriously doubt if Cameron even knows what Social Catholicism is. The thing about IDS is that he used to be a hardline Thatcherite but says he’s changed his ideas and become concerned about the poor after reading the Catholic bishops’ social manifesto Taxation for the Common Good. Given the Old Labour proclivities of the Bishops’ Conference, and that the “Big Society” seems to owe more to Samuel Smiles than Leo XIII, I’m a little sceptical about this, and more than a little worried about this idea of farming out the functions of the welfare state to the voluntary sector. What’s even more worrying is the Lib Dems’ Steve Webb being IDS’ sidekick – to know why, read Webb’s contribution to the Orange Book, which managed to mix the worst aspects of Cameroonian “Broken Britain” rhetoric and New Labour pettifogging statism into one great melange of silly.
I would further point out that our devolved Department of Social Development doesn’t vary benefits but mirrors what’s decided in London. If I’m worried, Alex Attwood should be terrified, because there are a lot of benefit claimants in his constituency and he’ll have to implement whatever mad scheme comes down the line from DWP.
You know, it’s only a matter of time before people start saying, “Gordon Brown wasn’t that bad, was he?” And given how awful New Labour could be, that’s saying something.