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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Theresa May’s Brexit speech is Angela Merkel’s victory – here’s why

The Germans coined the word “merkeln to describe their Chancellor’s approach to negotiations. 

It is a measure of Britain’s weak position that Theresa May accepts Angela Merkel’s ultimatum even before the Brexit negotiations have formally started

The British Prime Minister blinked first when she presented her plan for Brexit Tuesday morning. After months of repeating the tautological mantra that “Brexit means Brexit”, she finally specified her position when she essentially proposed that Britain should leave the internal market for goods, services and people, which had been so championed by Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s. 

By accepting that the “UK will be outside” and that there can be “no half-way house”, Theresa May has essentially caved in before the negotiations have begun.

At her meeting with May in July last year, the German Chancellor stated her ultimatum that there could be no “Rosinenpickerei” – the German equivalent of cherry picking. Merkel stated that Britain was not free to choose. That is still her position.

Back then, May was still battling for access to the internal market. It is a measure of how much her position has weakened that the Prime Minister has been forced to accept that Britain will have to leave the single market.

For those who have followed Merkel in her eleven years as German Kanzlerin there is sense of déjà vu about all this.  In negotiations over the Greek debt in 2011 and in 2015, as well as in her negotiations with German banks, in the wake of the global clash in 2008, Merkel played a waiting game; she let others reveal their hands first. The Germans even coined the word "merkeln", to describe the Chancellor’s favoured approach to negotiations.

Unlike other politicians, Frau Merkel is known for her careful analysis, behind-the-scene diplomacy and her determination to pursue German interests. All these are evident in the Brexit negotiations even before they have started.

Much has been made of US President-Elect Donald Trump’s offer to do a trade deal with Britain “very quickly” (as well as bad-mouthing Merkel). In the greater scheme of things, such a deal – should it come – will amount to very little. The UK’s exports to the EU were valued at £223.3bn in 2015 – roughly five times as much as our exports to the United States. 

But more importantly, Britain’s main export is services. It constitutes 79 per cent of the economy, according to the Office of National Statistics. Without access to the single market for services, and without free movement of skilled workers, the financial sector will have a strong incentive to move to the European mainland.

This is Germany’s gain. There is a general consensus that many banks are ready to move if Britain quits the single market, and Frankfurt is an obvious destination.

In an election year, this is welcome news for Merkel. That the British Prime Minister voluntarily gives up the access to the internal market is a boon for the German Chancellor and solves several of her problems. 

May’s acceptance that Britain will not be in the single market shows that no country is able to secure a better deal outside the EU. This will deter other countries from following the UK’s example. 

Moreover, securing a deal that will make Frankfurt the financial centre in Europe will give Merkel a political boost, and will take focus away from other issues such as immigration.

Despite the rise of the far-right Alternative für Deutschland party, the largely proportional electoral system in Germany will all but guarantee that the current coalition government continues after the elections to the Bundestag in September.

Before the referendum in June last year, Brexiteers published a poster with the mildly xenophobic message "Halt ze German advance". By essentially caving in to Merkel’s demands before these have been expressly stated, Mrs May will strengthen Germany at Britain’s expense. 

Perhaps, the German word schadenfreude comes to mind?

Matthew Qvortrup is author of the book Angela Merkel: Europe’s Most Influential Leader published by Duckworth, and professor of applied political science at Coventry University.