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The Politics of Coalition

by Simon Kovar

APRIL 2007

IT was fashionable in the 1990s to speak of the demise of political disagreement. In Britain, Tony Blair personified this mood by describing political philosophies as rival “prejudices”, to be jettisoned in favour of a “new politics” of real world pragmatism. The “forces of conservatism” had to be challenged by a “progressive” agenda which would re-unite the traditions of ‘social democracy’ (represented by the Labour Party) and Liberalism. He was joined in this project for a period by Paddy Ashdown; and something of the same mood appears to have resurfaced at LibDem Spring Conference, where Sir Menzies Campbell made overtures to Gordon Brown in the form of ‘five tests’.

A decade on, however, there is an important difference. Whatever other criticisms one might have had of Ashdown’s strategic judgement, his philosophical goals were recognisably liberal. He aspired to a greater pluralism in our politics to reflect that of our society. Proportional representation (PR) was the instrument for bringing this about and, it followed, the minimum price for Liberal Democrat cooperation in government. In other words, from Ashdown’s perspective if not from Blair’s, there was a real sense that ‘The Project’ could lead the country in a Liberal direction. The same cannot be said of Campbell’s five tests, from which PR has been notably (and it seems pointedly) omitted. The result is a bid not so much for power as for office, and unaccompanied by any commitment to the long-term and sustained re-conversion of the British public to Liberalism as a philosophy capable of defining and speaking to the spirit of our times. Such a commitment would make sound electoral as well as ethical sense; after all, any post-election scenario necessarily depends on garnering a certain number of Liberal votes. But Campbell appears to have a quite different goal in mind; that of persuading Gordon Brown to adopt a more liberal-democratic tone, so that Sir Menzies can fulfil his long-held ambition to occupy a cabinet seat.

A clue as to the cabinet seat in question comes in the form of Campbell’s fifth ‘test’: a foreign policy independent from that of the United States. Sir Menzies has been touted as a prospective foreign secretary in a coalition cabinet on a previous occasion, as part of the Blair-Ashdown project; but that was at a time when both parties were supportive of a new liberal interventionism. The Rwandan and Bosnian Genocides of the 1990s represented a collective moral failure which both Blair and Ashdown understood, stimulating the shift in British policy which resulted in interventions in Kosovo and Sierra Leone. The remarkable current dispensation of the Liberal Democrats is to have abandoned not only PR as a pre-condition of multi-party cooperation, but also liberal interventionism. “Foreign policy is a world of relative values”, Campbell wrote in The Observer of 20 August 2006; and in doing so, he confirmed the party’s movement away from the ethical focus foregrounded by Gladstone, through to Archibald Sinclair (on the fascist menace of the 1930s), David Steel (on apartheid South Africa and Commonwealth immigration), and Paddy Ashdown (on Hong Kong and Bosnia). Indeed, post-Blair, Campbell would be an attractive candidate for Foreign Secretary from Brown’s perspective. Such an appointment would effectively depoliticise the post, appeasing those on Labour’s left who share Campbell’s new hostility to interventionism together with his older hostility to Israel. Brown would then be free to concentrate on his domestic agenda, having rid himself of one of Blair’s more troublesome legacies.

The radicalism of this break with Ashdown’s foreign policy should not be underestimated. It is part of a shift that finds further confirmation in Nick Clegg’s recent hardening of the party’s language on asylum seekers. The Liberal Party once stood for, alongside free trade, the free movement of people in search of economic advancement and political freedom. Today’s Liberal Democrats repeatedly criticise the government for its failure to meet deportation targets for asylum seekers, even resorting to using the same lazy and contaminated language that has poisoned political, public and policy attitudes on this critical issue. Free trade (of which one corollary was support for open borders) and anti-totalitarianism have been two historically consistent and interrelated creeds of Liberal party politics for over 120 years – until Kennedy and Campbell. Importantly, these creeds have never been staples of our supposed and prospective partners in ‘progressive’ politics, the Labour Party. Anti-capitalist campaigners have never been fans of free trade or of immigration, with racism seldom absent from the mix.

Liberals, recalling the experiences of 1923 and 1979, ought to be well schooled in the traps of coalition politics; in each previous case, the result has been a substantial falling away of electoral support. In 1924, the Liberal Party lost three-quarters of its MPs, while in 1979 they squandered the gains secured under Jeremy Thorpe’s leadership. One can also be forgiven a degree of incredulity at Campbell’s decision to play the party’s (rather poor) hand so early. By making explicit his belief that Brown, but not Cameron, is up to these ‘tests’, Campbell has declared in effect that a vote for the Liberal Democrats at the next general election will – in the event of a hung parliament – amount to a vote for a continuation of Labour in office. This is not the most resounding of messages at the best of times, but seems particularly ill-conceived given that a hung parliament will only occur at all should the electorate first decide to strip Labour of a 70-seat Commons majority. Nor, of course, is Campbell’s bid any incentive for Conservatives to take the Liberal Democrats seriously in any post-election scenario. This is all the more the case given the prospect of substantial Liberal Democrat losses at the next election. The 2005 Nuffield general election study found that 31% of those who voted Liberal Democrat would not have done so had they thought the party would sit in government, while 25% would have voted Labour had it not been for the Iraq war, an issue that cannot be counted upon next time around.

With Campbell angling to secure a seat in the Brown Cabinet, and Clegg singing a Tory tune on issues such as asylum, it is possible that the party is heading for a split – one not along philosophical lines related to the project of 21st century Liberalism, but over the choice, between Labour and Tory, that helped destroy the Liberal Party in the 1920s. There is only one sensible conclusion: that the Liberal Democrats should enter no coalition except in a Commons elected by PR and should use its votes in a hung parliament to oppose or support causes depending on a single ‘test’ – that of their liberalism.

Campbell declared at the end of his Harrogate conference speech that “real democracy” equals “liberal democracy”. As this magazine has noted before, the term ‘liberal democracy’ speaks not of a political philosophy but a set of institutional arrangements conceived to reconcile tensions between liberalism and democracy. At times, liberal values require defence in opposition to democracy (to the populist politics that result in hostility to refugees, for example). Instead, under the influence of Lord Rennard’s ultra-localism, today’s Liberal Democrats view themselves as, first and foremost, ‘democrats’ even if this means opposition to liberal values. This may go some way toward explaining why the party has distanced itself from PR. Rennardism, as a campaigning technique, is entirely geared towards winning seats under the existing electoral arrangements. It is entirely unsuited to campaigning for votes – and scores its ‘victories’ not by winning Liberal votes but by deterring people from voting altogether. This is a telling illustration of the extent to which Rennardism has decoupled the party from its liberal heritage as well as from its best electoral interests.

This at a time when the political climate is highly conducive to the serious return of Liberal politics. For all the spin, David Cameron’s politics do represent a return to the traditional philosophical roots of the Conservative Party. His comments on localism, the environment, the family, the importance of civil society over the state, and religion, all fit within the classic Burkean mould. The historical as well as philosophical counterpoint to this tradition has always been Liberalism – one reason why countenancing a coalition deal with Cameron would be every bit as destructive as doing so with Brown. The Liberal Democrats must return to this tradition, for it is this – rather than a vague ‘progressive’ consensus – that will win over the country to Liberalism once again.

Simon Kovar is a Contributing Editor of The Liberal.

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