Where now for the coalition?

Tory manifesto continues to trump coalition agreement, despite all the talk of unity and partnership

Where stands the party manifesto in a coalition government? In a recent interview with the Guardian, the Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude mentioned the huge reorganisation planned for the National Health Service, in which the whole system in England is to be turned inside out, with GPs being put in charge of commissioning.

Responding to widespread surprise at the scale of the changes at a time of acute austerity, Maude argued that they shouldn't have come as such a shock, because the reforms hsd been mentioned in the Conservative manifesto and "people should have read the words".

Michael Gove's Academies Act is likely to have equally far-reaching effects. In the view of many, it involves the most significant changes since the 1944 Education Act, which established secondary education for all. Creating academies could well lead to the break-up of the school system as thousands of self-governing schools accountable only to central government come into being. Like Maude on health care, Gove has justified his legislation, which was rushed through parliament using procedures normally reserved for emergencies, by saying that the plans were in the Conservative manifesto, as indeed they were.

Neither Maude nor Gove referred to the detailed agreement drawn up between the Tories and the Lib Dems and published a fortnight after the election. These two iconic policies, with their far-reaching implications, were not reflected in the agreement. The coalition agreement stated: "We will stop the top-down reorganisations of the NHS that have got in the way of patient care."

In the section on schools there is a mention of allowing new providers to enter the system in response to parental demand -- the so-called "free schools" policy -- but not the plan to promote the conversion of large numbers of maintained schools to "independent" academy status, which is the heart of the legislation. This led to speculation in some quarters that the plan had been ditched in the coalition negotiations. Yet, less than a week later, Gove introduced his momentous bill -- the coalition's first. Could you make it up?

There are two possible explanations for Maude and Gove focusing on the manifesto and not the agreement. The charitable one is that British politicians are so unfamiliar with coalition working that they fall back more often than not on the conventional processes of one-party rule. The other explanation is that they knew they were not following the agreement, but chose to ignore this and mention only their manifesto, as though they had won the election outright.

Does any of this matter? Is it just some arcane procedural quibble? It is surely quite fundamental to where we are today. There's a feel of single-party government in these two policies at least. And unless the Lib Dems want to be seen as simply a means of enabling the Conservatives to implement their manifesto in a hung parliament, that kind of talk will damage them greatly. Perhaps they need to remind the senior partners that, for every three people who voted for the Tories, two voted for them.

More importantly, if coalitions are going to become much more common, whatever our electoral system, as some analysts predict, it is vital that radical policies such as these are seen to have political legitimacy and to be based on consensus between the ruling parties. Otherwise, the intense public cynicism about politics and politicians that became evident at the time of the Mps expenses scandal can only increase.

Ron Glatter is emeritus professor of educational administration and management at the Open University.

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Charlottesville: a town haunted by the far right

Locals fear a bitter far right will return.

On 12 August, a car ploughed down pedestrians in the street where I used to buy my pecan pies. I had recently returned to London from Charlottesville, Virginia – the scene of what appears to have been an act of white supremacist terrorism – having worked and taught at the university there for four years. While I unpacked boxes of books, the streets I knew so well were full of hate and fire.

The horror began on the evening of Friday 11 August, when thugs with torches marched across the “Lawn”. Running through the heart of the university, this is where, each Halloween, children don ghoulish costumes and trick-or-treat delighted and generous fourth-year undergraduates.

But there were true monsters there that night. They took their stand on the steps of the neoclassical Rotunda – the site of graduation – to face down a congregation about to spill out of St Paul’s Episcopal opposite.

Then, on Saturday morning, a teeming mass of different groups gathered in Emancipation Park (formerly Lee Park), where my toddler ran through splash pads in the summer.

We knew it was coming. Some of the groups were at previous events in Charlottesville’s “summer of hate”. Ever since a permit was granted for the “Unite the Right” march, we feared that this would be a tipping point. I am unsure whether I should have been there, or whether I was wise to stay away.

The truth is that this had nothing to do with Charlottesville – and everything to do with it. From one perspective, our small, sleepy university town near the Blue Ridge Mountains was the victim of a showdown between out-of-towners. The fighting was largely not between local neo-Nazis and African Americans, or their white neighbours, for that matter. It was between neo-Nazis from far afield – James Alex Fields, Jr, accused of being the driver of the lethal Dodge Challenger, was born in Kentucky and lives in Ohio – and outside groups such as “Antifa” (anti-fascist). It was a foreign culture that was foisted upon the city.

Charlottesville is to the American east coast what Berkeley is to the west: a bastion of liberalism and political correctness, supportive of the kind of social change that the alt-right despises. Just off camera in the national newsfeeds was a banner hung from the public  library at the entrance of Emancipation Park, reading: “Proud of diversity”.

I heard more snippets of information as events unfolded. The counter-protesters began the day by drawing on the strength of the black church. A 6am prayer meeting at our local church, First Baptist on Main (the only church in Charlottesville where all races worshipped together before the Civil War), set the tone for the non-violent opposition.

The preacher told the congregation: “We can’t hate these brothers. They have a twisted ideology and they are deeply mistaken in their claim to follow Christ, but they are still our brothers.” Then he introduced the hymns. “The resistance of black people to oppression has only been kept alive through music.”

The congregation exited on to Main Street, opposite my old butcher JM Stock Provisions, and walked down to the statue of Meriwether Lewis and William Clark – the early 19th-century Bear Grylls types who explored the west. They went past Feast! – the delicacy market where we used to spend our Saturday mornings – and on to the dreamy downtown mall where my wife and I strolled on summer evenings and ate southern-fried chicken at the Whiskey Jar.

The permit for the “protest” was noon to 5pm but violence erupted earlier. Between 10.30am and 12pm, the white supremacists, protected by a paramilitary guard, attacked their opponents. As the skirmishes intensified, police were forced to encircle the clashing groups and created, in effect, a bizarre zone of “acceptable” violence. Until the governor declared a state of emergency, grown men threw bottles of piss at each other.

At noon, the crowd was dispersed and the protesters spilled out into the side streets. This was when the riot climaxed with the horrific death of the 32-year-old Heather Heyer. Throughout Saturday afternoon and evening, the far-right groups marauded the suburbs while residents locked their doors and closed their blinds.

I sat in London late into the night as information and prayer requests trickled through. “There are roughly 1,000 Nazis/KKK/alt-right/southern nationalists still around – in a city of 50,000 residents. If you’re the praying type, keep it up.”

No one in Charlottesville is in any doubt as to how this atrocity became possible. Donald Trump has brought these sects to group consciousness. They have risen above their infighting to articulate a common ground, transcending the bickering that mercifully held them back in the past.

In the immediate aftermath, there is clarity as well as fury. My colleague Charles Mathewes, a theologian and historian, remarked: “I still cannot believe we have to fight Nazis – real, actual, swastika-flag-waving, be-uniformed, gun-toting Nazis, along with armed, explicit racists, white supremacists and KKK members. I mean, was the 20th century simply forgotten?”

There is also a sense of foreboding, because the overwhelming feeling with which the enemy left was not triumph but bitterness. Their permit had been to protest from noon to 5pm. They terrorised a town with their chants of “Blood and soil!” but their free speech was apparently not heard. Their safe space, they claim, was not protected.

The next day, the organiser of the march, Jason Kessler, held a press conference to air his grievances. The fear is that the indignant white supremacists will be back in greater force to press their rights.

If that happens, there is one certainty. At one point during the dawn service at First Baptist, a black woman took the stand. “Our people have been oppressed for 400 years,” she said. “What we have learned is that the only weapon which wins the war is love.”

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear