C is for Coalition: A decade of political disruption blossomed from the rose garden

The third letter in the New Statesman’s A-Z of the decade.

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As New Labour came to its final ebb after 13 years, in a country mired in recession, the election that followed shattered UK political norms.

Britain’s first televised party leaders’ debates preceded polling day in 2010, with both David Cameron and Gordon Brown’s mantra – “I agree with Nick” – building a swell of enthusiasm for the Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg known as “Cleggmania”.

Despite media excitement over the third party (the Guardian endorsed it, declaring “the liberal moment has come”), the Lib Dems lost seats in the 2010 election. And although the Conservatives under Cameron won the most votes and seats, they fell short of an overall majority.

Negotiations between the parties ensued, resulting in the UK’s first coalition government since Winston Churchill’s war cabinet – and the first ever in the country’s history to stem from an election outcome.

Commentators began using the term “unprecedented”, which would come to define a decade of fractured British politics, refusing to yield to Westminster wisdom and the first-past-the-post electoral system.

Cameron and Clegg announced their coalition agreement at an open-air press conference in Downing Street’s rose garden. Described as a “love-in”, the chummy images of the two men ushering in a “seismic shift” of government soon began to wilt.

The Lib Dems fell from favour as tuition fees trebled, betraying their election pledge to young voters that they would oppose a rise. This spawned a popular autotuned YouTube apology and a comprehensive crushing at the next election in 2015.

Most notorious, however, was the coalition’s austerity agenda, with the biggest cuts to state spending since the Second World War. Councils will have lost 60p in every pound of central government funding in the decade to 2020.

With the benefits freeze, welfare reforms, shrinking public services and reduced department spending, the poorest suffered most from the cuts – and still do. This was despite Chancellor George Osborne’s infamous phrase that “we’re all in this together”. He was booed at a London 2012 Paralympics medal ceremony because of cuts to disability benefits.

A resounding “No” vote in 2011’s AV referendum lost Britain’s biggest opportunity to reform its voting system. The closely fought Scottish independence referendum in 2014 opened up even deeper constitutional wounds. Despite Scotland voting the union’s way, the SNP’s “Scotpocalypse” triumph was around the corner in the following year’s general election.

From the Occupy movement, UK Uncut and student anti-tuition fees protests to the rise of Ukip, upheaval and protest began to characterise the British political landscape. The Leveson Inquiry into press standards after the phonehacking scandal sewed distrust in an establishment seen as exploitative and distant in 2011, the same year as the London Riots sparked unresolved debate about class and racial tensions.

At the cost of the country’s social and economic fabric, the deficit was reduced and Cameron was delivered an unexpected majority in 2015. But the damage had been done, both to the country and the pattern of its politics.

> This article is part of our A-Z of the 2010s.

Anoosh Chakelian is the New Statesman’s Britain editor.