After we hung ’em

Twelve immediate reflections on the coalition.

1. David Cameron is the adroit driver of the coalition. He proposed an offer that the weakened Lib Dems couldn't refuse. His own strategy is to replace Tory nationalism with a 21st-century version of One-Nation "Whig" Conservatism, one that can appeal to urban and suburban multicultural Britain. (See my article "The end of Thatcherism" at OurKingdom.) Don't blame Nick; Labour wasn't interested in changing.

2. Nick Clegg's speech today confirms his commitment to the "modern liberty" agenda of rolling back the intrusive, database state. It is a tremendously positive outcome of the coalition agreement and a framework of principle that helps bind it together. Tragically, Labour were positive enemies of progress in this respect and don't understand what has hit them. Just because the BBC refuses to cover an issue doesn't mean it is not important.

3. But the coalition smacks of an attempt to create a new establishment (male, public school, enlightened) to replace the turpitude of New Labour's political class. While it is wonderful on liberty, noises about appointing swarms of new lords suggest an underlying attempt to preserve the old order. The expenses scandal isn't over yet.

4. The Tory aim is to win the next election outright. The Lib Dems need a strategy that will leave them stronger not weaker when they leave the coalition. If, as he told James Macintyre, Nick Clegg wants to be prime minister, he has to be better at playing chess than David Cameron.

5. The Tories will be stupid to tell voters we can decide on our electoral system and then refuse to permit us the choice of a significantly different one. They can't "restore trust" by spending millions on a referendum designed not to trust us. The Lib Dems will be hammered, too, if they go along with this. A proportional choice should be included in the referendum. Liberty can only be safeguarded by democracy but democracy is the coalition's political fault line.

6. A new generation that grew up under the spin of New Labour, and for which the wit and facility of the web are second nature, is starting to mobilise against being fitted up by half-measures that preserve the old regime. The demand for fair votes has taken to the streets under the colour of suffrage and added a new dimension to UK politics. The purple revolution may pause for breath but it is likely to grow -- it is an irresistible claim, not a protest.

7. Britain is much better in many ways thanks to New Labour, but the new leaders will need not just to admit they were wrong on Iraq, but explain why they persisted in being wrong when so many of us, including the Lib Dems, were right. A dishonest electoral system gave them many more seats than they deserved, but this will be corrected and they have no chance of expanding the support they need until they rethink what kind of a state they offer voters, and how we can be sure it will be both politically and economically honest, as well as creating policies that don't need borrowed money. If, like the Compass "A New Hope" conference sponsored by the New Statesman, Labour ignores the implications of its database state, then its cause is already hopeless and it will lose the next election.

8. The desire to preserve the Union and prevent a boost for the SNP in Scotland was an important motive for Cameron's offer of a coalition. Otherwise, the government would have had one MP, rather than 12, from north of the border. But its effect might be to destroy the Lib Dems in the Scottish Parliament elections next year. The national question is a burning fuse that might be slowed but can't be extinguished.

9. The coalition agreement stipulates that there will be a report on what to do about the West Lothian Question, that is to say, the unfairness of the present arrangements for the English (England returned a Tory majority). The official answer to the West Lothian Question has always been not to ask it. Once England enters the mix as an acknowledged grievance, stand back!

10. The row over whether parliament can be forced to rewrite the fundamental rule that if a government loses the confidence of the House it has to resign shows that the British constitution's famed flexibility has been tested to destruction. To put it politely, the UK's uncodified constitution is broken beyond repair. The coalition won't whistle it back together again. This could provide a way for Labour to be more democratic in its strategy than the Liberal-Conservative government.

11. The "Portillo moment" of election night, signalling that something historic had happened, was Caroline Lucas's victory. The Greens have a politics of the totality, linking the economy and our environment to our democracy. If "new politics" means anything, it means green. The Greens need to grow.

12. Will the dire state of the deficit and the coming cuts be used to preserve the dominance of the City and its economic system? Or is that system so obviously dysfunctional and deep cuts so likely to provoke rioting that the Conservatives (for such they are) will seek a "fair" way out of the mess to preserve the social order? No one understands what is going to happen to capitalism on a world scale. All we know is that the UK is exceptionally exposed, not least thanks to the policies of Brown and Balls, and there is a fear that something dreadful awaits us just over the horizon.

Anthony Barnett is co-founder of openDemocracy and co-edits its British blog, OurKingdom. Read his original article for the New Statesman, "Hang 'em high with this election", here.

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Forget planning for no deal. The government isn't really planning for Brexit at all

The British government is simply not in a position to handle life after the EU.

No deal is better than a bad deal? That phrase has essentially vanished from Theresa May’s lips since the loss of her parliamentary majority in June, but it lives on in the minds of her boosters in the commentariat and the most committed parts of the Brexit press. In fact, they have a new meme: criticising the civil service and ministers who backed a Remain vote for “not preparing” for a no deal Brexit.

Leaving without a deal would mean, among other things, dropping out of the Open Skies agreement which allows British aeroplanes to fly to the United States and European Union. It would lead very quickly to food shortages and also mean that radioactive isotopes, used among other things for cancer treatment, wouldn’t be able to cross into the UK anymore. “Planning for no deal” actually means “making a deal”.  (Where the Brexit elite may have a point is that the consequences of no deal are sufficiently disruptive on both sides that the British government shouldn’t  worry too much about the two-year time frame set out in Article 50, as both sides have too big an incentive to always agree to extra time. I don’t think this is likely for political reasons but there is a good economic case for it.)

For the most part, you can’t really plan for no deal. There are however some things the government could prepare for. They could, for instance, start hiring additional staff for customs checks and investing in a bigger IT system to be able to handle the increased volume of work that would need to take place at the British border. It would need to begin issuing compulsory purchases to build new customs posts at ports, particularly along the 300-mile stretch of the Irish border – where Northern Ireland, outside the European Union, would immediately have a hard border with the Republic of Ireland, which would remain inside the bloc. But as Newsnight’s Christopher Cook details, the government is doing none of these things.

Now, in a way, you might say that this is a good decision on the government’s part. Frankly, these measures would only be about as useful as doing your seatbelt up before driving off the Grand Canyon. Buying up land and properties along the Irish border has the potential to cause political headaches that neither the British nor Irish governments need. However, as Cook notes, much of the government’s negotiating strategy seems to be based around convincing the EU27 that the United Kingdom might actually walk away without a deal, so not making even these inadequate plans makes a mockery of their own strategy. 

But the frothing about preparing for “no deal” ignores a far bigger problem: the government isn’t really preparing for any deal, and certainly not the one envisaged in May’s Lancaster House speech, where she set out the terms of Britain’s Brexit negotiations, or in her letter to the EU27 triggering Article 50. Just to reiterate: the government’s proposal is that the United Kingdom will leave both the single market and the customs union. Its regulations will no longer be set or enforced by the European Court of Justice or related bodies.

That means that, when Britain leaves the EU, it will need, at a minimum: to beef up the number of staff, the quality of its computer systems and the amount of physical space given over to customs checks and other assorted border work. It will need to hire its own food and standards inspectors to travel the globe checking the quality of products exported to the United Kingdom. It will need to increase the size of its own regulatory bodies.

The Foreign Office is doing some good and important work on preparing Britain’s re-entry into the World Trade Organisation as a nation with its own set of tariffs. But across the government, the level of preparation is simply not where it should be.

And all that’s assuming that May gets exactly what she wants. It’s not that the government isn’t preparing for no deal, or isn’t preparing for a bad deal. It can’t even be said to be preparing for what it believes is a great deal. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.