The Condition of British Politics (Peter Hennessy)
- Post-MPs’ expenses wave of revulsion and contempt for political class
- Politics of recession – always scratchy
- Shadows of coming election – heightened mania and increased tribalism.
All combined to produce a political ecology more malign than the sum of its parts.
- Post-expenses has eased a little, but not much
- We’ve had the election and technically, in terms of Parliamentary arithmetic, the coalition is set fair for 4 to 5 years (but to many it doesn’t feel like that)
But the politics of recession has been subsumed by the politics of cuts which is now the dominant weather-maker and MPs alleged personal extravagance and the stability or otherwise of the coalition, are affected by cuts and rumours of cuts. Politically, it feels like the equivalent of rumours of war in July 1914 between the assassination in Sarajevo and the outbreak of the Great War.
£80bn savings over 4 years is a huge task. And already it is difficult to remember the position we might have been in this autumn but for the fiscal and austerity strategy outlined in the Coalition’s June Budget.
- The pound could well be being buffeted downwards between the dollar and the euro.
- The triple-A credit rating could well have been downgrade.
- The sale of long-term gilts seriously problematic.
Not sure if it would have been quite IMF time – but it just might have been something on the way to a Greek predicament.
Very difficult now to take this line with the electorate, because it is both unknowable and unprovable.
You can’t have a control group – say the West Midlands – where the Brown government’s policies still prevail to see what the markets are doing to it and to show, thereby what we would all be receiving but for the planned fiscal adjustment (which is £20bn greater than that announced by the Labour government before its demise)
History is always like that; you couldn’t, in 1948, have left, say, Denmark outside NATO to see if Stalin really would have tried it on with his legendary Red Army.
The politics of cuts is contagious; it has a sibling virus – the politics of pessimism and the politics of pessimism produces the politics of ‘not me guv’, or ‘it’s all your fault; look at the legacy you left us.’ In other words, tribalism scapegoating and self-delusion. To darken the politic-social mood still more, we could well be facing a year or so of discontent, not just a winter. We all enjoy a bit of retro; but not this kind.
The very sensible Brendan Barber of the TUC reckons the decent majority will be sympathetic.
And this grim, dour Keming political ecology trumps all of Nick Clegg’s importance-of-being-earnest efforts to tell us what a glorious burst of political reform that awaits if only we go for AV and elect the bulk of the House of Lords. At such moments as now, this strikes many people as the politics of Pollyanna-ism at best, and a displacement activity for the naïve at worst.
Added to this, is that wonderful piece of social analysis we get from the musical The King and I – when Deborah Kerr unforgettably sings ‘Getting to know you.
Our coalition is no longer a government of strangers – but they are still adjusting to the other tribes funny little ways and battle rhythms. It’s emotionally so difficult for those whose ideologies and instincts place them on the rims of the coalition to left and right; it’s very close to the politics of the impossible. And when the cuts reach the abattoir stage by about this time next year, it could be unbearable for some.
All that said, I think the coalition will hold together. Why? Because if one of the parties to goes silly, tribal and self-indulgent to the point where it breaks up, the electorate won’t forgive them and will hammer them as soon as it gets a chance. Why? Because it will look, in today’s financial circumstances, like deserting your post under fire.
The Lib Dems are near certain to get hammered anyway in the Scottish and Welsh elections (and the English locals) next May. Their best – their only – chance is to hang in with the Coalition until 2014 or 2015 in the hope that fiscal rigour has morphed into the easement of relatively inflation-free growth.
If the benign scenario is made manifest, all sorts of interesting questions open up.
- We will feel, as a country, that the menu of future political choice really has opened up – and that coalitions, in certain circumstances, might be preferable to single-party government (even thought none of us actually voted for a coalition last May).
- If that is the case, would not the honourable thing for Cameron and Clegg to say, just before the 2010 Parliament is dissolved, that they are minded to carry on in coalition unless Labour gets an overall majority? At that point – even if the economic climate was relatively pleasingly benign – there would be a great deal of heaving and groaning on those rims.
How interesting – and unexpected – it all is. I don’t know about you, but I certainly have still to fully absorb the significance and the consequences of last May’s parliamentary arithmetic.
You will by now have noticed a huge gap in my musings. What of Labour?
Don’t write them off. Twice in my lifetime I’ve gone through ‘Must Labour lose?’ or ‘Can Labour ever win again’ phases, in the early 1960s and the late 1980s. Of course, Labour will form a government again. When? Impossible to say. Could be a while. It would, for example, be difficult for current Labour leaders to offer coalition to a Liberal Democratic Party led by Nick Clegg who really has managed to get up all their nostrils. But back they will be eventually.
The internal bloodletting at which Labour, historically, has been so brilliant, may not be too bad this time. Why? There are two main reasons.
- The differences between them are chiefly personal and factional rather than ideological.
- That £80bn off over 4 years is wonderfully uniting for Labour They are all against what they regard as butchery on such a grand scale.
A third helpful factor is that Tony and Gordon are slipping every further is that Tony and Gordon are slipping ever further into the hands of historians and where-are-they-now columns in newspapers. And it’s impossible to embark on illegal wars if you’re in opposition.
There are, no doubt, many other gaps in the picture I’ve been painting this lunchtime in our beloved Club. I hope some of you will now have a go at filling them.
But one thing is certain; retrospectively in just a few years’ time there will turn out to have been a huge omission in our conversation today which none of us has spotted. Somewhere on something a clock is ticking, and we can’t hear it.
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