The Lib Dem–Tory coalition: why I am delighted

The Lib Dems have always argued that coalition government can work. Now they have a chance to prove

When, aged 16 in 1988, I got up to deliver Focus leaflets at 6am, went out canvassing voters during the dark days after the SDP-Liberal merger and found myself dealing with the continuing Owenite SDP in by-elections in Epping and Vauxhall, or even -- most embarrassingly -- when I stood on the back of battle buses (well, open-topped vans), urging the electorate through a loudhailer to "go for gold", the Lib Dem colour, could I have imagined that a representative of the party to which I then belonged could ever become deputy prime minister?

No. And that is just one reason why now, however short-lived the euphoria may be, I rejoice to see the Liberal Democrats in coalition with the Tories. Already we hear the voices of recrimination. Lib Dem supporters, apparently, will be angry that their votes have propped up a Tory administration that failed to win a majority. Some of them will be, for sure. Just as some of them would have been if the Lib Dems had helped obtain a rainbow coalition led by Labour.

That's the problem with hung parliaments. That's the problem with a system that has been so skewed that, for the better part of a century, one party or the other has managed to get often-overwhelming majorities while never winning an overall majority of the popular vote. The people speak. And the people have got used to the idea that if, say, 40 per cent of them favour one party, that's enough for a tyranny of the minority to rule.

Well, times change. Instead of a minority of the vote allowing one party to form a government, the electorate still doesn't decide who rules -- but its representatives, who, in this case, represent an overall majority both in seats and votes, do. What irks Labour tribalists so much about Nick Clegg's decision to join with the Tories is, I suspect, their sense that the Liberal Democrats are not a proper party; that their votes properly belong to Labour, and that their natural role in such a situation should be as subservient fellow progressives, happy to fall in line and accept crumbs from the table of their big, collectivist brother.

 

Tribal souls

This is a deeply patronising and thoroughly wrong-headed view. Never mind that the Lib Dems have, in many ways, been consistently to the left of New Labour -- on a personal note, I can say that the seeds of my friendship with the former Tribune editor and Labour NEC member Mark Seddon were sown when Tony Blair won his party's leadership and we found ourselves, somewhat to our puzzlement, agreeing in our opposition to him.

More than that, there is a bloody-minded radicalism, always present in the old Liberal Party and still there in the Liberal Democrats, that represents a left-wing individualism totally antithetical to the class-solidarity conformism that Labour never escapes.

Yet Labour obstinately refuses to recognise that. Its members are tribal in their soul. Liberals wouldn't want to belong to any tribe that would have them as members. A result of this, incidentally, is an instinctive libertarianism that finds more echoes in the views of Tory civil libertarians such as David Davis and Alan Duncan (who used to argue bravely in favour of drug liberalisation) than in a People's Party that all too often seems merely to want people to be the same.

I would have welcomed a Lib Dem-Labour coalition that could have represented an obvious reunion of the progressive centre left. In the end, however, that not only appeared unviable in terms of Commons numbers, but also in terms of Labour intransigence. (Not Old Labour intransigence -- remember, John Reid, the Blairite ex-home secretary, was one of the most vehement in his opposition to a deal. This was not principled. It was tribal.)

So, what was the alternative? The Liberal Democrats have been committed throughout the party's life to electoral reform. The inevitable consequence of that is coalition government. To turn down a deal with the only partner available -- a partner that has showed itself greatly willing -- in order to preserve some puerile purity would have been for the party to fail the one time it was put to the test. You believe in coalition government? Fine, show it. And the Lib Dems are doing so.

 

The safety net

Some will object that the Liberal Democrats have nothing in common with the Conservatives. This is quite wrong, especially when they are led by a man who has made a point of saying that he is not "ideological", a man whose patrician background should not overshadow the more important point about the tradition of One-Nation Toryism in which he stands.

Michael Heseltine quoted Winston Churchill on BBC News yesterday as being in favour of a safety net, below which no one should be allowed to fall, and beyond which people should be able to do as they wish. This is exactly what Liberals believe. What makes them left-wing is that they believe that that safety net should be hung so high that it provides excellence for all.

What makes Labour different is that, in its heart, it always wants to curtail or interfere with the activities of those who either have no need of or who wish to disregard that safety net. It always seeks to control. It's no wonder that the ultimate nanny-state party introduced the surveillance state.

Labour criticised David Cameron for his presumption that he would have the right to rule after this election. Perhaps the People's Party should look to itself. Its slavish conformism led it to embrace a supposedly election-guaranteeing New Labour ideology it should have shunned. Nobody has the right to rule. And nobody has the right to tell the cussed, awkward individualists who still make up the radical core of the Liberal Democrats whom they should go into government with.

A vote for the Lib Dems was neither a vote for the Tories nor one for Labour. There is no such thing as an anti-Tory majority in this country, just as there is no anti-Labour majority. The best -- and most meaningless -- thing one could say is that there is a non-Tory majority, just as there is a non-Labour majority.

So, where does that leave us? Well, if the people spoke, then this time they left it up to the Lib Dems. Now is the time to trust them. True progressive politics entails going beyond an infantile obsession with two-party battles -- when all of us know that life, and the big issues that affect us all, are so much more complicated and nuanced than that.

I, for one, welcome coalition government -- which means majority government for the first time since the Second World War.

As Paddy Ashdown said last night: "Hooray! Hooray!"

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Sholto Byrnes is a Contributing Editor to the New Statesman
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Hannan Fodder: This week, Daniel Hannan gets his excuses in early

I didn't do it. 

Since Daniel Hannan, a formerly obscure MEP, has emerged as the anointed intellectual of the Brexit elite, The Staggers is charting his ascendancy...

When I started this column, there were some nay-sayers talking Britain down by doubting that I was seriously going to write about Daniel Hannan every week. Surely no one could be that obsessed with the activities of one obscure MEP? And surely no politician could say enough ludicrous things to be worthy of such an obsession?

They were wrong, on both counts. Daniel and I are as one on this: Leave and Remain, working hand in glove to deliver on our shared national mission. There’s a lesson there for my fellow Remoaners, I’m sure.

Anyway. It’s week three, and just as I was worrying what I might write this week, Dan has ridden to the rescue by writing not one but two columns making the same argument – using, indeed, many of the exact same phrases (“not a club, but a protection racket”). Like all the most effective political campaigns, Dan has a message of the week.

First up, on Monday, there was this headline, in the conservative American journal, the Washington Examiner:

“Why Brexit should work out for everyone”

And yesterday, there was his column on Conservative Home:

“We will get a good deal – because rational self-interest will overcome the Eurocrats’ fury”

The message of the two columns is straightforward: cooler heads will prevail. Britain wants an amicable separation. The EU needs Britain’s military strength and budget contributions, and both sides want to keep the single market intact.

The Con Home piece makes the further argument that it’s only the Eurocrats who want to be hardline about this. National governments – who have to answer to actual electorates – will be more willing to negotiate.

And so, for all the bluster now, Theresa May and Donald Tusk will be skipping through a meadow, arm in arm, before the year is out.

Before we go any further, I have a confession: I found myself nodding along with some of this. Yes, of course it’s in nobody’s interests to create unnecessary enmity between Britain and the continent. Of course no one will want to crash the economy. Of course.

I’ve been told by friends on the centre-right that Hannan has a compelling, faintly hypnotic quality when he speaks and, in retrospect, this brief moment of finding myself half-agreeing with him scares the living shit out of me. So from this point on, I’d like everyone to keep an eye on me in case I start going weird, and to give me a sharp whack round the back of the head if you ever catch me starting a tweet with the word, “Friends-”.

Anyway. Shortly after reading things, reality began to dawn for me in a way it apparently hasn’t for Daniel Hannan, and I began cataloguing the ways in which his argument is stupid.

Problem number one: Remarkably for a man who’s been in the European Parliament for nearly two decades, he’s misunderstood the EU. He notes that “deeper integration can be more like a religious dogma than a political creed”, but entirely misses the reason for this. For many Europeans, especially those from countries which didn’t have as much fun in the Second World War as Britain did, the EU, for all its myriad flaws, is something to which they feel an emotional attachment: not their country, but not something entirely separate from it either.

Consequently, it’s neither a club, nor a “protection racket”: it’s more akin to a family. A rational and sensible Brexit will be difficult for the exact same reasons that so few divorcing couples rationally agree not to bother wasting money on lawyers: because the very act of leaving feels like a betrayal.

Or, to put it more concisely, courtesy of Buzzfeed’s Marie Le Conte:

Problem number two: even if everyone was to negotiate purely in terms of rational interest, our interests are not the same. The over-riding goal of German policy for decades has been to hold the EU together, even if that creates other problems. (Exhibit A: Greece.) So there’s at least a chance that the German leadership will genuinely see deterring more departures as more important than mutual prosperity or a good relationship with Britain.

And France, whose presidential candidates are lining up to give Britain a kicking, is mysteriously not mentioned anywhere in either of Daniel’s columns, presumably because doing so would undermine his argument.

So – the list of priorities Hannan describes may look rational from a British perspective. Unfortunately, though, the people on the other side of the negotiating table won’t have a British perspective.

Problem number three is this line from the Con Home piece:

“Might it truly be more interested in deterring states from leaving than in promoting the welfare of its peoples? If so, there surely can be no further doubt that we were right to opt out.”

If there any rhetorical technique more skin-crawlingly horrible, than, “Your response to my behaviour justifies my behaviour”?

I could go on, about how there’s no reason to think that Daniel’s relatively gentle vision of Brexit is shared by Nigel Farage, UKIP, or a significant number of those who voted Leave. Or about the polls which show that, far from the EU’s response to the referendum pushing more European nations towards the door, support for the union has actually spiked since the referendum – that Britain has become not a beacon of hope but a cautionary tale.

But I’m running out of words, and there’ll be other chances to explore such things. So instead I’m going to end on this:

Hannan’s argument – that only an irrational Europe would not deliver a good Brexit – is remarkably, parodically self-serving. It allows him to believe that, if Brexit goes horribly wrong, well, it must all be the fault of those inflexible Eurocrats, mustn’t it? It can’t possibly be because Brexit was a bad idea in the first place, or because liberal Leavers used nasty, populist ones to achieve their goals.

Read today, there are elements of Hannan’s columns that are compelling, even persuasive. From the perspective of 2020, I fear, they might simply read like one long explanation of why nothing that has happened since will have been his fault.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric. He is on Twitter, far too much, as @JonnElledge.