Coalition Mid-Term review: David Cameron and Nick Clegg's foreword

"We will continue to put political partisanship to one side to govern in the long-term interests of the country."

Two and a half years ago, our parties came together in the national interest and formed a coalition at a time of real economic danger. The deficit was spiralling out of control, confidence was plummeting, and the world was looking to Britain with growing anxiety about our ability to service our debts.

This Government's most urgent job was to restore stability in our public finances and confidence in the British economy. In just two years we have cut the deficit by a quarter and have set out a credible path towards our goal to balance the current budget over the economic cycle.

Dealing with the deficit may have been our first task, but our most important task is to build a stronger, more balanced economy capable of delivering lasting growth and widely shared prosperity. In essence, this involves two things: growing the private sector, and reforming the public sector so that what the Government does - and the money it spends - boosts, rather than undermines, Britain's competitiveness.

Meeting this challenge is imperative if Britain isn't to fall behind in the global race, for while the Western economies have stalled in recent years, the emerging economies such as India, China, Indonesia, Malaysia, Brazil, Mexico and Turkey have been surging forward. In the coming years, some countries in the developed world will respond to this shift in economic power; but some will not. Those that do will prosper. Those that do not will decline. It is that simple.

That is why we have not baulked at the tough decisions needed to secure Britain's future. Whether it is reducing the deficit, rebalancing the economy, regulating the banks, tackling climate change, modernising our energy and transport infrastructure, putting our universities on a sustainable financial footing or dealing with the challenges of an ageing population and reforming public sector pensions, we have consistently chosen to do what is right over what is easy or popular; what is in our country's long- term interest over our parties' short-term interest.

Ultimately, however, Britain will only prosper in an increasingly competitive global economy if we can realise the full potential of each and every person in our country. That is why our plans for economic recovery are accompanied by a radical agenda of social renewal, to build not only a strong economy, but a fair society in which everyone, no matter what their background, can rise just as high as their aspirations and talents can take them.

Above all, that means having a welfare system that works and schools that teach our children properly. Since we came to office, more than 1 million jobs have been created in the private sector. We are fundamentally changing our welfare system to make work pay. And we have injected new ambition into our education system: making exams and testing more rigorous; backing teachers on discipline; allowing people who are passionate about education to open new schools in the state sector; and, crucially, supporting the poorest pupils through our Pupil Premium. 

We fully recognise that the changes needed to get Britain fit for the global race, combined with the strong economic headwinds we are still facing, have put many families' budgets under strain. That is why we are doing everything we can to help those who are working so hard to help themselves: moving rapidly towards a £10,000 personal income tax allowance, freezing council tax, helping with energy bills and cutting fuel duty.

So we are dealing with the deficit, rebuilding the economy, reforming welfare and education and supporting hard-working families through tough times. And on all of these key aims, our parties, after 32 months of coalition, remain steadfast and united. Of course there have been some issues on which we have not seen eye to eye, and no doubt there will be more. That is the nature of coalition. But on the things that matter most - the big structural reforms needed to secure our country's long-term future - our resolve and sense of shared purpose have, if anything, grown over time.

We came to office at a difficult time for our country. An economy still in shock. The Eurozone facing crisis. The inevitability that difficult cuts would have to be made. Worry, uncertainty and worse for many families and businesses. We have been determined to work in a way that keeps our country together through these times. That is why we have protected the NHS from spending cuts and protected schools, while other departments have faced significant spending reductions. That is why we have made sure that the richest have paid the most towards reducing the deficit. We have protected pensions, with the largest increase in the basic state pension. And we have kept our promises to the poorest in the world - meeting the pledges made about overseas aid. Today, at the half-way point in this Parliament, we are taking stock of the progress we have made in implementing the Coalition Agreement that we signed in May 2010. But we are also initiating a new set of reforms, building on those already under way, to secure our country's future and help people realise their ambitions.

We will support working families with their childcare costs. We will build more houses and make the dream of home ownership a reality for more people. We will set out plans for long-term investment in Britain's transport infrastructure. We will set out two big reforms to provide dignity in old age: an improved state pension that rewards saving, and more help with the costs of long-term care. And as we take these steps to reshape the British state for the 21st century, we will take further steps to limit its scope and extend our freedoms. We will be making announcements about each of these policy initiatives in due course. 

Our mission is clear: to get Britain living within its means and earning its way in the world once again. Our approach is consistent: to help hard-working families get by and get on, so that everyone can reach their full potential. And our resolve is unwavering: we will continue to put political partisanship to one side to govern in the long-term interests of the country.

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In the 1980s, I went to a rally where Labour Party speakers shared the stage with men in balaclavas

The links between the Labour left and Irish republicanism are worth investigating.

A spat between Jeremy Corbyn’s henchfolk and Conor McGinn, the MP for St Helens North, caught my ear the other evening. McGinn was a guest on BBC Radio 4’s Westminster Hour, and he obligingly revisited the brouhaha for the listeners at home. Apparently, following an interview in May, in which McGinn called for Corbyn to “reach out beyond his comfort zone”, he was first threatened obliquely with the sack, then asked for a retraction (which he refused to give) and finally learned – from someone in the whips’ office – that his party leader was considering phoning up McGinn’s father to whip the errant whipper-in into line. On the programme, McGinn said: “The modus operandi that he [Corbyn] and the people around him were trying to do [sic], involving my family, was to isolate and ostracise me from them and from the community I am very proud to come from – which is an Irish nationalist community in south Armagh.”

Needless to say, the Labour leader’s office has continued to deny any such thing, but while we may nurture some suspicions about his behaviour, McGinn was also indulging in a little airbrushing when he described south Armagh as an “Irish ­nationalist community”. In the most recent elections, Newry and Armagh returned three Sinn Fein members to the Northern Ireland Assembly (as against one Social Democratic and Labour Party member) and one Sinn Fein MP to Westminster. When I last looked, Sinn Fein was still a republican, rather than a nationalist, party – something that McGinn should only be too well aware of, as the paternal hand that was putatively to have been lain on him belongs to Pat McGinn, the former Sinn Fein mayor of Newry and Armagh.

According to the Irish News, a “close friend” of the McGinns poured this cold water on the mini-conflagration: “Anybody who knows the McGinn family knows that Pat is very proud of Conor and that they remain very close.” The friend went on to opine: “He [Pat McGinn] found the whole notion of Corbyn phoning him totally ridiculous – as if Pat is going to criticise his son to save Jeremy Corbyn’s face. They would laugh about it were it not so sinister.”

“Sinister” does seem the mot juste. McGinn, Jr grew up in Bessbrook during the Troubles. I visited the village in the early 1990s on assignment. The skies were full of the chattering of British army Chinooks, and there were fake road signs in the hedgerows bearing pictograms of rifles and captioned: “Sniper at work”. South Armagh had been known for years as “bandit country”. There were army watchtowers standing sentinel in the dinky, green fields and checkpoints everywhere, manned by some of the thousands of the troops who had been deployed to fight what was, in effect, a low-level counter-insurgency war. Nationalist community, my foot.

What lies beneath the Corbyn-McGinn spat is the queered problematics of the ­relationship between the far left wing of the Labour Party and physical-force Irish republicanism. I also recall, during the hunger strikes of the early 1980s, going to a “Smash the H-Blocks” rally in Kilburn, north London, at which Labour Party speakers shared the stage with representatives from Sinn Fein, some of whom wore balaclavas and dark glasses to evade the telephoto lenses of the Met’s anti-terrorist squad.

The shape-shifting relationship between the “political wing” of the IRA and the men with sniper rifles in the south Armagh bocage was always of the essence of the conflict, allowing both sides a convenient fiction around which to posture publicly and privately negotiate. In choosing to appear on platforms with people who might or might not be terrorists, Labour leftists also sprinkled a little of their stardust on themselves: the “stardust” being the implication that they, too, under the right circumstances, might be capable of violence in pursuit of their political ends.

On the far right of British politics, Her Majesty’s Government and its apparatus are referred to derisively as “state”. There were various attempts in the 1970s and 1980s by far-right groupuscules to link up with the Ulster Freedom Fighters and other loyalist paramilitary organisations in their battle against “state”. All foundered on the obvious incompetence of the fascists. The situation on the far left was different. The socialist credentials of Sinn Fein/IRA were too threadbare for genuine expressions of solidarity, but there was a sort of tacit confidence-and-supply arrangement between these factions. The Labour far left provided the republicans with the confidence that, should an appropriately radical government be elected to Westminster, “state” would withdraw from Northern Ireland. What the republicans did for the mainland militants was to cloak them in their penumbra of darkness: without needing to call down on themselves the armed might of “state”, they could imply that they were willing to take it on, should the opportunity arise.

I don’t for a second believe that Corbyn was summoning up these ghosts of the insurrectionary dead when he either did or did not threaten to phone McGinn, Sr. But his supporters need to ask themselves what they’re getting into. Their leader, if he was to have remained true to the positions that he has espoused over many years, should have refused to sit as privy counsellor upon assuming his party office, and refused all the other mummery associated with the monarchical “state”. That he didn’t do so was surely a strategic decision. Such a position would make him utterly unelectable.

The snipers may not be at work in south Armagh just now – but there are rifles out there that could yet be dug up. I wouldn’t be surprised if some in Sinn Fein knew where they are, but one thing’s for certain: Corbyn hasn’t got a clue, bloody or otherwise. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser