• Email
  • Single Page
  • Print

Britain: A False Dawn?

raban-england_map-071510.jpg

Just not our year,” he said, putting the best face on Labour’s inevitable national defeat (though all his local councillors would win), and he compared the UK in 2010 with the US in 2008, where he helped to campaign for Obama and when, he said, no matter who was the Democratic presidential nominee, the Republicans were bound to lose. I doubted this, and tried to say so, but MacShane was uninterruptible as he went on to say that he liked David Cameron well enough, and had encouraged him to run for the Conservative party leadership in 2005, when both men were clad in towels in the House of Commons gym.

Just as we’d sat down to supper, some unlikely-looking visitors to Rotherham showed up at the front door; a French TV crew, dressed in metropolitan black, as if for a chic funeral. MacShane, swallowing a forkful of roast chicken, closed the pleated dividers between the front room and the dining area, from where one could hear his rather adenoidal voice expounding and opining as rapidly and forcefully in French as in English (and he is said to be equally fluent in Spanish and German). Half-Irish, half-Polish, MacShane is the model of the Englishman as European, not unlike the Russian-Dutch-Anglo Nick Clegg, a similarly able linguist.

I was thinking that the scene in the front room might have featured in a UKIP ad, as an alarming symbol of how Britain’s precious “sovereignty” was being eroded by its membership in the EU, when, at 9:55 PM, the dividers opened and MacShane’s head popped through the gap. He’d received advance news of the exit poll on his mobile: Conservatives, 307 seats; Labour, 255; Liberal Democrats, 59; others, 29. The dividers closed. The lecture in French resumed. As we took in these unexpected numbers, the mood of high hilarity around the table may have made itself audible in Paris.

Part of it was the happy schadenfreude of seeing expert and judicious predictions so roundly confounded. Part was that the Labour vote had apparently held up more strongly than most of its supporters could have reasonably dared to hope (as it did in Scotland, where, in seat after seat, Labour triumphed over both Scottish Nationalist and Conservative opponents). Part was that the Liberal Democrat “surge” looked likely to leave the party with fewer members in the new Parliament than it had in the last: it had begun the election with sixty-three MPs; pollsters had been forecasting net gains of twenty to forty seats; when all votes were counted, it emerged with just fifty-seven members. (The Tories got 306, and Labour 258.) Because so many constituencies, like Daventry and Rotherham, are either Conservative or Labour strongholds, and the Liberal Democratic vote is spread more evenly across the country, the 23 percent share of the vote gained this time by the Lib Dems, only 6 percent less than Labour’s, won them vastly fewer seats under the “first past the post” system.1

Taken as a whole, the numbers still added up to a remarkably coherent statement, as if they were the product of a single mind, though a decidedly conflicted one. Most electorates—and the British more than most—are accused of being lamentably apathetic and ill-informed, yet on this occasion, after the deeply unpopular Iraq war, with the rank taste in its mouth of the parliamentary allowances scandal of last year, which had led to a great public venting of contempt and derision for politicians in general, and still in the trough of recession, the electorate delivered an opinion of legal nicety and nuance. It was tired of its prime minister, but reluctant to abandon his party. Although it gave a plurality of votes and seats to the Conservatives, its enthusiasm for them seemed tepid and uncertain, despite the overwhelming endorsement of them in the national press, by the posh papers and tabloids alike. As for the “Sod Them All,” single-issue parties of the fringe, especially the widely feared BNP, the electorate treated them with a contempt best measured in the local election results. In the two parliamentary constituencies that the BNP targeted as most likely to reward them with seats at Westminster, Barking in east London and Stoke-on-Trent in the West Midlands, the party lost all of its twelve councillors in Barking, and two in Stoke.

The broad pattern of thinking was reflected in local elections across the country, where Labour gained control of seventeen councils, and the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats lost four apiece. The Sheffield council, the Liberal Democrats’ urban flagship, was a case in point. Here, the Lib Dems lost three seats to Labour, leaving themselves potentially outnumbered if the two Greens and the Independent sidded with the Labour opposition. So the council is now under “no overall control,” a phrase that might stand as the motto of the election. In a Guardian/ICM poll published on March 15, 44 percent of people questioned—a greater number than supported any party—had agreed with the statement that a hung Parliament would be in the best interests of the nation. Seven weeks later, on a day of all-round losses, that cautious—but not unthinking—view won.

Because the televised prime ministerial debates so dominated the campaign, and media coverage was focused on the three party leaders to the near exclusion of other voices from their parties, this election was said in Britain to be the most “presidential” contest that the country had ever seen. The image of three men standing at podiums, with a moderator and an invited audience, may have reminded American viewers of a presidential election, but the resemblance stopped there. At best, each debate might have passed muster as a Democratic Party primary event—say, Clinton, Edwards, and Obama wrangling over the word “mandatory” in their respective health care plans.

On the economy (whether immediate cuts in government spending would jeopardize the frail and dubious recovery), jobs, Afghanistan, the EU, and the National Health Service, Brown, Cameron, and Clegg mostly seemed to be engaged in the narcissism of minor differences, artificially inflated by the combative rhetorical style of the House of Commons. Clegg did clash with Cameron and Brown in opposing Britain’s Trident nuclear missiles, leased from the US, and the cost of replacing the obsolescent submarines that now carry them. But it would have taken a very percipient outsider to have detected in the debates any trace of the Thatcherite addiction to Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman embedded in the DNA of the Conservative Party, let alone the Marxian socialism in the molecular biology of Labour. Brown’s remark in the first debate, “I agree with Nick,” rightly became a national catchphrase, as the three leaders jostled to claim possession of the notional center ground.

As the New Labour project of Blair, Brown, and Mandelson had dragged the leadership of the party, though not its grassroots and its more obstinate backbenchers, far to the right of where it stood in the 1980s, so Cameron’s coterie of “modernizers” had dragged the Tory leadership leftward, in an effort to expunge the image of the Conservatives as the “nasty party,” as Theresa May, now the coalition Home Secretary, warningly referred to it in 2002. Cameron—whose pre-parliamentary career was in corporate public relations, and has been described, not altogether kindly, by a former colleague as “the ultimate PR professional”—has since tried to rebrand the Tories as the party of nice, with his talk of “the big society,” “vote blue, go green,” and his claim that his chief priority was the well-being of the National Health Service. None of this sat easily with the traditional party faithful or his own backbenches. Clegg, too, had done some dragging, repositioning the Liberal Democrats from the center-left toward the center-right, causing considerable disquiet among his party’s rank and file.

In the immediate aftermath of the election, when Clegg’s people went to talk with Cameron’s people, then Brown’s people, then Cameron’s people again, the ideological distance traveled from leadership to leadership of the three parties, as defined by their campaigns, was to be measured in millimeters. What the parties themselves were thinking while these negotiations (“as secretive as the election of a pope” someone said) were taking place was caught in a Guardian story about the Conservatives, published on May 8, in which a “senior frontbencher” and “another senior and normally loyal Tory MP” freely denounced Cameron for losing them the election. The frontbencher said:

[Cameron] ran his campaign from the back of his Jaguar with a smug, smarmy little clique—people like Osborne, Letwin and Michael Gove. He should get rid of all of them. The party will settle for nothing else.

Gove and Osborne are cabinet ministers now; Letwin is a minister of state who attends cabinet meetings. The “senior and normally loyal” MP said that “the big society” idea was “complete crap.”

We couldn’t sell that message on the doorstep. It was pathetic. All we needed was a simple message on policy. We could have won a majority if we had not had to sell this nonsense.

Inside the Labour Party, similar opinions were being voiced about Gordon Brown: it was he, not the party, who had lost the election.

The speed at which the Lib Dem negotiating team scuttled back and forth seemed reckless. It was said that “the markets” wouldn’t stand a moment’s delay, also that the Lib Dems were conducting a frenetic Dutch auction to establish the price of electoral reform that would open the door to proportional representation in the future.2 On Monday, May 10, Gordon Brown announced that he’d resign as prime minister by September, in order to ease the creation of a “progressive coalition” (expected to include Scottish and Welsh nationalists, the lone Green, and the Democratic Unionist Party of Northern Ireland, as well as the Liberal Democrats). On Tuesday morning, the Lib Dem team met with their Labour counterparts in the House of Commons, while Clegg and Cameron talked in private. In the afternoon, the Lib Dems and Conservatives assembled in the Cabinet Office at 2 PM, and continued to haggle for the next four hours. At 7:30 PM, Brown announced his resignation as both prime minister and party leader, and by 8:45 PM Cameron had visited the Queen at Buckingham Palace and become prime minister, with Clegg as his deputy, in a full coalition government, with five cabinet seats going to Liberal Democrat MPs.

The long hours of bargaining had produced a program that slashed left-leaning proposals in the Lib Dem manifesto and right-leaning proposals in the Conservative one. Clegg’s party ceded such pledges as its redistributive tax scheme, its opposition to nuclear power, and its offer of amnesty to long-term illegal immigrants, while the Tories shed a bunch of promises, some of them dear to its old Thatcherite heart, including the repeal of the Human Rights Act, an end to inheritance tax, and the passing of a Sovereignty Bill to prevent any further authority leaking from Westminster to the EU Parliament in Brussels. On the whole, the Lib Dems seemed to have got the slightly better deal.

David Cameron; drawing by John Springs

Fitful sunshine lit the back garden of 10 Downing Street where Clegg and Cameron held a joint press conference on Wednesday, May 12. The two fresh-faced forty-three-year-olds looked and sounded almost identical (Cameron was, marginally, the taller one) as they spoke of their “common purpose,” their “recasting of our political system,” their creation of “a new politics where the national interest is more important than party interest.” The man from ITV News, sitting in the front row, remarked tartly that “it’s a charming love-in, but…” and few papers the next day could resist the “civil union” trope to describe the ceremony on the lawn.

For a short while, normally sober people sounded as if the festive champagne had gone to their heads, as they applauded the miracle that had been achieved. This was the “end of adversarial politics” and the “beginning of the politics of consensus.” When I switched on the car radio one morning, I was just in time to catch Denis MacShane saying that “twentieth-century politics died last Thursday,” and how happy he was to be entering the new politics of the twenty-first century. Matthew Parris, Times columnist and long-ago former Conservative MP, wrote of Clegg and Cameron’s garden scene, “As they spoke there was, for me, a palpable lifting of the ghastliness of the past few years. Maybe Mr. Cameron was right: it doesn’t have to be this way.”

There was even evidence of true consensus at work, as when on May 19 Nick Clegg, in his first major speech as deputy prime minister (a speech in which he modestly described his plans as “the greatest shake-up of our democracy” since the Great Reform Act of 1832), promised, amid a string of other measures, to dismantle—or at least stop funding—the intrusive and authoritarian machinery of mass surveillance that Labour had been building since the attacks on the World Trade Center and the London bombings of July 2005:

It is outrageous that decent, law-abiding people are regularly treated as if they have something to hide. It has to stop. So there will be no ID card scheme. No national identity register, no second-generation biometric passports. We won’t hold your internet and email records when there is no just reason to do so. CCTV will be properly regulated, as will the DNA database, with restrictions on the storage of innocent people’s DNA. And we will end practices that risk making Britain a place where our children grow up so used to their liberty being infringed that they accept it without question.

Here, cherished Tory cuts in government spending (the Home Office’s “Interception Modernisation Programme” to monitor e-mails and Internet traffic was alone budgeted at £2 billion) were happily fused with traditional Liberal respect for civil liberties.

But this was an exception. During the campaign, the Lib Dems strongly opposed the Conservative line that there should be an immediate £6 billion cut in public spending as the first step toward trimming the annual £156 billion deficit. After their talks with the Tories (and influenced, no doubt, by the fast-developing crisis in the euro-zone), their minds changed, and one of their most intellectually able members, David Laws, MP for Yeovil, was installed on the coalition front bench as the minister responsible for deciding exactly what to cut and when. Laws, who took a double first in economics at Cambridge, followed by a brief but famously brilliant career in banking, warned that his choices would be between “the unpalatable and the disastrous.” On May 24, his thirteenth day in office, he announced cuts worth £6.2 billion.

First on his list was a decent, imaginative, and relatively inexpensive scheme called Child Trust Funds (CTFs), in which the government set up savings and investment accounts for children, kick-started by a deposit at the child’s birth of up to £500, depending on the family’s income, with another £500 on his or her seventh birthday. Families and friends were invited, but not obliged, to contribute up to £1,200 a year, tax-free, to the building bank account, which children could draw on when they were eighteen.

The abolition of CTFs won’t do much to diminish the deficit, but its symbolic importance at that moment was enormous. Fairness, Laws implied, demanded that the poor would have to suffer alongside the rich, and the trust funds were a nanny-state luxury, no longer affordable in what he called the transition from an “age of plenty” to the new “age of austerity” in public spending. Laws, who in 2004 derided “soggy socialism,” seemed bent on proving that a Liberal Democrat could be as unmeltingly tough as the toughest Tory.3

This is a government of the mean average and the middlemost estimate. But Francis Galton’s experiment of 1907 required many hundreds of disappointed punters to lose their sixpences, even as their wrong guesses helped define the ox’s exact weight. So it is in Britain now, and not just in Parliament—where many of Cameron’s backbenchers are already marshaling under the leadership of John Redwood and David Davis, two right-wing ex-ministers and veterans of the Thatcher years; and several Liberal Democrat MPs, including Charles Kennedy, Sir Menzies Campbell, and Lord Ashdown, all former leaders of the party, are maintaining an attitude of troubled agnosticism toward the coalition—but in the country at large.

A rankling sense of unfairness pervades Britain, and colors every journey through it, as on the eleven-mile trip from Sheffield Hallam to Rotherham, which could be infinitely replicated across the land. The council estates (now known as “social housing”) that rim every major town might belong to another nation (Ukraine, in some cases) quite different from the same town’s well-appointed middle-class accommodations. In Britain, the top 20 percent of earners make seven times as much as the bottom 20 percent—a ratio exceeded only by Singapore, Portugal, and the US.

No one who has lived in, or visited, the UK will be surprised by the finding of a recent academic study of “longitudinal poverty” in three comparable welfare states, Britain, Germany, and the Netherlands (the last two habitually governed by coalitions), that “over a five-year period, the UK has 40 percent more recurrent and persistent poverty than Germany or the Netherlands.” That inequality makes itself inescapably visible as one moves from region to region, town to town, or street to street. The Labour government made some progress in narrowing the gap between rich and poor with its introduction of the minimum wage and reform of the tax and benefits system—measures that were aggressively opposed by the Conservatives—but the glaring disparities remain.

Britons are painfully conscious of the fairer social climate enjoyed by their European neighbors. UK budget airlines like easyJet, with its £25 round-trip fares from (for instance) London to Amsterdam, have made flying to Europe far less expensive than taking the train within the UK, where the cheapest standard-class round-trip fare I could find for a hypothetical journey from London to Manchester cost £198. The more that lower-middle and working-class Britons travel in countries like France, Germany, and the Netherlands, the more insulted they’re likely to feel by conditions back home. Some might even be deluded into thinking that coalition government is actually the cause of the greater fairness that they see abroad (which may partially explain why so many people wanted a hung Parliament). It’s the other way around, of course: coalitions, compromised by definition, and operating from a very narrowly defined center, govern best in societies that are reasonably equitable to begin with. That could hardly be less true of Britain.

The Tory right, which has always found Cameron a suspect character, will continue to defend the perks of the rich as best it can (it is, as I write, fighting the proposed increase in capital gains tax). The Labour Party, when it recovers from the distraction of its current leadership election, will defend, in David Miliband’s words, “the interest of low- and middle-income Britain—the underdog and the squeezed who will always need our support.” The deficit will be whittled down, to the misery of all: Cameron has said that the imminent—and if economists like Paul Krugman are right, potentially very dangerous—cuts in public spending will “affect every single person in our country.” The next step in the process will be the “emergency budget” which will have been presented on June 22. The coalition may or may not survive, though its manifesto pledges a five-year, fixed-term Parliament, with the next general election to be held on Thursday, May 7, 2015.

In the interim between now and then, as the “recovery” wobbles, and the cuts get crueler, bringing many more job losses, especially in the public sector, it seems likely that old ideologies and party loyalties, left and right, which were so little in evidence this year, will soon rekindle, and that in April 2015 a multitude of posters will appear in people’s windows, and politics will eclipse horse trials as a topic in the pub.

June 17, 2010

Letters

How Strong Are the British Fascists? September 30, 2010

  1. 1

    That the Liberal Democrats slightly increased their share of the vote (by about 1 percent), yet won fewer seats than in 2005, only highlighted the unfairness of this system. In the coalition bargaining that followed the election, the Tories agreed to a national referendum on the Alternative Vote (AV) method, a proposal included in the Queen’s Speech, though no date has been set for it. AV, or “instant runoff voting,” is not proportional representation (for which the Liberals, now the Lib Dems, have campaigned for many decades), but Nick Clegg has called it a “baby step” in the right direction.

    Under AV, voters are invited to rank their choices in numerical order: the candidate who receives the least votes on the first count is discarded, and his or her supporters’ second preferences are allocated to the remaining candidates. This process is repeated until the 50 percent threshold is passed by the eventual winner.

    Four days after the election, the Electoral Reform Society published “simulations” of how the new Parliament would look if other voting systems had been used. Under AV: Con, 281; Lab, 262; Lib Dem, 79—a disproportionately small but distinct gain for the third party. True proportional representation, using the Single Transferable Vote, or STV, which requires multiple-member constituencies, would have resulted in Con, 245; Lab, 207; Lib Dem, 162.

    A recent poll for The Independent showed 78 percent support for “a system that reflects more accurately the proportion of votes cast for each party.” In the coming referendum, Labour (the natural second preference of so many voters) may generally support AV; Cameron has said that he will oppose it.

  2. 2

    For Clegg’s scribbled talking points with Cameron, snapped by a Guardian photographer, see Allegra Stratton and Paddy Allen, “Election 2010: Nick Clegg’s Negotiating List,” www.guardian.co.uk, May 11, 2010.

  3. 3

    Five days later, Laws resigned. The Daily Telegraph, no friend of the Lib Dem side of the coalition, revisited its bootleg disk of MPs’ expenses claims, and found that Laws had been charging rent for a room in a London flat whose landlord subsequently became his lover, and then, after the lover sold the flat and bought a house, Laws charged rent for a bedroom there. A 2006 rule prohibited members from claiming rent paid to “partners”—a term of considerable ambiguity, whose exact meaning it is now the unenviable job of John Lyon, the parliamentary commissioner for standards, to whom Laws has referred his own case, to unravel. As for the Telegraph, like the rest of the rowdy British press, it has failed to notice that the adversarial age is over and the age of consensuality has begun.

  • Email
  • Single Page
  • Print